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Oregon 68, Cal 65: A loss both frustrating and explicable

Cal falls for the first time ever at Matt Knight arena in a game mostly defined by ugly offense and/or impressive on both sides of the court.

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

With less than four minutes to go, Cal found themselves down by six points with the ball. The Bears did well to get the ball down low to Ivan Rabb, but the freshman found himself quickly hounded by a double team and stuck on the baseline. He stayed calm, swung the ball around, and eventually got the ball to Jordan Mathews in the corner for a wide open 3 pointer.

The 3 pointer was a brick, and Ivan picked up his 4th foul trying desperately to get the rebound. I let out a frustrated groan when the jumper hit off the basket, and an even louder groan when the refs whistled for the foul on Ivan. It was that type of game.

I bet I can guess what you're thinking right now, Cal fan. You're thinking that this team was coming off of a three game streak of impressive, double digit wins, and it's just so damned Cal to lose a game now, just as fans started paying attention and a national ranking seemed imminent.

And I get that. But avoid the urge to gnash teeth, rend garments, or otherwise freak out. Because winning road games in the Pac-12 is really friggin' hard, perhaps more than ever this particular season. Just look at the last few seasons to get a sense:

Season Home Win% Nat. Rank
14-15 67.6 3
13-14 66.7 5
12-13 60.0 17
11-12 66.7 5

Why is it usually hard to win in the Pac-12? Because we're a huge, geographically spread out conference with occasionally unusual challenges like altitude. Because that geographic distance requires multiple day road trips. Because this is a major conference with a high level of talent across the board.

And this year it's particularly hard because at least 9 of the 12 teams in this conference will end the season in the top 64 in the nation. Yep, if they seeded the NCAA tournament based solely on team quality and ignored autobids, 75% of the conference would be in the bracket. UCLA might be the 9th best team in the conference, and they have wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga.

Oregon was an opportunity for a road win, and road wins are necessary to win the conference. It sucks to blow that opportunity, but it's not our only opportunity. Cal was very unlikely to sweep through this three game trip. This just means that the pressure is on this Saturday in Corvallis.

But it's a loss. So let's talk about why, because we kinda have to before moving on even though this game wasn't fun and I really don't want to be doing this. OK then.

1. Turnovers

Cal turned the ball over 18 times, or about once every four possessions. It was Cal's 2nd worst ball-handling performance of the season, which shouldn't be a huge surprise considering how Oregon played defense. When you force a team that doesn't have many natural ball-handlers and facilitators to pass around a bunch of aggressive pressure defense, you're probably going to turn the ball over a lot.

Oregon gave some of the value they created with turnovers back to Cal in the form of easy buckets if/when Ty and Jaylen broke the press - the duo combined to shoot 14-19 on 2 pointers and drew a bunch of fouls (I'm guessing about 10) when they found driving lanes made available because of pressing defenders. But those turnovers played a big role in keeping Cal below their season average offensive efficiency.

The good news is that few other Pac-12 teams are able to force turnovers the way Oregon does. It will be something to watch closely when the Bears play Washington and Stanford, but luckily those teams have other weaknesses that Oregon doesn't.

2. Shooting (the non lay-up kind)

Cal shot 0-12 from behind the arc. You would typically expect them to make 4 of those. Cal shot 13-23 from the line. You would typically expect them to make 15. Roughly speaking, Cal left 14 points on the floor you would generally expect them to hit. Some of their issues on 3 pointers was iffy ball movement and spacing on offense, but still, this was quite a bit of bad variance.

One might argue that Cal hit more 2 pointers than usual to make up for it, and that's perhaps a little true. However, Oregon had all kinds of trouble containing Ty and Jaylen when they broke through the press, and Ivan had his way inside when he was actually on the court, so I'm not inclined to take a ton away from Cal there.

Sometimes bad shooting nights happen. Good teams find ways to stay in tough games, and that's what Cal did. Great teams win them, and Cal isn't a great team yet.

3. Ivan Rabb foul trouble

Ivan Rabb went for 17 and 8 with 70% shooting. Oregon didn't have anybody that could guard him. When Ivan Rabb was on the floor, Chris Boucher made one basket (a corner 3) and had zero offensive rebounds. When Ivan was on the bench, Chris Boucher made five baskets and had three offensive rebounds.

(Cal was also a collective -5 on the scoreboard with Rabb on the floor, but I feel confident in saying that Rabb's contributions aren't the cause of that number.)

Ivan Rabb only played 24 minutes. Ivan is Cal's single most important player. He's our lynch pin on defense and he's Cal's only reliable scorer on the post. Foul trouble is about the only thing that can stop him.

So here's where we talk about the refs. Stop the presses: They probably got a few calls wrong! Ivan's 3rd foul was a pretty weak offensive foul. It felt like they called Cal for a bunch of soft reach-in fouls without whistling the much more grabby, turnover-forcing Ducks for the same calls. I believe that the refs contributed to Oregon's late game lead.

But towards the end of the game the refs also started calling fouls on a bunch of Cal drives that spanned the gamut from iffy to flat out wrong. The refs gave Cal a chance to get back into the game and Cal didn't fully take advantage. In the end, I'd say the calls marginally favored the Ducks, but that's kinda what you would expect in a road game, no? They weren't nearly egregious enough to blame when Cal didn't do so many other things.

There were other minor issues. Cal allowed a few too many offensive boards (largely when Ivan was on the bench). Defensive lapses allowed Oregon to get up 21 three point attempts. But the main reasons Cal lost are above. One of them highlights one of the most obvious limitations on the roster, and the other two mostly fall under the category of 'unfortunate things that happen, and more frequently away from home.'

Things that went well

Cal's defense is now at the point where it can be not very good by its own lofty standards and be good by most other team's standards. With Ivan sitting and generally not able to play aggressive defense due to foul trouble, the Bears still managed to hold a good Oregon offense under a point/possession on the road. It was a weaker performance than most other recent games, but still good enough to win on a night when they shoot even decently well.

That Cal was able to stay in the game despite such futile 3 point shooting is a credit to the burgeoning skills of Jaylen Brown, who had another efficient offensive night with 20 points on 10 shots. 4 turnovers is still a bit frustrating, but considering how the game went for everybody else who handled the ball for the Bears I think we can give him a pass. Brown's (and to be fair, Ty's) ability to score one-on-one is what kept the Bears competitive when Ivan was on the bench and nobody could hit a jumper.

Cal has exactly one road game left this season that is meaningfully tougher than playing at Oregon: Arizona. The Bears played far from their best on both ends of the court, against a team that probably isn't a good match-up based on Cal's skill set, suffered from bad variance, and still managed to play a back-and-forth game most of the way. Win on the road on Saturday and the Bears are right back on track. In a Pac-12 so deep with quality teams, splits are nothing to spit on.