There are three Pac-12 teams who might be legitimately elite at the national level by the end of the year, and it is Cal's misfortune to play two of their five games against these teams in the opening week of the conference season. The Bears have not been completely healthy all year, and as they round into their first stretch of games with their stars at 100%, they are still missing a key component of their front line rotation: center Kameron Rooks. There are several ways to look at Arizona's 67-62 victory on Friday night. The first is through the lens of Cal's thin front line.
Two Key Stretches
With 9:46 remaining in the first half, Cal held an 18-6 lead on the strength of their trademark excellent defense. Arizona was 3-18 from the field and had been repeatedly stymied at the rim by Ivan Rabb and Kingsley Okoroh. Then, the Wildcats entered the ball to Dusan Ristic on the left block, he turned into a stationary Okoroh, who stood straight up with his hands up and was inexplicably whistled for his second foul. Okoroh was immediately replaced by Cole Welle, and the next four Arizona possessions went like this:
Lauri Markkanen layup on a drive from the top of the circle, past Rabb, with no help at the rim.
Markkanen pick and roll layup over Welle and one.
Rawle Akins layup on a back cut past a sleeping Charlie Moore, no help at the rim.
Ristic layup on a pick and roll that Ivan belatedly tried to trap, no help at the rim.
In the 2:29 after Kinsgley left the game, a 12 point Cal lead was down to 4.
The good news was the Bears managed to take a 6 point lead into the locker room at halftime and Ivan Rabb only had one foul. That would quickly change. 15 seconds into the 2nd half Ivan was called for cutting across Markkanen in the mid-post to deny an entry. 2 fouls. 90 seconds later, Ivan had Markkanen out of position on the right block, took one dribble into the paint and put up a beautiful lefty layup for the bucket. Markkanen slid over from 3 feet out of position and didn't even try to play defense. Instead he put his hands down below his waist into the "draw a charge" position--a stance that a primary defender should never take, and when he does should indicate immediately to a referee that a flop is about to occur. Not tonight. Flop. Offensive foul. No bucket and Cal's best player with three fouls. He sat for 3:30 of game action and in that time a 4 point Cal lead turned into a 4 point Arizona lead.
Two separate 8 point swings in Arizona's favor, triggered by two fouls to Cal's depleted front line, in a game Arizona would win by 5 points. Get well soon, Kam.
Second Half Defense
Despite Kingsley's first half foul trouble, Cal's defense still put up impressive numbers at the break. Arizona had only scored 26 points, with the Bear defense holding them to 11-26 (42%) on 2p attempts and just .78 points per possession.
They did not maintain that defense in the 2nd half. With Arizona making a concerted effort to drive past the first ball screen, and perimeter defenders (notably Charlie Moore) unable to stop the ball at point of attack, Arizona repeatedly attacked the paint and Cal's foul-plagued front line. Okoroh was noticeably late on several rotations, Rabb was out for long stretches, and every perimeter player struggled to communicate on screens, stop initial penetration, and close off middle. When the Bears switched to a zone to protect Rabb, they got eaten alive by penetration and dump offs, and by Arizona climbing all over their offensive boards. In the 2nd half Arizona shot 15-26 (58%) on 2p attempts, got to the line 13 times (compared to just once in the first half), and put up 1.21 points per possession...a staggering number against a normally elite defense.
All season Cal's perimeter defenders have struggled at point of attack. This weakness has been hidden by the fact they have faced few teams with guards and wings who can either get to the rim or pass to capable bigs at the rim. And by the fact a lot of mistakes by Cal's perimeter players are erased by strong rim protection. Tonight, against a quick, athletic team that can finish, and with both bigs tentative, the defense fell apart. This will have to get cleaned up as we get deeper into the conference season. And get well soon, Kam.
Where will the #Kod5 come from?
Cal's frontcourt of Ivan Rabb, Jabari Bird, and Kingsley Okoroh played well offensively. They shot a combined 15-27 (59%) and got to the line 12 times to put up 14, 18, and 7 points respectively. Ivan also corralled 5 offensive rebounds. Unfortunately, the frontcourt received little help.
The Bears' guard trio of Moore, Sam Singer, and Grant Mullins shot 6-22 (27%) from the field including 2-9 on 3p attempts. Moore turned the ball over 4 times, and repeatedly found himself in the paint without a plan. Backup wings Roger Moute a Bidias and Stephen Domingo were worse: combining to go 0-6 from the field including 0-3 from deep. The poor shooting was particularly disappointing because Arizona's defense repeatedly collapsed inside on Rabb and on dribble penetration, purposely allowing the Bears to have open looks from the perimeter. You may remember that Jordan Mathews shot 6-12 from 3p range in last year's home victory over Arizona. I certainly remembered that tonight.
The 2016-17 version of the Bears is built on the foundation of strong interior defense, and running an offense through Ivan Rabb that will free up shots all over the rest of the floor. With 1/3 of its sturdy frontline out, and with the other two guys in foul trouble, there was no rim protection. There was no margin for error for a perimeter defense that has made all too many errors this season. With the defense floundering, the offense had to knock down open looks, and they failed to do so.
There is enough on this team to beat the middle and bottom of the conference on a night like this. But when the defense collapses and the offense can't get buckets, they are not good enough to beat the teams at the top. We saw that tonight.
On to the next one.
Get well soon, Kam.