The temperature struggled to creep above 50 degrees on a crisp, sunny Berkeley afternoon outside of Haas Pavilion. It was the kind of day that makes you want to take the dog for a quick walk to breathe the fresh air, then go back in, curl up on the couch with a warm blanket, and watch Cal basketball. The Cal mens' basketball team entered tonight's game with exactly that mentality. Still in a fog from recently concluded final exams, they were in a mood to curl up and just watch.
The Bears entered the game a prohibitive favorite against a distinctly inferior Cal-Poly squad, and the Bears played down to that level for the first 12 minutes. When Cuonzo Martin called timeout with 8:10 left in the first half, the Mustangs led 19-13, and I'm sure coach pointed out that participation is more effective than spectating. To that point Cal had watched each other stand around on offense, fail to get to 50-50 balls, and watched Cal-Poly make four consecutive three point shots.
Sufficiently convinced that they should wake up and play, the Bears decided they'd like to leave with what they came for: a school record 27th consecutive home win. An inevitable 21-3 run ensued, and with the Bears comfortable ahead by 12 at halftime, we could all start thinking about history. We had the whole second half to contemplate what we were witnessing, as Cal cruised to an easy 81-55 victory and the aforementioned school record.
Defending This Haas
I have always had an uneasy relationship with Haas Pavilion. I grew up in Harmon Gym. I saw Kevin Johnson and Chris Washington and David Butler and Leonard Taylor and Keith Smith and Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray play there. But more importantly, as a lifelong Cal basketball fan, I carry around the soul of Harmon Gym with me whenever I watch the Golden Bears take the court. I can't explain to you what I mean unless you were there. Unless you felt it. Harmon was a living, breathing entity. It was heat and trapped noise and standing right on top of referees and hearing player conversations. It was being in the game. Not spectating a game, but actually feeling like a part of it. To me, it was college basketball -- pure, unfiltered, undiluted, unmistakable college basketball. And pure Cal.
When we tore down Harmon and built Haas, I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I still remember the first game walking into the new building. It was November 27, 1999, and a heralded recruiting class of Shantay Legans, Nick Vanderlaan, Joe Shipp, Brian Wethers, and Dante Smith was coming to join Sean Lampley and to usher in a new era. An era of Cal basketball in a new home.
I walked into that game against Pacific and I remember thinking it was so modern. So blue and gold. So much bigger. I remember that I couldn't understand anything on the PA. I remember that I was disoriented by the location of the team benches and the student section. I remember being jealous of the chairbacks. But mostly I remember thinking one thing. It wasn't Harmon.
And I think I have always held that against Haas. I've been to over 100 games there, and a little part of me has always whispered, this isn't Harmon. It isn't loud and it isn't hot and it isn't full and it's a home game but it isn't quite home.
I think that started to change when the 2010 team clinched the conference. And last year the wall started tumbling down. Watching Jaylen and Ivan come on the floor at Late Night practice. The glory of the Arizona win. The USC game, and a perfect home season. And finally, today. History.
27 games is almost a full season, and those games, this streak, have created a *lore* at Haas, a tradition, a soul. Some of the wins have been epic, against Arizona and Oregon and St. Mary's. Many have been pedestrian, like tonight's game versus Cal-Poly. But the streak started during the same season as a home loss to Cal State Bakersfield, an all too painful reminder that every win must be hard fought. Every win is special. As I watched Cal take the floor for the 27th consecutive time to defend this court, and as I looked around at my Golden Blogs family cheering for them, I realized yes, I can let go now. I will always cherish the memory of Harmon, but I now feel the same sense of pride of place that our players felt, as they walked in 27 times to defend our lair, and walked out 27 times victorious. This is where the spirit of Cal basketball lives. This is our Haas. This is home.
And Now It Begins
College basketball is a play in three acts: 1) the non-conference, 2) the Pac-12 season, and 3) the postseason. Officially, we are still in the non-conference schedule and we open the Pac-12 against Arizona on December 30. But logically, the line is here. Our preseason ended tonight. We were banged up, we were not able to fully develop our team chemistry or offensive identity, and we failed in our two attempts to notch resume building wins. Such wins might be particularly important this season, in March, when we start fretting about Selection Sunday.
The RPI is a terrible way to measure the quality of basketball teams. It overemphasizes strength of schedule, treats all wins and all losses equally, and fails to take into account how teams are truly performing on the court. Nevertheless, it's a tool the NCAA uses every year, and if you care about selection and seeding you have to store it in the back of your mind as you head into 2017.
The Pac-12 has legitimate claim to having 10 teams among the top 100 in the nation, but that's not important to the NCAA. What's important is the RPI "shows" that the Pac-12 is the 6th best conference in the country, with no top-10 teams, only seven top-100 teams, and with Washington State, at 344, one of the worst power conference schools in the country. The further problem is that once conference play starts, it's very difficult to change those numbers. If your conference's RPI numbers indicate weakness heading into conference play, then the final numbers will indicate teams and schedules are weak at the end of the year, no matter whether quality of play changes in conference. Cal's RPI is currently #111, and although that will go up no matter what the result is on Wednesday (more RPI stupidity), a win is much better in the long run than a loss.
If that's too complicated, let me simplify it. Cal needs to beat Virginia or they face the very real prospect of getting to 11 or 12 conference wins and still sitting near the bubble in March.
Let's throw in one more reality. In the Haas Pavilion era, Cal has beaten two ranked teams during the non-conference schedule--Temple in 2010 and Syracuse in 2014. It's unfair to over-generalize about 17 years of basketball history, but there is a pattern: Cal basketball has had a hard time notching good wins early in the season, and this has hurt them in March.
By any measure you want, beating the Cavaliers subverts that narrative. #13 AP. #12 Coaches Poll. #16 RPI. #7 Sagarin. #3 Kenpom. A win over Virginia would be the best non-conference victory this century. A guaranteed marquee win on Selection Sunday. An RPI boost for the whole conference. And the 28th straight
What are Cal's chances of beating Virginia? This is where the uncertainty and--if you look at it the right way--the fun begin. We know Cal is an elite defensive team. That's what Cuonzo Martin does. We know that Virginia is an elite defensive team. That's what Tony Bennett does. Wednesday will be a battle between two top-10 defenses.
We also know that Virginia is pretty darn efficient offensively. Top 20 in raw efficiency and even higher if you adjust for opponent. And we know that Cal has been miserable offensively. .98 raw points per possession ranks 199th nationally. That's terrible. 135th adjusted for opponent is hardly more encouraging.
But here's what we don't know: what Cal's offense looks like when everyone is healthy. In the last week, as the Bears have started to get healthy, they put up their two best offensive performances of the year, at 1.16 and then 1.25 points per possession, shooting better than 50% on two point shots and on three point shots in both games. There is clearly a ceiling for this offense that has not yet been touched, and that likely will not be touched until everyone is playing at full strength and has had a chance to practice together.
So there's hope. The problem, however, is that you can't make up for eight lost weeks in two. And ready or not, here come the Cavaliers. And the Wildcats. And the Bruins.
We go into Wednesday the victim of early season misfortune. Unsure. As clear underdogs. With so many questions. But we also go in knowing that 27 times we have defended this court. 27 times we have found the answers. And so.
The real season begins.
- Jabari Bird scored a career high 25 points on 16 shots in only 28 minutes, and looks as good as he's ever looked in all facets of the game. Imagine when he's at full strength and actually gets some practices under his belt.
- Ivan Rabb shot 7-10 and notched 18 points to go with 6 boards and 3 blocks. However, he still does not appear to be 100%, lacking aggressiveness, appearing visibly winded, and shaking/holding his left hand several times in the 2nd half. He also fouled out for the second straight game. He's gotten a tough whistle lately, but resisting some of the cheaper, sillier fouls has to be a priority for him.
- The small lineup Cuonzo used to start the 2nd half (Rabb, Jabari, Sam Singer, Grant Mullins, and Charlie Moore) is clearly the Bears' best offensive squad. They scored an insane 14 points on the first 7 possessions of the half. There was space all over to floor to penetrate, work inside out, use skip passes and diagonal passes, and work cutters down the baseline and from the wing. Unfortunately, that same group gave up 10 points on 7 possessions, turning in the worst defensive stretch of the game. Whether coach can find better offensive flow like he found with those guys, while still maintaining high quality defense, is a key to the rest of the season.