I've been following Cal Men's Basketball since before Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown were born. Heck, I've been following it since before Tyrone Wallace was born. Since before Nicodemus Christopher was born.
On the one hand that scares me a little, but on the other hand that means I've got a lot of seasons under my belt. And the reason I prefer college basketball to any other sport is it lasts just the right amount of time. Time for a compelling narrative arc. Time for a team to experience highs and lulls, develop an identity, endure hardship, overcome. More time to get to know a team than in a relatively short 12-13 games, but not having to endure an interminable 82 or 162 games, many of which are meaningless. It is, to my taste, the perfect length to enjoy the journey. That's why I keep coming back.
I consider the first part of this year's journey the games through Las Vegas. Cal was mediocre on both sides of the ball, relative to their ability, but particularly on the defensive end. I lamented this sad fact after the Richmond game, noting that we had not played a single strong defensive game to date, and not knowing where the answers would come from.
Fast forward to tonight. The Davidson Wildcats entered the game as a near-elite offensive team. They were 24th in the nation in offensive efficiency and their leading scorer, Jack Gibbs, came in with an eFG% of 64.8%, which is a little ridiculous for a small-ish guard who takes one out of every three shots while on the floor.
Let's take a look at what happened to Mr. Gibbs in the first few possessions of this game.
Gibbs drives right into a high ball screen, Wallace gets rubbed and Gibbs looks up to see...Ivan Rabb, doing a great impression of Virginia's Pack-Line defense. As Ty recovers, Gibbs rotates the ball opposite. A down screen gets Gibbs open up top again, but once again Rabb has rotated over and provides help as Wallace recovers. Davidson ends up with a long two-point miss from Peyton Aldridge.
Gibbs drives by Wallace not once but twice, but both times Kameron Rooks is waiting for him in the paint. The second time Rooks forces Gibbs to hesitate and ultimately turn the ball over.
Gibbs loses Ty on an offensive board, and drives directly into...Kam Rooks and Jaylen Brown. Jaylen gets the block out of bounds.
And so it went. Time and time again Cal did a beautiful job communicating on defense, providing just enough help to deny high efficiency looks, while spending less time worrying about low efficiency, long two-pointers. They put on a clinic on how to help without fouling. The result? A top offensive team came into Haas Pavilion and in the first half shot 7-21 33% on two point shots, took only 13 three point attempts (two below their season average), and did not get to the free throw line. That translates into a 23 point half (for a team that's used to putting up north of 40), and a 47-23 point Cal lead at intermission. The game was over.
Which brings me to the second part of the journey: the games since Las Vegas. Cal is 6-1 in those games, including an overtime, one point loss at Virginia. But more importantly, Cal has turned into a defensive powerhouse. Prior to returning from Las Vegas, Cal had not held a team below their season average in offensive efficiency the whole year. Since? They have done so six of seven games, including holding Virginia, the most efficient offense in the country at the time, to their worst offensive half of basketball this year.
The turnaround has been in part scheme -- relying less on ball pressure and more on help -- and in part on something that's not super intricate, or sexy, or even quantifiable: effort. Cuonzo Martin has gotten this team to buy into the rather simple fact that if you care, if you pay attention, if you focus all your energy in being at the right place at the right time, you can play great defense regardless of your physical limitations. The turnaround is particularly to his credit because this is exactly what he said he was going to do. And now he's done it. Over the last seven games, Cal has not just been a good defensive team, they have been an elite defensive team. I honestly did not think this was possible a month ago. That's great coaching.
And thus we arrive at the third part of our journey. Conference play.
The Pac-12 schedule has always been my favorite part of the season. I know that we love the NCAA tourney. It's nice, and shiny, and sexy. But for my money, conference play is where the heart of the season lies. Year in and year out we get to trace the familiar story lines. I was once a little kid yelling "Cheryl! Cheryl!" at Reggie Miller in Harmon Gym, and now I get to heckle Bryce Alford thirty years later. An NCAA tournament appearance might last one game. Best case scenario it lasts six. But year in and year out, we get those 18 conference games with our heroes, 11 other villains, the familiar ebb and flow, and the mystery, joy, anguish of discovering what our team will paint on the three month canvas.
So my plea is that for a little while we put away the talk of NCAA tournament berths and seedings. That will come in good time. Instead, let's appreciate what is right in front of us. A talented, developing squad. The best Pac-12 we've had in a decade. 18 battles still unfought. Countless moments of triumph and disaster. A team. A family. A journey.
- Cal played offense tonight, too, and generally played it very well. This is less noteworthy because Davidson's defense is one of the worst in the nation. But it's worth observing that Jordan Mathews went 5-8 from deep and ended the night with 22 points, while Jabari Bird played with renewed confidence, going 3-4 from three point range. Hi boomtho.
- I haven't watched the tape yet, but my impression watching the game was that Ivan got a lot more touches, all over the floor, than he's been getting. Analysis: good.
- Cal ended the game with 10 blocked shots. Somehow Kingsley Okoroh managed four in nine minutes. If he had played 30 minutes he would have set some kind of record.
- 1:50 -- on the struggles getting this team to play defense
- 4:02 -- hey coach! Look how much credit I gave the help defense. You should read CGB for your Cal hoops analysis
- 4:30 -- the pain, the pain
- 5:10 -- effort!
- 5:23 -- I was so concerned about the bounce-back that I took money line instead of spread even though all my numbers indicated I should be all over the spread. Kudos to the Bears for coming out sharp and prepared.