Reef stole my thunder:
Here’s the thing. UCSB is a decent team. We didn’t execute all that well. And we still somehow blew them out of the building.
Luckily, nobody can steal Jaylen Brown's thunder:
This is our new reality. In one sense, it wasn't that remarkable of a play. Most games have fast break dunks off of bad perimeter passes. In another sense it was completely remarkable, because how often do 6'7'', 210 pound freshmen so easily out-sprint a guard for that ball, then go up for a dunk like that? Cal basketball will probably average like 1.5 plays per game that leave fans like this:
By some standards, this would probably be considered a blah game. Cal took a ton of threes and didn't make very many of them. Rabb and Brown were (again) limited by foul trouble. There were 60 free throws attempted by both teams.
But when your favorite team has multiple players on the court at any one time liable to make you lose your mind, you find yourself holding your breath on every possession, or laughing out loud in contented happiness when you see a crazy athletic play performed with nonchalance. Or maybe that's just me?
Anyway, Cal beat UCSB, and there wasn't a ton of drama to the game. It took Cal 11 minutes to build a double digit lead and it ballooned to 19 late in the first half. It was never in doubt the rest of the way. Rebounding and turnovers were basically a wash, but the Bears shot a bit better, and that probably would have been enough to earn a narrow win. Luckily, it wasn't narrow. This game was a runaway because of fouls and free throws.
Way back in the off-season, we ran a post examining the new rules, and I speculated that the changes might be good news for this particular version of Cal basketball:
Well, Cal should have more than a few wings capable of beating their defender and attacking the hoop, right? More free throws for Ty and Jaylen!
By all indications, the refs are very very serious about enforcing freedom of movement, arm bars, hand checks, and all of the various other tweaks designed to unclog college basketball. And the result, so far, has been a parade of Cal freethrows.
Cal was probably going to be a high free throw shooting team even under the old rules - Ty Wallace drew a ton of fouls last year even facing double teams, so adding two more elite talents with dribble drive/post-up skills was going to make a big difference.
But early returns suggest that the Bears might be a free throw shooting monster. Wallace, Rabb and Brown are all going to be near to the top of the conference in fouls drawn, and with Jabari and Jordan available to space the floor they will find creases and mismatches all day long. UCSB is a solid defensive team with a bunch of quick, veteran guards, and they simply didn't stand a chance.
Cal ended up shooting 38(!) free throws, making 29 of them. That's 17 more than UCSB made, which explains a healthy percentage of the final margin of victory. There's probably a frustrated Gaucho fan out there complaining that the refs were bought, but the free throw discrepancy was a direct result of Cal's superior athleticism - when your assignment is constantly getting a step on you, you're going to start grabbing and jostling, or setting up your help defender to pick up a block. It happened all game long.
Cal will probably not continue to hit free throws at a near 80% clip, but it's certainly encouraging to see that Brown and Rabb are at least solid shooters from the line.
The other thing fouls do is loosen up the opposing defense. Cal started slowly on offense, but drawing two quick fouls on UCSB's starting big and three quick fouls on one of their three big scorers took potential offense off the court and helped open up lanes when those players came back in the 2nd half, not wanting to commit more fouls.
- Jaylen Brown didn't have a great game - he tried a little too hard to create for himself, took a few iffy shots, and had 4 turnovers as a result. He still scored 17 points in 20 minutes, and when he was asked about his dunk he dismissed it and said he was focusing on eliminating those turnovers. Oh man.
- If Kameron Rooks can do three things, he'll be a very valuable rotation member: 1. Rebound 2. Defend 3. Do just enough on offense to keep defenses honest. Numbers and the eye test tell me that he's doing all three. I thought his pick and roll defense was excellent, in part because he can move quickly enough to use his size to his advantage. And on the boards he's always getting his body on his man, which means Cal's going to come down with the board, whether it's his board or one of the wings.
- Jordan Mathews was three of three from inside the arc, and again showed an improved sense of when to take the jumper and when to put it on the floor.
- You didn't need to be reminded that this is a team game, but still: Tyrone Wallace is probably a bit better this year, but largely similar in terms of style and abilities. His numbers (particularly efficiency metrics) are going to be much much better because of the talent around him. He was Cal's best player again, and will be more often than not.
- Against teams like this, the difference between a mild blow out and an epic blowout will be whether or not shots from Domingo and Bird are falling. Against better competition, it might be the difference between a comfortable 8 point win and a narrow loss. I expect at least Bird to hit his fair share more often than now.
- I didn't see anything in terms of offensive sets that jumped out as particularly interesting. Lots of basic ball motion setting up drive opportunities. At one point there was a nice pick and roll on the right wing that had a secondary option to kick out for a corner three if the defender helped, and solid execution led to the 3 ball. As you can tell, I don't remember which players ran the play (I think Wallace, Rabb, and Brown) but it made me smile.
- Defensively, UCSB barely got anything in the paint. Hell, they barely even tried, such was the size and athleticism gap. In the first half, Cal did a good job shading drivers towards Rooks or Rabb and offering the poison pill of a chance to attack . . . against what would turn into a double team of two more athletic defenders. After the game, Cuonzo said that he was willing to give them mid-range shots on pick and rolls rather than threes or drives, and the strategy worked just fine. More importantly, the Bears were able to take that strategy and actually execute it on the court. Good signs, all around.