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Cal Takes Down Utah in Test of Toughness

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Bears win 71-58 to complete home sweep.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

I love going to college basketball games, and I love to chant, and sing, and yell, and heckle. I was doing it at Harmon Gym as a 10-year-old, and hopefully I'll be doing it at Haas Pavilion as a 90-year-old. But you know the one chant I absolutely can't stand? The O-VER-RATED chant. I hate that one. Sure, it's got a nice rhythm and it probably gets under the opponent's skin, but think for a second about what the chant means. "Yeah, we beat you, but you really aren't that good so our win doesn't mean as much as it should." Isn't that a little silly? If you beat the #1 team in the country, don't you want to be able to say you beat the best?

In my humble opinion, Utah was by no means overrated. This opinion may come as a surprise to those of you who know me and who know analytics, because despite coming to the Bay Area ranked 21st in the AP Poll, the numbers showed Utah was performing closer to the 40th best team in the country, and they had just lost down on the farm on Friday night. Nevertheless, I took a look at a lot of information heading into the game, and concluded that Utah had in a lot of ways been underperforming their solid talent (in particular Brandon Taylor) and coaching (Krystowiak may be the best in the conference) and that they were indeed a top 25 team. Nothing I saw on Sunday night changed my mind. That was a strong, well-coached basketball team, they won the shot selection battle with the Bears, and Taylor finally had a strong game for them.

In this critical tone-setting homestand, that might have been bad news. It should have been bad news. It wasn't.

Cal 71 - Utah 58

How did this happen? This is what our players had to say after the game:

Jordan Mathews: We stick to our principles and do what we do. Lock down on defense, play hard. Like coach says, defend, rebound, play hard. And with this group of guys it'll take care of itself if we go out and compete.

Ivan Rabb: I had to do a better job in the second half...on the offensive and defensive end I had to just play hard and be focused and do what I do.

Heads up Cal fam. This is a big, big deal. We have had teams in the past who have underachieved because they have not had the strength of character, the heart, the collective will to dictate an outcome to their opponent. This team is over achieving--not relative to their talent, but relative to their collective experience and execution--because for the last half dozen games they have bought into the goal of being the tougher team. Case in point:

  • After the under 8 timeout with Cal holding a slim four point lead, the Bears ran high horns into a pin-down for Jordan Mathews which was well defended. The play devolved into Sam Singer driving right, from top of the key into nothing, finally finding Rabb who was doubled in the post. Rabb was bodied up strong by lottery pick Jakob Poeltl, but somehow willed the ball over the front of the rim with his left hand for a spectacular and one. On Utah's next trip, the red hot Brandon Taylor came not once, not twice, but three times off high screen and roll, but Sam Singer, with help from Rabb on the hedge, doggedly fought through each and every one, forcing a tough, contested jumper on a play that Utah had been getting open looks on all night. Cal's four point lead ballooned to seven with the ball.

  • With 2:00 left and the lead back down to six, the dream Rabb and Jaylen Brown left side iso happens, and Rabb gets a switch onto Jordan Loveridge down on the block. Rabb turned beautifully over his right shoulder for an Hakeem Olajuwon fade and hit. On the frenetic next trip down, Utah immediately dumped it down to the veteran Loveridge on Rabb in the post. Loveridge then made two pro-level moves, but Rabb kept his head and stayed with both moves. As Loveridge spun for a second time Tyrone Wallace stripped the ball. Eight point lead.

In close games, wins and losses are determined by such exchanges. You win tough conference dogfights by being tougher in those key spots. Or, as Ivan said, by being focused, playing hard, and doing what you do better than the other guy.

There were a lot of ways we could have been fundamentally and schematically better tonight. That's been improving, and although tonight was a regression, the trend is still positive. But sport is imperfect and college sports is certainly imperfect, and sometimes it doesn't matter. Sometimes you just have to want it more. The Bears didn't make a big show of wanting it more. They just applied what has become a steel will, over and over again, to exchange after exchange, and in the end walked away with a home sweep and a 2-0 start to the season. The quest for a conference championship has begun. On to the next one.

Miscellaneous

  • Utah was 18-40 45% on two point baskets, many of them good looks at the rim, rather than contested jumpers. Not at all what we've come to expect lately, although perhaps understandable with a lottery pick post and a lightning quick point on the other team. Luckily, the inevitable opponent three point percentage regression has been in progress for three games, with Utah shooting 2-12 16.7% from deep (on more open looks than we've been accustomed to giving up). On the bright side, the Bears did a very nice job denying Loveridge, on paper a tough matchup. He only got five shots and six points in a game he should have dominated.

  • Jordan Mathews is getting good at this second half thing. 3-5 from deep in the second half after a quiet 0-2 in the first -- a big key in keeping Utah at Bay. After two points in the first half, he ended the game with 14.

  • Kingsley Okoroh had three blocks in 18 strong defensive minutes. I don't have time right now to look up blocks per minute national averages, but I'm sure some industrious soul will get on that.

  • Shareef Abdur-Rahim was at the game. And Leon Powe, Sean Lampley, David Butler, Theo Robertson. But mostly Shareef.

  • This team is going to win the Pac-12.