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Cal Basketball Monday Thoughts: Bears hit the home stretch

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Random thoughts as one of the tightest Pac-12 races in memory inches closer to its conclusion

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Here's a collection of random observations, connected with some kind of (hopefully) interesting stat

Home/Road splits

The Bears have lost five conference games. Not coincidentally, those five games have been Cal's only five conference road games.

But after another home sweep, we can observe an interesting and perhaps enlightening schedule quirk: The five teams Cal has lost to on the road? The Bears have now beaten each team at home as well. What can we learn? Well, not to sound like a broken record, but here's a reminder that Cal has been moderately unlucky:

  • Cal's combined margin of victory in their five home wins over Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Utah, and Colorado: 74
  • Cal's combined margin of defeat in their five road losses to Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Utah, and Colorado: 32

Those numbers favor Cal in the aggregate, but also at the individual level, with the Bears winning at home by more than they lost on the road. I would say Cal's win over Utah was roughly as dominating as their defeat in SLC was, but otherwise Cal played every other team tougher on the road than they played the Bears at Haas.

Again, this is one of those 'good news, bad news' things. On the bright side, Cal can claim to be better than their record suggests. On the downside, we're going to spend quite some time cursing how close we came to stealing a few road wins.

Looking for a magic bullet to explain Cal's home/road dichotomy? Tough to say, because Cal has generally just been better in all facets at home. It's certainly true that a team that fouls a bit too much benefits from home court whistles perhaps more than other teams. Otherwise, the closest thing is offensive turnovers. Cal's turnover% in road losses hovers around ~22%, vs. ~18% at home (games vs. Arizona and ASU removed to eliminate opponent variables). That's roughly an extra three possessions coughed up, and three possessions could have made a massive difference in Eugene, Corvallis, and Taco Bell.

The joy of long defensive possessions

Cal is currently 307th in the country in average length of defensive possessions, which is a complicated way of saying that Cal's opponents tend to take a long time to get a shot off. Now, don't confuse this with excellent defense - The Citadel and West Virginia are currently 1-2 in fastest possessions allowed while sitting on opposite ends of the defensive efficiency scale. There are teams that force slower possessions who have defenses significantly weaker than Cal's defense.

But at a very general level, you can see the value in forcing long possessions. It means that the Bears are very rarely giving up easy looks that don't require effort on the part of the offense. When Cal's defense is at its best, opponents can't get shots off even when they have every incentive to move quickly.

We saw that on Saturday, when Oregon State needed to move quickly to try to erase a 7 point Cal lead. The Beavers had a series of possessions inside the final four minutes that took in excess of 20 seconds without producing a decent look, then had a few possessions inside the final 90 seconds that took about half of the shot clock. The Bears may not always put teams away at the line, but they can be tough to reel in late because it's difficult to run a hurry-up offense against them.

Conference team stat check in

Team ↓ OE ↓ eFG% ↓ TO% ↓ OR% ↓ FTR ↑ 2P% ↓ 3P% ↓ FT% ↓ Tempo ↓



















California 107.3 5 53.3 3 19.2 10 30.6 7 44.0 2 50.8 4 38.9 2 65.5 11 68.1 9
Team ↓ DE ↓ eFG% ↑ TO% ↓ OR% ↓ FTR ↓ 2P% ↓ 3P% ↓ Blk% ↓ Stl% ↓
California 101.2 3 45.2 1 14.1 11 27.6 4 44.3 9 44.4 1 31.9 2 10.5 6 6.2 10

Sorry, the formatting is probably weird, but you get the idea. The top chart is Cal's offense for the most important tempo-free stats for just Pac-12 play. The bottom is the same thing, but for defense.

Offensively, I can't help but think that the Bears are doing pretty well considering that Cuonzo frequently prioritizes defense over offense in terms of personnel. The Bears are shooting a high number of three pointers at a very high percentage, and it's working because for the most part they are only being taken by Jordan (35-72) and Jabari (22-58). Meanwhile, everybody else has been hitting their 2 pointers and getting to the line. Insert repetitive point about offensive turnover percentage defining the ceiling of this team offensively.

On the defensive side of the ball, you see those beautiful green colors under '2P%' and '3P%.' For anybody complaining about Cal's 3 point defense prior to conference play, please take a note of the rather sudden regression to the mean that has taken place since the end of 2015.

Here's a question for you to ponder. Cal's defensive weakness is fouling too much. Cal's defensive strength is 2 point defense. The players perhaps most responsible for Cal's 2 point% defense also happen to be the players that tend to foul too much (namely, King, Kam, and to a lesser extent, Ivan). If the Bears stopped fouling, would their necessarily be a correspondent decline in the quality of Cal's 2 point defense?

Conference individual Stat check in

Jaylen Brown: Usage rate: 32% (1st in the conference), fouls drawn/40 minutes: 7.7 (2nd)

The stats confirm what the eye test has been telling you: Jaylen Brown is getting better. The things he did during the non-conference (use a ton of possessions, draw a ton of fouls) hasn't changed in Pac-12 play. But his offensive rating, assist rate, and shooting percentages have all gone up compared to non-con play. That's impressive considering how difficult conference play is this season, and a positive sign for Cal's chances the rest of the way.

Jordan Mathews: 48.6 3 point % (3rd)

JMat is 3rd in the conference in three point shooting both for the season, and in conference play only. In conference play, he narrowly trails two players who take less than half as many attempts. For his combination of volume and accuracy, Jordan Mathews is the single best 3 point shooter in the Pac-12.

Ivan Rabb: 12th in the conference in offensive efficiency, 39th in usage rate

Nearly every game I've attended at Haas, I've heard somebody in the stands yell angrily towards the court, demanding that the Bears give the ball to Ivan, and that Ivan attack with the ball when he gets it. It's an instinct that I understand. Short of a JMat 3, Ivan generally is our best offensive option, in theory.

The reality is that Ivan as an offensive player taking on a defender one on one is very different from the Ivan who scores many of his points on put backs and lobs. Most teams either have an interior defender who can at least match Ivan for size and strength, or they send tough double teams, or both.

Earlier in the year, my hope was that Cal would find a way to get more opportunities for their best offensive player. At this point, I'm not sure I see the value in forcing more possessions for Ivan, but I'm reasonably pleased with what the offense can do without forcing the issue.

Quickie weekend preview

Perhaps it's my own personal obsession with Lorenzo Romar and the Washington Huskies, but I can't help but place an outsized level of import to Thursday's game. If Cal can win in Seattle then they break their road streak, and set themselves up for a sweep against woeful Washington State on Sunday before returning to the Haas of Pain. Doesn't this feel like the biggest swing game of the season?

But the Huskies are on Team Chaos - 9 of their 13 Pac-12 games have been decided by 5 points or fewer, or went to overtime, or both. It's tough to predict how teams will react to their extreme style of play until you see it happen on the court. I'm nervous already. Plenty more thoughts later this week.