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Recap: Cal Falls Again in the Desert

Close loss is season in microcosm.

Ty Wallace's 23 points were not enough.
Ty Wallace's 23 points were not enough.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With 47.6 remaining in Tempe, the California Men's Basketball Team, trailing for much of the second half by two or three possessions, brought the ball up after a pair of Savon Goodman missed free throws, trailing by four. They ran a curl into a dribble hand-off to Jordan Mathews at the top of the key, and as he stopped to pull up from the free throw line he was fouled. He went to the line for a one and one.

Facing the now-famous ASU Curtain of Distraction, the 79% FT shooting Mathews missed the front end badly, but the Sun Devils fumbled the ball out of bounds. Cuonzo Martin appeared to call a play from the sideline, and against soft pressure up top from ASU, Tyrone Wallace drained a pure three to bring the Bears to as close as they had been the whole half -- down by 1 at 66-67.

After a Herb Sendek timeout, Shaq McKissic, a 64% FT shooter, drained both. Cal did not hesitate, with Jordan Mathews curling baseline to the wing and into a pick from Christian Behrens. The pass from Wallace was on time, and Mathews got a great look, but the game tying attempt was just long, and after the teams exchanged free throws the rest of the way, the final score was ASU 74 - Cal 70.

I focus on the final sequence because I think it illustrates a lot of my takeaways from what has been a long, sometimes-frustrating, sometimes-exhilarating, and ultimately unsatisfying first season of the Cuonzo Martin era.

  • Under Martin, the Bears generally have a good plan. The Bears knew exactly what they wanted off of two made free throws, and they ran it directly into a good, early look. Other than Jabari Bird possibly missing the first of what should have been two screens, the play was perfection. Jordan Mathews got as good a look as one could possibly expect in that spot. And he missed.

  • The Bears aren't very good at #Kod5, making shots. Their eFG% this year is 48.8%, 183rd in the nation. Last year it was 50.7%, 119th. That may not seem like much, but ultimately basketball is a game of lots of possessions, aggregated over a long period of time. Small things add up in the long run. Factor in the fact that Cal's FT shooting dropped from 68.6% to 65.2% and you get exactly what you'd expect, a team that isn't very efficient scoring the basketball. A team that can't shoot is prone to droughts, like the 2-20 stretch in the first half that saw the Bears' early 10 point lead evaporate.

  • You'll notice that David Kravish's name has not appeared anywhere in this recap yet. Kravish, Cal's only low post scorer and inside presence was too often a non-factor this year. Today, he got in early foul trouble and played only 21 minutes. He played very well when he was on floor, but he wasn't on the floor nearly long enough to change the course of the game.

  • The Bears competed until the very last play. I think back to sitting at the first open practice next to LeonPowe (and Twist, but he wasn't contributing much). I looked at the talent on the floor and I wondered whether it was enough to be competitive at the high D1 level. I salivated over Stephen Domingo's ball skills, and wished he was eligible to contribute to a team that seemed too one-dimensional in too many spots, and way too soft and shallow up front. The fast (and somewhat lucky) early start to the season couldn't ultimately hide the reality of Cal's roster. Nevertheless, setting aside a three week stretch in January, the team showed up to play game in and game out, despite being continually outgunned in conference play. The season could have easily gone completely off the rails in January, but it did not. That is one measure of a coach, and in that regard Cuonzo Martin passed the test.

The Bears move on to Las Vegas to take a very unlikely shot at the NCAA tournament, and then probably some other level of post-season play. As we enter the final stretch of the season, the same principles remain. Are we seeing skill development? Cohesion? Is the team playing hard?