Perhaps it's fitting--the strange, disjointed way this season has begun. Not knowing before every game who's going to play and who's not. Not knowing whether we really can rely on a freshman point guard, then watching him go off for a school record to single-handedly win a game. Not knowing whether our sophomore All-American is 100%. Seeing a strange, patchwork group of faces, some old, some new, and not really knowing what to expect night after night.
Going into this season the questions were easy. Cal lost three key players from a 23-11 squad that earned the highest NCAA seed in school history. Those three players accounted for 75% of the shots Cal took when they were on the floor. One of them was drafted third by the NBA. So, even with Ivan Rabb unexpectedly returning, the conventional narrative was the Golden Bears would be in a bit of a rebuild mode this year. On the other hand, the unconventional wisdom said that losing two ball stoppers and replacing them with two guys with point guard instincts would free up the offense, while the key parts to Cal's formidable defense remained.
But who really knew? Either one of those theories was plausibly right, or very plausibly wrong.
After Cal's first loss of the year on Monday night to a pretty good (although not good shooting) SDSU team, we still didn't know. Rabb was playing in his first game of the year, Grant Mullins was returning from injury, and Jabari Bird was still out with what appears to be chronic back spasms. It didn't look like a team that had practiced together because, well, it hadn't.
Then tonight, after a little more work together as a complete team (almost), in walked the Wyoming Cowboys for what should have been a routine Cal win. And it was, more or less, a routine Cal win. After a strong start that resulted in a 12 point halftime lead, the Bears were never threatened in 71-61 victory, pushing their record to 3-1 on the season.
So after four games we *must* have a better read on this team than we did in the offseason, right Reef? Well, yes and no. We certainly know a few more things. We've seen things. Things have happened. But as for the season long outlook for this club, your guess is as good as mine. We'll reconvene when we actually see the team with all its pieces in place. Right now, we're all just blindfolded, feeling different parts of the elephant. And these are the parts as we feel them today:
Cal was a top 20 defensive team last year, with the fourth best eFG defense and the second best 2p% defense in the nation. There was every reason to expect the Bears to maintain a high level of defense this year, with its core rim protection in place, and because Cuonzo Martin.
After four games, we're still waiting to see exactly what we've got. Thus far Cal has a top 35 defense and that probably will not change. But inconsistency game in and game out has been the story of the early season, mirroring the ever-changing lineups. The Bears opened with one of the best defensive performances of the Martin era against South Dakota State. They followed that with two poor defensive efforts, one in which they allowed UC Irvine to get past perimeter defenders and into the paint at will (shooting a ghastly 52% on 2p shots) and the other in which they allowed wide open 3p jumpers to a hot shooting SDSU team.
Which led us to tonight's effort: a microcosm of the season. Wyoming did not score in the first five minutes. That's good. At the half they had 26 points on 5-15 (33%) 2p, 3-12 3p, and .71 points per possession. That's very, very good. But forgive me if I'm fretting a bit at these two Wyoming numbers at the end of the game:
- 16-31 (52%) on 2p shots as a team
- Justin James scored 28 points on 14 shots.
Who's Justin James, you're asking? Heck if I know, but I'll tell you this without doing one bit of research: he's not a guy who should be getting 28 points efficiently against our defense.
Some of the defensive woes were lineup driven. Midway through the 2nd half Cuonzo took out his centers and went small, presumably to protect against a Wyoming comeback via 3p shooting. Wyoming shot 10% better on 2p shots against this lineup. Nevertheless, this illustrates a problem that's readily apparent on film: perimeter defensive communication is not yet in midseason form. With no 7 footer in the paint, the Cowboys got whatever they wanted going to the bucket. If Cuonzo is going to use his small lineup for any important stretches this year, the point of attack defense has to get much better.
Mmm. Wings. I like mine with the mango habanero sauce. Oh wait, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about something not quite as delightful, which is how a team that was so versatile on the wing last year all of a sudden is struggling for options. Jabari is out at least two more weeks and that is what we call a lineup hole. A huge, gaping, stinking 50 foot lineup hole.
2-10 (20%) 2p
4-20 (20%) 3p
You've probably already guessed. Those are Stephen Domingo's shooting percentages this season. I don't know. It's inexplicable. Those are numbers that would embarrass a walk-on, much less someone with real, actual, many-people-have-seen-it-in practice-type D1 talent. I've written hundreds of words on this. None of it makes sense. But it's not acceptable.
On the bright side, Roger Moute a Bidias can play. He can really play. Sometimes it's pretty darn good, and sometimes it's just okay, but this year he has not been a liability on the floor. That may seem like damning with faint praise, but from where he's come from that's a remarkable accomplishment. More than that, sometimes he makes good things happen. Tonight was such a night, especially in the second half when Wyoming was attempting a run, Big Shot Rog stepped up to stop them. While Jabari remains out, we've got to get quality minutes from somewhere, and if Roger is going to give us those minutes it will help this club a great deal. A real scoring threat to go with active, disruptive defense and rebounding--that's found gold for the Golden Bears.
Add in the quietly efficient 16 points from Grant Mullins, who doesn't seem to be anywhere but also seems to be everywhere, and maybe the Bears will be able to plug the missing Jabari hole for a few more weeks.
There was a sequence to end the half that proved to me, once and for all, that we've got a prodigy. Cal got the ball with 53.9 seconds left, which is a perfect spot for a 2 for 1. 2 for 1s are simple, obvious situations to gain game equity if you can execute properly and you have the right point guard for the job. Unfortunately, Cal's points guards have not been good at claiming this advantage the last several years. Until today.
Charlie attacked the rim and made a floater with 41 seconds left -- perfect 2 for 1 timing. Then when Cal got the ball back he iso'd up top, dribbled most of the clock out, then drained a three with seven seconds left. Maybe two seconds too early, but we will forgive him that. Otherwise, it was masterful and illustrates exactly why possession advantage in the hands of a good guard is so important.
So simple, so hard to do, and so impressive watching a diminutive kid in his fourth college game doing it like he's been playing at this level for four years.
This was a hoop geek's version of great point guard play, but you could see it all night, and all over the court. Quick hands to get in the passing lanes. Running the break in transition and finding the right finishers. Running repeated Pick and Rolls with Ivan, and seemingly always making the right decision. Having his finger continually on the game pulse -- knowing when to push, when to slow, when to reset, when to redirect teammates.
Watching a prodigy early in his career, and knowing what you're seeing, is a rare treat. This kid is going to end up top 5 at Cal in points and assists. Enjoy this, Cal fans. The future is here.
So what do we know?
We know that the defense will be solid. Except when it isn't.
We know that there's probably enough talent to hold down the wing without Jabari. Except that there might not be.
We know that the ball is moving a lot better in the offense this year. Except that tonight we gave away 20 turnovers, the second game in a row of bad turnover problems.
We know that Ivan will be fine. Except...okay, no except. Ivan will be fine.
We know that the there's still a lot to discover with this team. That we are still waiting to see the full team together. That there are a lot of parts here, but not yet a whole. And that Cal hasn't lost at home since February 25, 2015. So we know that whatever this team ends up becoming or not becoming, they will give you your money's worth at Haas. Come out and let's enjoy this journey of discovery together. It's going to be a fun year. #Hype.