Did you all enjoy a nearly week long break (hopefully) full of holiday cheer, and without any major Cal games or news? On Tuesday the football season officially ends, just three days prior to the start of conference play in basketball. Time to start planning your life around round ball rather than oblong ball.
Cal men's basketball closing in on a defining performance
Three weeks ago, I made a plea for patience and optimism regarding Cal's offense:
There has been lots of hand-wringing over the state of the Cal offense, which I understand. Cal lost to San Diego State in part because they scored 8 points over a 15 minute stretch in the 2nd half, and they have had two other ugly, too-close-for-comfort wins against zone defense teams. But I think the underlying stats give reason for optimism (usual caveats about small-sample-size, weak schedule, etc.).
Since then, the Bears have generally looked a bit better on offense, most prominently by scoring a point per possession against Virginia's defense on the road, which is nothing to cough at. Shooting is still a little iffy and the team turned the ball over a bit much for my liking over the last three weeks, but I'm still reasonably optimistic about Cal's offensive future.
Now, I always try to focus on the positive (while still trying to stay within the realm of reality) which is why I didn't really talk about Cal's defense. That's because the defense was completely torched in Vegas and had a few other iffy games. At that point in the season, I feared that Cal's defense was going to be the flaw that would be the difference between good and great..
But now? Now I'm ready to argue in favor of optimism for the Cal defense too. Here are two facts that should give you a great deal of confidence:
#1 Cal is 3rd in the nation in 2 point percentage defense at 37.4%
#2 Cal's opponents are attempting 2 point shots 78.2% of the time, the 38th highest rate in the country.
In other words, teams struggle to get good looks inside the arc, and yet Cal's defense is making them attempt those shots (rather than three pointers) at a very high rate.
There are important caveats to that information. Cal has faced an undeniably weak non-conference slate of opponents (although it's worth noting that the Bears have played a few teams with better offenses than defenses). There will likely be some regression to the mean. But there's reason to believe that this team should continue to be pretty good at defending two point shots.
Why? Most of you have probably already guessed, but it's time to heap (even more) praise on Ivan Rabb, and also to acknowledge the perhaps under-appreciated contributions of Kameron Rooks. Last year, Cal only had one rim protector in David Kravish, who ideally would be playing the four. But thanks to Rooks' season ending injury, Cal only had Kravish (and a very raw Kingsley Okoroh) inside.
Cal is now blocking 12% of their opponent's shots (up from 9% last year) and have the personnel to match up and contest much more effectively than last year. Rabb's contributions are easy to see - Cal's defense is often set up to funnel the ball towards Rabb and his shot altering size and athleticism. And when he's playing alongside Kameron Rooks, he will frequently face smaller players and have more freedom to provide help defense with Kam to provide additional support on the boards.
As for Kam? He does a few things well. On a per possession basis, he's blocking shots nearly as frequently as Rabb. That shouldn't be a big surprise considering his pure size. But he's shown good instincts attacking shooters and using that size to its full advantage. There have been plenty of plays (particularly defending the pick and roll) when that size bothers an otherwise smaller, quicker player and turns a made basket into a miss.
The difference between Cal's defense now, and Cal's defense a few weeks ago? A few weeks ago, Cal's failures on the perimeter put an unfair burden on interior defenders to recover and make plays. Over the last few weeks, Those mistakes (both mental mistakes and effort mistakes) have become more infrequent. That means fewer opportunities for Rabb and Rooks to pick up fouls, it means fewer high percentage looks, and it means that players are more likely to be in position to grab the defensive rebound.
These gradual, halting improvements culminated in Cal's defensive showing against Virginia, where they held the Cavaliers to 14-42 shooting from inside the arc while still controlling the defensive glass. It's unfortunate that such a strong performance was undone by 7 made threes on 12 attempts.
The defense still has its issues. They are nearly dead last (to a certain extent by design) at forcing turnovers, which means they need to be consistently good at every other aspect of defense. And they aren't quite there yet. The Bears still foul a bit more than you would prefer, in large part because perimeter defenders still lose their man, which often means either a foul on the guard trying to recover or a foul on the forward providing help.
But finally we are seeing in isolation the elements needed for this team to be great. I titled this segment 'closing in on a signature performance.' One could argue that the Bears already had that performance back east in Virginia, nearly notching the most impressive true road win in college basketball this year. Few will count a loss, regardless of the specifics, as a signature performance, but I think it's reasonable to suspect that it's coming.
On inevitable bowl game overreactions
Bowl games, by their very nature, lend themselves to overwrought reactions. There's the anticipation that goes along with a month of waiting. There's the last-game-of-a-season fuel. It lingers in the memory, right or wrong. In Cal's case, 8-5 looks so much better than 7-6.
Teams that win bowl games (Helloooooo, Washington!) have momentum into next season and likely placement on 'dark horse' pre-season listicles. Teams that lose bowl games (Helloooooooo, UCLA!) are lacking direction, and could be major disappointments next year. Nevermind that UCLA was objectively way better this season and has more talent on hand.
Of course, much of this is bull. Two years ago Arizona State lost a bowl game as a ranked favorite, then came back the next year to go 10-3 anyway. That 10-3 season was capped off with a bowl win against a solid team, which was followed up with a largely disappointing seasons this year. Bowls are just another game, and obviously more representative of the current season than the next season. Sure, sometimes maybe bowls might portend good things, like Cal's 2003 Insight Bowl performance. Sometimes, it really really seems like they portend good things, but they really really don't, like Cal's 2006 Holiday Bowl performance.
This is a year particularly ripe for overreaction. Plenty of people are ready to make pronouncements about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of Sonny Dykes' recent extension. But Air Force is not a normal opponent. Because the service academies are so different, it's particularly dangerous to try to make any judgments about Cal's larger program trajectory. If Cal wins, well, a healthy portion of the players that won the game will be leaving. If Cal loses . . . well, a healthy portion of the players that lost the game will be leaving.
Women's Basketball: Does a Pac-12 scrum await?
Prior to the season, I was not at all optimistic about Cal's chances to contend for a conference title. That was due as much to Cal's competition (Oregon State, Stanford and Arizona State all returned plenty of talent from good teams) as it was to the Bears' extreme youth.
But a few things have changed. For one, Kristine Anigwe has blown away probably even the most optimistic expectations, to the point that I think she could contend for conference player of the year. For two, Cal's competition may be a bit more vulnerable.
Oregon State recently lost point guard Sydney Weise for an undetermined amount of time due to a right hand injury that requires a cast. She's unlikely to be back when Cal travels to Corvallis in two and half weeks. ASU has had injury troubles of their own with Sophie Brunner and Kelsey Moos missing multiple games, although both players have recently returned to the court.
To be clear, the Bears are still decided underdogs, behind Stanford, OSU, and ASU - and potentially a number of other interlopers who have gotten off to strong starts. Oregon, USC, UCLA, and Washington all look tough to varying degrees. But Cal's win over UCLA shows that the Bears will be a factor in a conference that will likely see every team take major lumps.
The Pac-12 schedule is brutal to start, with six of the first eight on the road, with trips to Oregon, Arizona, and Southern California. If the Bears can split on the road they set themselves up well in the 2nd half when the games come mostly at home and the schedule softens, aside from the usual back-to-back tussle with Stanford.