When you have high expectations for a team, and that team jumps out to a 15 point lead on their first solid opponent early in the 2nd half, and then everything completely falls apart, it's pretty easy to give in to the instinct to freak out. And unfortunately, Cal gave us plenty of freak-out ammunition.
The funny thing about basketball is how quickly things change. When Cal was up 15, they were averaging a hair over a point/possession against a potentially elite San Diego State defense, and I didn't feel like the Bears were executing all that well. At that point in the game, I'm thinking that the Bears are set to have one of the better offenses in the nation if they can pull off that level of efficiency against that level of defense without really looking all that amazing.
Then the floor fell out, and in 17 floor minutes we began to think that the Bears have an offense that's marginal in the Pac-12.
So I'm here to argue for a bit of calm and patience in the face of a truly unpleasant experience. Note the issues that cropped up against SDSU, file them away, but don't yet assume that what we saw is what we will see the rest of the way against every other opponent with a pulse.
Since we try to be realistic optimists here, let's start with some of the positives:
1. Ivan Rabb is really, really freaking good. He had a monster game, and was the major driving force when Cal was building that 15 point lead. He was probably the only Bear that was an unqualified positive on both ends of the floor, dominating inside on offense and offering valuable help defense on the other end. He does all kinds of little things that add value in all phases of the game. I wish Coach Martin hadn't sat him down after his 4th foul because he had to be on the floor for Cal to win that game.
2. SDSU is a really, really good defensive team. They were top 10 each of the last two years, and are decently likely to be that good again this year. Of teams left on Cal's schedule, only Virginia and Arizona are likely to be around as good as the Aztecs on that end of the floor.
I am currently of the opinion that Cal will score efficiently against all but the toughest of defenses this year. And by March, they might even be ready to score against the really good Ds too.
But of course, we have to get into the negatives. And as much as the offense struggled in the 2nd half, I'm more worried about Cal's defense.
1. Probably the most basic aspect of defense is staying in front of your man one on one. Good defenses can compensate when a ball handler gets by his defender, but it immediately warps the defense and takes lots of skill and effort to fight back against that. Cal has at least one player (Rabb) with the talent to help kill possessions as a help defender, but Cal's inability to win defensively at the point of attack means that there's a ceiling to how successful the Bears can ever be on that end. That and constantly asking Rabb to help contributes to foul trouble.
2. Jaylen Brown is probably the key player for the Bears, and he had a painful game, literally and figuratively. It's obvious why Brown is so important - Cal needed to add more than just Ivan Rabb to transform last year's team into a Pac-12/national contender. Getting him on track as a 3rd major option alongside Ty and Ivan is essential to this team. It didn't happen against the Aztecs, which was a decided step back in terms of his development within the offense. Brown was mired in foul trouble, called his own number at the wrong times on offense, and finished the night 2-8, with more combined fouls and turnovers (8) than points (7).
3. After an ugly first half in most areas of the game, SDSU came out in the 2nd half with better sets, better execution, and better effort, and Cal . . . didn't. This type of stuff is always hard to judge while watching in real time, but to my eyes the Cal coaching staff never really seemed to adjust either to SDSU's high post entry plays, or to SDSU's improved effort and extended perimeter pressure. I was begging Coach Martin to use a timeout during SDSU's extended run, but he waiting until a TV timeout, and I think missed opportunities to refocus his team. I'll be interested to hear his post-game comments.
4. True, Jabari Bird had foul trouble. But one shot attempt (a missed mid-range pull up) and zero assists in 27 minutes is a major problem. He's got to offer something on offense.
5. Cal was out-shot (marginally), out-rebounded, lost the turnover battle, and gave up more free throws (although it was pretty even until intentional fouling started late). All of these issues relate and impact each other, but it's still distressing to get beat in pretty much every phase of the game.
After starting 4-0, we asked if Cal was ready. The answer, for now, is no. Thus we must ask a different question: Will Cal learn from this game, and start executing better on both ends?
If the answer is yes, then Cal should be in perfectly good shape. Virginia is the only team left on the non-conference schedule better than SDSU, so it's a great opportunity for the entire team to be reminded of what it takes to play and beat higher end competition. Today we will get an immediate sense of how much Cal learned from their Turkey Day reality check.
I fully expect Cal's offense to torch a not-very-good Richmond defense even if the Bears aren't executing a ton better. It's on the defensive end where we might learn a little bit more about what this team is made of, and what kind of chance they have to reach the lofty goals set for this season.