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Cal WBB: Home sweep a possible turning point?

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The Bears dominate the mountain schools, but what do both wins portend in a stacked Pac-12?

My kingdom for some 2014-15 photos!
My kingdom for some 2014-15 photos!
Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Well, are we all feeling better? The first three game losing streak of the Lindsay Gottlieb era is over, and we can really dive into Pac-12 play with abandon. Let's get started:

Cal 67, Utah 49 ; Cal 75, Colorado 59

Boy, that was easy. The Bears rediscovered their mojo on both sides of the ball en route to double digit wins. Cal impressively recorded 34 assists on 56 made baskets for the week, and got promising supporting performances from Mercedes Jefflo and Penina Davidson.

But as great as the offense was, I want to really dive in to Cal's defense. There are two numbers in particular that I want to focus on:

Utah: .78 (.85)
Colorado: .73 (.93)

The number in parenthesis is offensive points/possession on the season. The smaller number next to it is what Cal allowed. This past week, Cal had one good defensive performance (Utah), and one dominating defensive performance (Colorado). For Utah, it was their 4th worst offensive output on the season. For Colorado? Dead last. And I'm wondering if this is something that can be sustained all season long.

While fans have bemoaned free throw shooting and jump shooting as frustrating weaknesses, the strength of the team had been the offense during the first two years of the Gottlieb era. Defense always lagged a bit behind. True, the Bears could reliably keep teams off of the offensive glass, but they were never great at holding teams to a really low field goal percentage or forcing a ton of turnovers.

That seems to be changing this year. At the moment, Cal has held opponents to 37.4% shooting on 2 point shots, by far their best number under Gottlieb. The Bears are also forcing turnover on 16.5% of opponent possessions, again the highest number under Gottlieb.

As a general rule, it's difficult to force a ton of turnovers AND force bad shooting. Trapping and gambling for steals either leads to a turnover, or leads to an easy basket because an aggressive defense can get out of position. The best way to do both? Have a bunch of players that are long and athletic. Players like Mikayla Cowling and Gabby Green. When you have players like that, they can force turnovers even while maintaining a strong defensive position. And as much as we loved watching Layshia Clarendon, Afure Jemerigbe, and Eliza Pierre, none of them were 6'2'' with crazy wingspans.

The insane physical abilities on Cal's roster hadn't quite translated into production until Utah and Colorado. I can think of two explanations:

  • Utah and Colorado are the two least athletic teams in the conference, and thus Cal's athleticism was a horrible match-up for them, leaving them completely overwhelmed.
  • Cal's freshmen have gotten enough game experience and practice time to start playing strong, instinctual defense within a coherent system.
I think there's a little bit of truth to both. Obviously, teams like Washington or Stanford have enough talent that they won't just melt into a puddle of turnovers at the sight of Brittany Boyd's harassing hands. But Cal has played a few teams earlier this year with similar athletic disadvantages and weren't quite so dominating. It's clear that the freshmen are playing stronger defense.

One way in which Cal's defense is better? They are playing more man-to-man defense. Early in the year Cal played a ton of 3-2 zone, and I suspect that it was a method to keep things simple for the freshmen as they adapted to college ball. Fighting through screens, knowing when to switch vs. when to hedge, defending pick and rolls? That's all more challenging than filling a spot in the zone and using your wingspan to create havoc. But now Cal can switch defenses whenever it makes sense based on personnel, and it has been very effective.

And to be quite honest, Brittany Boyd is much more effective as a ball hawk playing man-to-man. She was a dervish all weekend long, and every point guard that played against her will likely have nightmares for the rest of the year, knowing they might have to face her again. She recorded 10 total steals, and as usual that number didn't really come close to reflecting the total number of turnovers she forced.

Cal has also been using the full court press more lately, which is another system that likely improves with repetition in games and practice. I still suspect that it's something that won't be nearly as effective against up-tempo teams (for fatigue reasons) or against strong ball-handling teams, but I'd love to be proven wrong.

Regardless, the hope is that the last few games marks a turning point for Cal's defense. Shooting will come and go. There will be games where Reshanda Gray is in foul trouble, and games where the opponent kills Cal's transition offense. But if the Bears can play defense like they did against Colorado and Utah, they should be able to play with anybody in this conference.

Bracketology

After losing three straight games to Kansas, Long Beach St. and Louisville, Cal fans might have been justified with a bit of post-season pessimism. But if the latest March projections from ESPN are a realistic snapshot, then the Bears are in better shape that we thought.

Charlie Creme gives Cal a 5 seed, just below the threshold needed to host 1st and 2nd round games. I personally think that might be a little high for a team that has yet to beat an RPI top 50 team, but hopefully I'm just quibbling. Perhaps just as important? There are 6 other Pac-12 teams projected to make the tournament with at-large bids. Cal has 16 more games left in the regular season, and 11 of those 16 games will be against those tournament projected teams, meaning the Bears will have many chances to record impressive wins and improve their seed.

Also, credit to Lindsay Gottlieb for again putting together an intelligent non-conference schedule that has Cal in the RPI top 50 despite a few unexpected losses. The best way to ensure a high RPI is to schedule lots of good-not-great teams like UOP, Missouri, Creighton, Kansas and Old Dominion without mixing in any truly awful teams. Coach G has gotten very good at it, and it has served Cal well over the last few years.

Quick Washington/Washington St. preview

For my money, this is the toughest road trip Cal will face all year. Every other trip has one team that will be relatively easy pickings. But Washington and Washington State both have multiple legit wins, and both will present various matchup challenges for the Bears.

What that means is that a split would be a perfectly excellent result. I think Washington State is the slightly more likely target for a win, but both teams beat Cal the last time they played in 2013-14, so expect anything.

Both games are worth tuning in just for guard play alone. The Cougars and Huskies both have some of the best guard tandems in the conference, and it will be up to Brittany Boyd to slow them down. It doesn't get much more entertaining than that.