This is not going to make many of you happy.
If you're looking for DOOM -- if you want to hear about how we're a mediocre team and we're not going to make the tournament and Cuonzo is a worthless coach, you're not going to find it here. Yes, this week was a disappointment and raises a lot of questions about the makeup of this team. And yes, Cal never seems to get those signature non-conference wins that make bracket Sunday more comfortable. But this team is absolutely, positively a tournament team. I'm fairly certain it's a contender in the Pac-12. The weaknesses exposed during this trip are weaknesses we have seen all along. They will have to be addressed. But there is way too much talent on this team not to make the NCAA tournament. So let's put that to bed right now.
However, if you're looking for Team #Hype, I'm afraid that squad is on temporary hiatus. With all the considerable potential of this group of players, there are still a lot of warts. Even when they romped through the 4-0 of Munchkinland, there were signs that they couldn't muster adequate intensity, didn't move the ball particularly well, and couldn't play great defense. Especially that last one. Cuonzo Martin prides himself on defense, yet his shiny new toy has not yet held any opponent below their season average in offensive efficiency. Let me repeat: every single Cal opponent has had an above average offensive game against us. I don't like red, and I don't like red flags, and I especially don't like them when they're planted right in the middle of our so-called identity.
So what went right tonight? Well, the under 16:00 timeout in the second half came at 13:42. The Bears were down 11 and putting up no fight at all. I wrote in my game notes, "it's now or never." Yesterday, against SDSU, the now never came. The Bears simply wilted under withering Aztec pressure, and never showed the slightest sign of life. Today was different, both on the floor and on the bench. First, Cuonzo Martin, who the evening before stood helplessly while Steve Fisher gave him free lessons in simple, effective schemes, succeeded at something that was all too rare in 2014-15: a defensive adjustment.
Cal switched to a 2-3 zone.
Richmond, which at the time was producing a staggering 1.42 points per possession, was immediately stymied. Richmond came up empty on eight of the next nine possessions, including a series of turnovers and poor shots that led to three Cal fast break opportunities. Suddenly, the Tin Man had a heart. Energy, focus, ball movement, poise...all the things that were missing on this trip came crashing down on the Spiders.
A 22-6 Cal run put the Bears up 4 with 3:00 remaining. Yes, they ultimately failed to execute on either end and gave the lead back. Richmond escaped with a 94-90 victory. And yes, when you come to Vegas to get tested and you come back 0-2, you have to look yourself in the mirror and figure out some things. But more than anything else, I wanted to see some fire out of this team after the debacle of Thanksgiving night. I saw that. The rest was execution, and that can be taught. Heart cannot be taught. I'm glad we've got it in us. Now we've got a lot to work on.
I don't know what else to say about this. If the minimum requirement for a good defensive game is you hold a team below their average, then we haven't played a good game yet. We can't guard anybody one on one. Ivan Rabb is a very good defender. Sam Singer is mostly solid. Stephen Domingo might be, or he might not be quite quick enough. That's one I'm not sure of. Everyone else is below average, gets beat repeatedly, and continually makes mental mistakes. I don't need to call anyone out. If you watch the games, you see it. Guys getting beat off the dribble. Guys closing out improperly. Guys missing switches. Terry Allen is a good player, but he's not close to as good as we're going to see in the Pac-12. He went off for a career high 34, with five different players trying to guard him. Mind boggling.
Maybe we are a better zone team. Maybe we just don't have the skills to play man. Maybe it will take more coaching, and more effort. I don't know what the fix is, but I know this: we aren't going to be a very good team if we play mediocre defense all year.
The Point Guard
Tyrone Wallace is a great player. He gets to the hole as well as anyone in the country. He's a special finisher. But here's the thing:
Cal up 81-77, with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, Tyrone puts his head down and drives into his man (whom he hasn't beaten) and a help defender. Completely stonewalled, and with 13 seconds still left on the shot clock, he opts to force a one-handed 7 footer that gets blocked back in his face. Meanwhile, Jabari Bird (5-8 floor and 2-4 3p on the night) was standing wide open at the top of the key.
Cal up 81-79, with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, Tyrone calls for the ball on the right wing. He apparently wants an iso. He dribbles aimlessly for several seconds, turns from about 10 feet as if he's going to back his man down from there (?!?!), falls down, and meekly throws the ball back out with 5 seconds left, leaving no time to get to a secondary option.
Cal now down 84-81. Ball rotates to Tyrone on the left wing, who stares at Jaylen Brown on the elbow. Jaylen has his 5'11" defender pinned and is calling for the ball. Tyrone ignores him and reverses the ball.
We have one senior on this team. He happens to be a very talented player, and an NBA prospect. He's worked very hard on his game. We may be asking him to do things that are not in his comfort zone, and maybe that's not fair. Life isn't fair.
Seniors have to lead.
Jaylen Brown was 11-16 floor, 5-7 line, and scored a career high 27 points. There are guys on this team who will never score 27, and Jaylen did it in his sixth college game with relative ease. He brought the house down twice with eye-popping, jaw dropping jams. He creates so much for this team offensively with his special level of athleticism and his ability to get opposing players in foul trouble.
Now I'm going to give you the stat that worries me. Of Jaylen's 11 field goals, zero were assisted by teammates. He also had zero assists himself.
Jaylen Brown is currently scoring outside the flow of our offense. This may seem minor when our offense has generally been pretty good, and when he puts up numbers and highlights like he did tonight. But first of all, if we're not going to be great defensively then we've got to be great offensively, and the difference between good and great might very well be Jaylen being used as a weapon within the offense rather than despite the offense. Second, what happens when you play a very good defense that can match you physically? Well, did you watch the SDSU game?
I have no doubt Jaylen wants to be a team player, and wants to be great, and wants to work hard to be great. He's not there yet. His offense is often disruptive and his defense is well below what it should be for someone with his body, athleticism, and intelligence. In many ways I believe the development of this team will depend very heavily on the development of Jaylen Brown.
But There's Hope
Cal comes home with a long to-do list. They also come home with Ivan Rabb, who improves every night, and would be on a trajectory to be an All-American candidate if his teammates or the offensive design could get him the ball more. They come home with a rejuvenated Roger Moute a Bidias, who contributed a surprising number of heady plays to get the Bears back in the game. They come home with a Jabari Bird who's finally got some pep in his step, and whose improved bounce and finishing moves have barely been tapped yet in this offense. They come home with a better understanding of what it takes to play winning basketball at the high-NCAA level.
And they come home with time. The test of players, a coach, a team, is how they react to setbacks. There is a lot of time to make this right. It starts now. Together we attack.
[Edited to fix pesky formatting issues.]