The weather is getting colder, as an increasingly bleak year mercifully draws to a close. Through the ups and downs of 2016, I’ve kept myself warm imagining the possibilities of Cal basketball 2016-17.
Some of those thoughts were exciting day dreams: alley oops from Charlie to Ivan, Jabari and Grant raining 3s as the defense overreacts to the threat of Ivan. Some of them have been mundane: the beauty of a penetrating guard missing a runner because 7 feet of Kam Rooks is between him and the rim while Ivan pulls down the weakside rebound.
We’ve seen flashes. But with the pre-game news adding Kam to the list of the wounded and a long time frame attached to Jabari’s recovery from back-spasms, we have to confront a disturbing possibility: we may never see that exact vision of Cal basketball.
Am I burying the lede? There was, after all, a game on Sunday night. It wasn’t a game high on entertainment value or drama, which is a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because Southeast Louisiana isn’t a team that Cal would need dramatics to beat. Bad, because Cal spent most of the 2nd half playing down to their over-matched opponent.
The game began with a Cal basket, a missed SLU shot, a Cal 3, an SLU turnover, and a Cal fast break bucket. It was 7-0 in the blink of an eye, and if I were professional enough to write down notes to prep for a game recap, I would’ve written ‘game over.’ Cal built a 10 point lead in 2.5 minutes, and it was up to 22 towards the end of the first half. SLU had trouble initiating their offense, settled for bad shots, and was nearly shut out on the offensive glass. The Lions finished the first half with as many turnovers as made baskets.
Then the second half happened. To be fair, some of the blemishes were randomly bad shooting, both from the line and from three. Cal also probably lost whatever intensity they had in the first half with a big lead on an over-matched opponent. But Cal’s offense stagnated.
Meanwhile, after holding SLU to .67 points/possession in the first half, the Lions went for exactly 1 point/possession in the second despite missing a couple of bunnies. Cal’s defense just wasn’t as sharp, miscommunicating on some switches and relaxing at the point of attack.
It didn’t particularly matter. For as lackluster as Cal played, the lead never went lower than 9 and you never had the sense that SLU has the offense necessary to surmount the entire deficit. Cal eventually stretched the lead back to 15 points before coasting in for the 12 point win.
Meanwhile, I spent most of the game trying to decide what this season might look like if Kam’s knee injury is season ending, or if Jabari never gets 100% healthy. Kam is just as much a linchpin of Cal’s defense as Ivan Rabb, and his offensive rebounding is an underrated plus on offense. Jabari is a shooting threat that Cal is simply lacking at the 3 right now. With every game missed by a key contributor you can feel the odds of Cal hitting their ceiling decreasing. A perfunctory win over a middling Southland Conference team can’t really distract from that.
Notes and Errata
- Kingsley had his best game as a Bear, tying career highs for points and rebounds with a rather astounding 3-0 assist-to-turnover ratio. If Kam is out for a meaningful length of time, Cal will need Kingsley - not necessarily to score, but to play major minutes without fouling out and turning the ball over. He hit those marks and more against the Lions.
- Two of those assists were to Ivan Rabb, and Rabb had two assists to Okoroh. Cal has had trouble figuring out how to use the attention that Ivan attracts on defense to their advantage, but big-to-big passing paid dividends Sunday night as defenses overreacted to either big getting the ball in the paint.
- On the other hand, Ivan still doesn’t seem 100% there, and has certainly struggled to finish in pure post-up situations. It’s unclear how big a part of Cal’s offense those types of iso plays will be, but right now the results have been mixed.
- Charlie Moore was, for the 3rd time in 5 games, the best player on the floor in terms of pure production. If you ignored Cal’s weak strength of schedule, his combination of efficiency and usage rate would qualifying him for discussion as a freshman All-American. Hell, even his pesky defense is starting to demand notice - he’s using his speed to get into passing lanes, a dimension Cal’s defense has never really had under Cuonzo Martin.
- Cal’s Jabari Bird replacements shot a combined 2-9 from the field with 1 assist and 3 turnovers. If none of them are going to be a positive on offense, then you’d just as soon go with Roger Moute a Bidias as likely the best defender/rebounder.
Cal should be able to get through their next two games unscathed prior to a tough trip to Hawaii, but with Kam and Jabari likely out there’s a non-zero chance of dropping their game against a decent Louisiana Tech squad before a body-bag game against Alcorn St. Cal has 9 days until taking on Princeton and Seton Hall on back-to-back nights, and it sounds like a 50/50 shot at best that either Jabari or Kam will be back to face teams good enough to beat Cal with everybody available.
The injury Gods need to turn, and quick. Prepare to consult the augers and ready a sacrifice to Hygieia (I’m thinking a goat?) because the schedule won’t be kind for long.