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Cal Basketball Tuesday Thoughts: Luck and Cuonzo Martin

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I've watched Cal men's and women's basketball lose a collective six straight games. But rather than giving in to frustration and anger, let's try to find some silver linings amidst the gloom.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

I have had the distinct 'pleasure' of recapping Cal's recent losses to Oregon and Stanford, and in both games I wrote that I felt Cal both didn't play well enough, and that the Bears were unlucky. I commented with a similar sentiment on Reef's recap of the Oregon State loss. Not surprisingly, some took issue with the contention. Nobody particularly likes acknowledging that luck is a factor in athletics to any degree. When your team wins a game, it sounds like you're diminishing the team's accomplishment to say that luck played a role. When your team loses a game, it sounds like sour grapes and/or homerism to say that luck played a role.

My subjective interpretation of Cal's luck is that the Bears have variously been the victim of one-sided officiating, randomly poor shooting by the Bears relative to the quality of the shots and Cal's 'true talent,' and/or relatively good shooting by Cal's opponents relative to shot quality and the opponent's 'true talent.' Reasonable people could certainly disagree with that assessment.

But there's a more objective argument that Cal has been unlucky, and that has to do with close games. The concept of Pythagorean record has become more and more prominent, although it gets applied most often to baseball, where they play a whole ton of games with plenty of game-by-game variable. Still, it can easily be applied to pretty much any sport. You simply take the average margin of victory of a team, and math will tell you their expected record. If a team has scored exactly as many points as it has allowed, the Pythagorean record would be .500.

Kenpom's rating system has a 'luck' rating that is essentially compares a team's actual record with their Pythagorean record (based on his efficiency rating, so it's strength-of-schedule adjusted). Nationally, Cal currently ranks 324th out of 351 in luck rating. That's pretty unlucky.

Why? It's obvious in retrospect. The Bears have lost six games, and five of those games have been by six points or less. Only two of Cal's wins (over Wyoming and St. Mary's) were comparatively as close. As frustrating as this currently losing streak is, the Bears were within a possession of all three teams within the final 1:30 of the game. And the losses to Richmond and Virginia were even more 'unlucky' in that Cal had late leads within the final two minutes of both games.

Some would argue that Cal isn't unlucky - the other teams made the plays necessary to win, and Cal didn't. I would argue that both statements can be true. Hell, the best lesson I was ever taught in a class at Cal was that the world is endlessly complicated, and that there is very rarely a phenomena caused by just one or two factors. It's obviously true that Cal's opponents made the plays to win and Cal didn't. But nobody makes the plays all of the time. Virginia executed brilliantly, but they still hit only two straight 3 pointers less than 25% of the time. Tres Tinkle's insane fade-away baseline 2 is probably a shot he hits . . . 10% of the time? Even that feels generous. It's bad that Cal gave up a critical corner 3 to Chris Boucher, but he's only a 32% 3 point shooter, and he still had to make the open look. All of these plays went against the Bears, and few comparative plays have gone in their favor.

Of course it isn't 100% bad luck. Cal needs to play better - too many offensive turnovers, too many defensive fouls, etc. etc. etc. But it would also be nice if their luck shifts. Which leads us to what I REALLY wanted to talk about: Cuonzo Martin's teams historically have pretty rotten luck, to the point that it makes me wonder if there is somehow some sort of intrinsic characteristic of his coaching causing this particular type of 'luck.'

Here is where Cuonzo Martin's teams have finished in Kenpom's luck rankings:

2015-16: 324 (Cal)
2014-15: 48
2013-14: 341 (Tennessee)
2012-13: 159
2011-12: 265
2010-11: 116 (Missouri St.)
2009-10: 297
2008-09: 281

One year of above average luck (Hey, weren't all of those buzzer beaters really fun last year!), three years of middling luck, and four years of really bad luck. An average national ranking of 229th. This probably isn't so unusual (somebody has to have bad luck) but it causes me to start speculating about how Cuonzo approaches end-of-game situations.

That's a dangerous path to take because you find yourself looking for evidence to prove a theory rather than looking for what is actually happening. I have no doubt that the comment section of this article will have arguments that Cuonzo's late game play calling and out-of-timeout play-calling is his major failure and a significant cause of Cuonzo's close-game woes. Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that I have watched two seasons of basketball under Martin, and 2014-15 saw more improbable close-game Cal wins than 2015-16 has seen improbable close game Cal losses.

The reality is that I don't have any clue if this is random noise or something that will continue to happen. And if there is some sort of coaching flaw causing this issue, I doubt it's anything any of us will be able to discern from our couches or on the benches in Haas, try as we might.

I will say this much: Cal will probably go on a winning streak later this year (say, in the next nine games that feature five home games and four road games that are mostly tractable and/or decent match-ups) and if that happens, there will be narratives about how Cal has turned the corner, that Martin figured something our or that certain players redoubled their effort or something. And that may well be true. It also might be true that Cal was simply enjoying a combination of better luck and an easier schedule.

God I hope we go on a winning streak, this place is friggin' dark when we're not.

Women's Basketball feeling that 2010-11 Déjà vu

I come with a message of caution and a message of hope. Women's basketball has been rough since Pac-12 play started. The Bears are now 1-5 in conference play, and after a dispiriting loss to Oregon, sit in 2nd to last place. After a better-than-expected non-conference performance, the Bears seemed poised for a top half finish that would have easily earned an NCAA tournament appearance. That looks exceedingly unlikely at the moment as the short-handed Bears struggle to string together back-to-back quarters of consistent play on both ends.

My message of caution is that there isn't a ton of reason to expect a huge turnaround. This year's team is just too young, too inexperienced, and most importantly, too short-handed, to make a move in the toughest Pac-12 since I've started following the conference. Maybe this team could have struggled to a .500 conference record 4 or 5 years ago when Stanford didn't need to break a sweat to win 16+ games, but times are different now.

With just 8 healthy players on the roster, which includes a couple of players who probably weren't expected to play more than token minutes before the season began, this was a recipe for trouble. The hope was that the high level of talent with remaining players would be enough to have a decently solid season before recruiting reinforcements arrived next year.

Considering how early season conference play has progressed, and considering the difficulty of Cal's remaining schedule, I would guess that it will be hard for Cal to do much better than 6-12 in conference play, and even finishing the year on a 5-7 run would be an obvious improvement from how the season started. That's just the reality with a team so shallow and imbalanced.

In that regard, this season is much like the 2010-11 season. Remember that year? The Bears, coming off of a WNIT title, floundered to a 18-16, 7-11 conference record that was far below pre-season expectations. But the warning signs were there. The team has just lost point guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, and there wasn't an obvious replacement for the most important position on the floor. Gennifer Brandon missed the season with an injury. Players were pushed into roles that they mostly weren't ready for. It wasn't very much fun.

But here's where our message of hope comes in. Two years after that painful season, Cal found itself in New Orleans for the Final Four. Largely the same group of players who failed to stay above .500 in a very mediocre Pac-12 won a share of the conference title en route to 32 wins and a place alongside UConn, Notre Dame, and Louisville.

This isn't to say that these Bears are destined for that same level of turnaround, or that this year isn't decidedly un-fun at times, but it's a reminder that talent isn't its own guarantee, particularly in a sport like women's basketball where development matters more than you would think.

Right now, this team does have the foundational talent that could lead to a Final Four quality team. Like the 2010-11 team, it needs another talent infusion (who will this team's Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray be?) and the team needs to learn and build from the lumps they are taking at the moment.

Now this season becomes much more about the development of individual player skill, and the development of cohesion and understanding as a team on both sides of the floor. Let's hope those kind of developments start leading to on-court results sooner rather than later.