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SDSU 77, Cal 65: Capital City Blues

The Bears traveled up I-80 for a basketball game but a first half scoring drought killed chances for a win

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s say you’re building an offense. You’ve got a dynamic point guard, but he’s a freshman who hasn’t built chemistry with his teammates. You’ve got a veteran combo guard, but he’s used to playing against Ivy League defenses and hasn’t played with his teammates yet. Your reliable senior 3 is out with an injury and his back ups are unreliable on offense. You’ve got maybe the best 4 in the country, but he’s rusty coming off his injury and will face constant doubles. Your centers are valuable players, but they aren’t in the game for their scoring.

For your first game with most of those players on the court together, they get to face San Diego State, a team with a top 50 defense for a decade, and a top 10 defense for for the last 4 years. Their lineup is full of athletes that are going to get in every passing lane, won’t give up easy looks, and will generally make life miserable for any offense that isn’t fully prepared.

Cal wasn’t fully prepared.

The result was an unsightly first half that saw Cal score .68 points/possession despite 15 free throw attempts. The Bears looked exactly like a team that hadn’t had any chance to learn to play together before being thrown against an elite defense.

Six made field goals at the half! 3-18 on 2 point shots! Really, it’s amazing that this game ended up being vaguely close. Players looked like they weren’t sure where to go with the ball, and most of Cal’s shots were hurried, off-balance, or simply mediocre looks. Or all of the above.

If you’re looking for reasons to feel better, one should note that Cal bounced back with an excellent 1.14 points/possession in the second half. Rabb was damn near unstoppable, Charlie was breaking ankles, and the Bears looked close to something like we hope to see come conference play. All that without Jabari, and without any consistent contributions from anybody but Charlie or Ivan.

Alas, by that time Cal had dug themselves a gigantic hole. 17 point halftime deficits are near death sentences against good teams, and Cal’s defense was never quite at the level the Bears would have needed to make that kind of a comeback. The lead shrunk all the way down to 8, but there was never a sense that SDSU didn’t have the game firmly in control.

Various notes that I totally didn’t just 100% copy from Reef

  • You could really tell in the first few minutes that Cal wasn’t prepared for how much faster SDSU was gonna be than previous opposition. I suppose the Aztecs may have benefited from their rough loss to Gonzaga.
  • Cal didn’t really have anything as a response to doubles on Ivan. As best I could tell, the strategy was for him to pull back a little before the double left, then reengage his defender (or just pass out of it for a reset) but neither was particularly effective. Early days and just getting him on the court was what mattered tonight, but something to keep watching.
  • Watching Steve Fisher pull 4 players to the sidelines to let Cheatham take on Kingsley one on one was painful.
  • Cal’s defense did their usual job on 2 point shots (37%) but allowed too many decent looks from 3 for my tastes. That and the fouling. Oh the fouls.
  • I was at the game, and I never get a good sense watching a game in person if the refs are calling a decent game. Most of the shooting fouls were replayed (in slow mo on the gigantic HD jumbotron) and in most cases they ranged from obvious to understandable. The off ball and offensive foul calls were not replayed, and were thoroughly more confusing. Either way, the 50 combined fouls made for an even more unpleasant experience beyond the whole losing-to-SDSU-while-surrounded-by-their-petty-fans thing.
  • I couldn’t tell how much of Mullins’ bad shooting night was random chance vs. getting used to the speed of high major basketball.
  • Turnovers were the biggest difference in the game - SDSU finished plus 11, and the Aztecs needed those extra shots since neither team was shooting the ball well. Tough to parse out cause and effect here, because the Aztecs brought plenty of length and athleticism to the table, but Cal brought plenty of their own rust and uncertainty.

As losses go, this one is pretty explicable. The problem is that this game was one of just 4 chances for Cal to get a meaningful non-conference win, and it went begging. That puts a bit more pressure on the Bears when they take on Princeton and Seton Hall in Hawaii, and when Virginia comes to Haas just before Christmas.

For now I’m choosing to focus on the positives. Ivan Rabb is back, and he celebrated his return by going for 19-11 despite getting zero good looks for 20 minutes, despite trouble with the double team, and despite trouble getting him the ball in great spots generally. Charlie Moore faced off against a real defense and had his share of mistakes, but also scored 17.

This game doesn’t change the general calculus of Cal’s ceiling, and it doesn’t change what this team can possibly achieve. The pieces are there, and we saw them in flashes. We just need to see if, given time, the coaches and players can put them all together.