Everyone take a deep breath.
The losing streak is over.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that there was a lot not to like about the performance. There were some good things too, though, so I figured a "good, bad and ugly" format would work as a recap for this game.
The Bears found a way to win without Tyrone Wallace
The big story coming into this matchup with the Arizona State Sun Devils was how Cal would cope without its senior leader and prospective first round draft pick Tyrone Wallace.
Well, so far, so good.
Sam Singer was tasked with stepping up in the absence of Wallace and he did just that, particularly in the first half of the game.
Both squads had some trouble offensively early on in the first half. The score was around 13-9 through about six minutes, or so, in the first half. Then the Bears and the Sun Devils started trading baskets.
Singer was particularly impressive during this stretch as he assisted on five consecutive possessions for the Bears. With a few minutes remaining in the first half Singer had seven assists. It seemed like he would blow past double digits and have a crazy assist total.
Unfortunately, the offense bogged down as the game went along and it became more difficult to notch assists. Plus, Singer got into foul trouble (more on that later).
I thought the big thing about Singer's performance was that he didn't try to be Wallace. He played within himself and it worked as he totaled six points, six rebounds and eight assists in a very solid all-around performance. He also did a good job of guarding Arizona State's star player Tra Holder, who was held in check for the most part.
Ivan Rabb is an efficiency monster
Rabb tallied a season-high 20 points on 8 of 11 from the field tonight. He added eight rebounds, six assists and three blocks too.
Rabb is so fun to watch. I mean it really is a blast to watch this kid play basketball. He's smart. He's efficient. He can pass. He can block. He has touch on his jumper, which is something I wish he could showcase more, but he just doesn't get that opportunity much in our style of offense. He just needs to figure out how to get his foul totals down and the numbers he could put up in extended minutes would be out of this world.
There were only a couple of occasions during which I could pick at Rabb's performance. He turned the ball over four times and almost turned the ball over during a crucial stretch of play in the final minute of the game when he passed the ball to Jordan Matthews in the corner. Matthews was pressured and almost lost the ball, but the Bears were able to call timeout before it became a complete disaster.
Kinglsey Okoroh blocked four shots. Rabb blocked three more. Brown tallied another as the Bears used their length advantage over the Sun Devils to affect a lot of their shots inside the lane. It was good to see. Okoroh's importance to this team cannot be underestimated. There was a stretch during the second half when Arizona State got back into the game and if I remember correctly Kingsley was on the bench for a large portion of that run. When he is out there and on top of his shot blocking game it keeps Rabb from having to shoulder so much of the rim protection load for the Bears.
Jaylen Brown continues to grow as a player
Brown played well today despite not taking a ton of shots since the offense largely ran through Rabb. Brown showed up in clutch moments, though. He started the game by forcing a turnover and turning it into a dunk to get everyone out of their seats.
He also made some clutch free throws towards the end of the game when Arizona State was knocking on the door of pulling off what would have been a crushing loss for the Bears.
Brown's most important contribution to the game came during a crucial stretch late in the second half. Arizona State tied the game at 65 with two minutes and some change remaining. Rabb made one of two free throws to put Cal back on top by one point before he blocked a shot. Brown ran onto the loose ball and sprinted down the floor like a gazelle. The Arizona State player had no chance of stopping him and Brown made a layup to put Cal up by three.
He then made two free throws a short bit of time later to help Cal finish off the Sun Devils.
That's what was good about the performance, but what was there to not like about this game?
Lack of killer instinct
The Bears lead by 14 points about midway through the second half and I thought to myself: OK, Bears, let's finish them off. Don't let the Sun Devils back into the game. Break their will right here.
So, what happens next? Almost as soon as the thought entered my mind Stephen Domingo contests a three pointer from behind Andre Spight. That is never a good idea. Of course the three pointer went in and so did the free throw.
At that point Cal held the lead 54-44. We're still in a good spot with a ten point lead, right? Of course we are. Just don't let Arizona State seize complete control of the momentum and the Bears will be fine, right?
Rabb turned it over after Spight's free throw, but Arizona State missed the shot. Then Brown committed an offensive foul.
Kodi Justice turned that turnover into a three point basket for Arizona State making it a 54-47 Bears lead. Jordan Matthews then made a clutch three pointer to momentarily stop the bleeding. Cal leads 57-47.
Then it was Savon Goodman's turn to commit an offensive foul before Jaylen Brown made a mid-range jumper to put Cal up by 12.
Crisis averted, right?
Brown's jumper came with 10:55 remaining in the second half to put Cal up 59-47. Remember that time on the clock.
At 4:39 remaining in the game Holder made a jumper to pull within one at 62-61. Jabari Bird responed with a jumper of his own to put Cal up by four with 4:06 left in the game.
That was Cal's first made field goal since 10:55 when Brown made a jumper. Cal went six minutes without making a field goal. Thankfully, Arizona State could not take full advantage of it and take the lead. If Cal had fallen behind at any point that might have put too much pressure on the team to avoid extending the losing streak.
If Cal can find a way to make a few buckets during that six minute stretch then the game is not nearly as nail-biting down the stretch as it was. The Bears have to find a way to get some easy buckets on the offensive end.
Another instance of not closing the game out strong was when Cal had a 69-65 lead with 54 seconds left. Off the inbounds play Gerry Blakes missed a three-pointer. Rabb could not pull down the rebound and Blakes made the Bears pay on his second look from distance.
That play put the Bears under a ton of pressure to make their free throws, but Brown, Matthews and Bird went 6 of 6 from that point on to ice the game.
Cal needs to find a way to get some easy shots
The Bears have to work extremely hard on nearly every offensive possession to get a basket. Part of this is because of the Bears' style of defense.
Cal does not pressure the ball enough defensively, which causes Cal's criminally low amount of turnovers forced. If we could force some turnovers then guys like Brown and Rabb could use their athleticism to get down the court fast and score some easy buckets in transition.
Over the last few years at both the pro and college levels of basketball I've noticed that a large portion of teams have moved away from crashing the boards and more towards transition defense. Cal's style of defense ideally forces the opposition to take tough jumpers with the idea that the Bears will pull down the defensive rebounds. With the opposition already moving into transition defense when the shot goes up it gives Cal so few opportunities to get out into the open court and score points in transition.
When you play in a ton of close games like the Bears, and the Pac-12 in general, do then a handful of easy points from forcing turnovers can mean the difference between winning and losing.
It might be worth it for the Bears to take more chances on defense in the future because of the offense's tendency to get bogged down at times.
Fouls and free-throw shooting
Oh. My. God. The Bears can't avoid foul trouble. Brown fouled out. Rabb and Okoroh committed four fouls each. Rooks and Singer each committed three fouls. Yes, Pac-12 officiating is horrendous. They make games downright unbearable for long stretches of play, but the foul trouble has been fairly consistent for the Bears throughout the season. I'm not sure its correctable at this point. At least they overcame it against Arizona State though.
Cal put Arizona State in the bonus with about 13 minutes remaining in the first half of the game. That's a long time for the other team to shoot free throws after each foul.
The consistent fouls committed and generally poor free throw shooting cost Cal during the three game losing streak and it almost cost the Bears against Arizona State.
One of my biggest pet peeves in basketball is missed free throws. I can't stand them because there is generally no excuse for being a poor free throw shooter. Free throw shooting comes down to a few things. Concentration and technique.
If your form is good and you focus on the shot then you will make a decent percentage of your foul shots. If your concentration dips for even a second then the foul shots become a different proposition all together.
Cal shot 69% from the charity stripe against the Sun Devils. Keep in mind that the Bears made their final six. It's better than our team average for the season, but it's still too low for my liking.
Can we get back to the caliber of free throw shooting we had back in the Jerome Randle, Theo Robertson and Patrick Christopher era of Cal basketball, please?
It was a good win for the Bears, but there's still a long way to go if this team wants to make a run in the NCAA Tournament come March. Heck, there's still work to be done if they want to be assured of playing in March Madness.
For now, though, the Bears grabbed a much-needed win against a not-so-good, but not-so-bad Arizona State squad. A visit from the Arizona Wildcats is on the horizon and the Bears will have to play a much better game if they want to maintain their perfect home record.