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Stanford 77, Cal 71: A glass case of emotion

A free throw parade of epic proportions helps Stanford hand Cal a devastating 3rd straight loss.

Would it be unduly bitter to ask why the ref didn't join in on the high 5?
Would it be unduly bitter to ask why the ref didn't join in on the high 5?
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

When Cal loses to Stanford, there are lots of emotions to sort through

Anger. Anger that Stanford attempted 38 free throws to Cal's 17, and only 6 came when Cal began intentionally fouling. Anger that Marcus Allen scored 16 points while only making 2 shots from the field. Anger that Stanford only had to make 8 shots in the entire 2nd half to withstand Cal's comeback attempt. Anger that Cal still has a losing record to Johnny Dawkins, despite having the objectively better team most of the time. Anger that fouls limited Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown to a combined 44 minutes

Frustration. Frustration that a team that, for the season, shoots free throws at about 67%, made six more attempts than you would expect in, you guessed it, a six point win. Frustrated that well-intentioned rule changes have resulted in such a level of anti basketball. Stanford just scored 1.07 points/possession against a top 50 defense with a 3:5 assist to turnover ratio and mediocre shooting. Frustrated that, for the 3rd straight game, Cal was both playing poorly and unlucky.

Sadness. Sad that for a variety of reasons this team appears to be less than the sum of their parts. Sad that this team desperately needs a high end point guard and doesn't appear to have one. Sad that a senior who returned to college for all the right reasons has to bear much of the responsibility, even if he's being asked to do things that aren't really a part of his skill set.

Let's get two things out of the way: 1) Cal lost this game because of foul calls, and how this game was reffed and 2) Cal also didn't play well enough in non-foul aspects of the game. These can both be true.

In terms of shooting, rebounds, and turnovers this game was a virtual dead heat. It's bad that those things were collectively a dead heat, because we expect this team to be better than this particular Stanford team. Still, they played them even in those areas. Stanford won because a) they got Cal's two best players in foul trouble and b) because they got to shoot waaaaay more freebies than the Bears. They probably deserved more free throw attempts than Cal. I feel very confident saying that they didn't deserve 21 more than the Bears, a team that is also pretty good at attacking the bucket, drawing contact, and getting to the line.

Before the season began, I had two opinions about the new rules changes. The first opinion was that they were an important change to make for the health of the game. The second opinion was that Cal would be well suited to make those rules work to their advantage.

As of this moment, I'm strongly questioning both of those pre-season opinions. Cal's biggest weakness on defense (in terms of what it is designed to accomplish) is a tendency to pick up too many fouls. Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown both commit nearly 5 fouls every 40 minutes, and the problem is exacerbated against the improved competition of Pac-12 play. Adding two big minute, foul prone players to a roster that wasn't necessarily great at playing point of attack defense or avoiding fouls last year has turned into a very foul prone roster.

Meanwhile, on offense, Cal's best foul drawers are their weakest free throw shooters, so it's hard for the Bears to match free throw equity, even when they are getting to the line just as often as their opponent.

I'm still in favor of the rule changes in concept, but the biggest question mark was whether or not college refs would be able to implement them in a coherent, consistent fashion. If they can't, the upside of having the game (inconsistently and incoherently) called closer to a hypothetical ideal isn't worth it if it means one team has more free throw attempts than 2 point field goal attempts.

So far, I would have to say that officials have not been able to call the new rules with coherence and consistency. Ask me again at the end of the season.

That's all relatively small potatoes compared to the reality of a 2-3 Pac-12 record. The optimism that accompanied Cal's 2-0 start has been killed dead with a disheartening 3 game road losing streak.

It's easy to say, intellectually, that the season is far from over. Cal will still probably be a very tough team to beat at home. There's time for some amount of player development, time for some amount of scheme tweaks. But we're also more than halfway through the regular season. The flaws on this team aren't likely to disappear, and if competing for a conference title is still the goal, damage has already been done.

The question for the rest of the season: Is this team going to be mediocre enough that their chances of winning or losing will be heavily impacted by how the game is called and whether or not the opponent can draw a bunch of fouls? Or is this team going to figure out how to play closer to their ceiling so that those types of uncontrollable factors won't derail games? There isn't much time left to answer that question the right way.