Stanfurd's men will soon be routed
By our dazzling "C"
And when we serpentine
Their red will turn to green
In our hour of victory!
Entering the second half of conference play on Saturday, the Golden Bears were a mediocre Pac-12 team. In the Pac-12, they were 6th in overall defense, 8th in overall offense. If you're particularly unlucky, that might get you 2-3 wins. If you're having what Lorenzo Romar's been drinking, that might get you 7 wins. If you're in Tennessee, that might get you a petition for your ouster. In the real world, that gets you a 4-5 record, sitting in the middle of the toughest Pac-12 ever.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the Bears walked into the Saturday matchup with their archrivals with a dismal recent past against Johnny Dawkins, himself no stranger to mediocrity. California had won just once against the Cardinal since 2012 -- the latest ignominy was a 77-71 loss on the farm on January 14, in a contest that provided 38 Stanford trips to the line against only 17 for the Golden Bears.
When I woke up on Saturday morning I felt like the season was on the line. A loss at home to one of the conference's weaker teams would make it impossible to make a stretch run at the conference leaders, and would be a dispiriting triumph of evil over the forces of good and light.
Fortunately, the forces of evil don't get to win at Haas Pavilion this year.
After a tight first 8 minutes, the Bears pulled away on the strength of refreshingly strong wing and post play, clear-sighted officiating, and the courage that comes with holding the moral high ground. A 16-point halftime lead meant Bill Walton and Roxie Bernstein could practice growling on-air in the second half, because the game was never in doubt. The end result for a national TV audience was an easy, relaxed 76-61 victory that Cal fans were able to savor for an entire hour before the final whistle blew.
The Bears at the Midway Point of the Season
We know what the Bears are by now. A solid--but somewhat mismatched--group of players who foul too much and turn the ball over too frequently. The fouls undermine what would otherwise be an elite defense. The turnovers take too many opportunities away from an offense that isn't nearly efficient enough to give the ball away one out of every five trips down the floor. And thus, in a conference full of sturdy basketball teams, the Bears have too often been their own worst enemy.
The hope, as we head into the home stretch of conference play, is that if we can get just a little better on either or both of those fronts, we will win a lot of games. And so, I submit to you our stat of the game: 21 to 6.
In the first half on Saturday the Golden Bears shot 21 free throws against 6 for the Cardinal. The 21 free throw disparity at Maples was far too much for the Bears to overcome, so naturally a 15 free throw difference in one half meant Stanford simply had no chance in the rematch.
To be sure, Cal created much of this disparity with strong play. In the absence of Tyrone Wallace, wings Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews MUST provide strong play on both ends, something they have not been able to produce consistently all year. On Saturday both players played well on both ends. Bird was 5-8 floor including 3-5 3p. His back to back threes with 11:00 minutes left in the 1st half were the haymakers Stanford never did recover from. Jabari scored 13 points, a total he has matched only three times this season. (I know that stat is true, and I'm still not sure I believe it.)
Mathews joined him with an 18 point effort on 5-9 shooting (4-6 3p). When he AND Jabari are playing well, all of a sudden the Bears are hard to guard. Jaylen Brown doesn't have to have the ball in his hands every play. Ivan Rabb has options out of the double team. Sam Singer can stand back and drop dimes.
And let's add one more element to the mix. Kameron Rooks had a double double in 24 minutes. Yeah, I don't believe that one either. 4-5 shooting, 3-5 line, 12 boards, and outstanding help defense all night long. His hands were surprisingly firm; his moves and passes, decisive.
The result on Saturday was a true team effort*, one that will need to be replicated on a consistent basis for the rest of the season. With eight games remaining, we could finish anywhere from 1st to 8th. The first place Oregon Ducks, a team that we could and perhaps should have beaten on the road, come to Haas on Thursday for yet another critical conference contest. I have no idea what's going to happen, but I do know that I'm very near the point where I stop worrying about process. When I start worrying about one really simple stat: did we win?
Today we won. On Thursday we have to win again.
Do you hear that? It's the sound of March rumbling on the horizon. Time to finish strong. Everybody has to step up. All year I've heard that we will attack together. Okay. Eight games left. Show me. Go Bears.
*Also, honorable mention to Roger Moute a Bidias. He simply plays good basketball.