Hey guys, remember when the Bears were 14-8 and everybody was miserable and plenty of people were suggesting that Cuonzo Martin wasn't the right guy for Cal? Man, does that feel like a long, long time ago.
A look at what Cal can be when every threat is hitting at once
As LeonPowe has often pointed out, Cal is a dangerous team because they have five players that can carry the offense in any given game. Jabari Bird, Jaylen Brown, Jordan Mathews, Ivan Rabb, and Tyrone Wallace have all scored at least 20 points in a game at least once, and all of them have earned a Kenpom game MVP in conference play.
We all know that counting stats are bad, mmmkay, but it's still fun to note that all five of Cal's primary scorers are averaging 10+ points in conference games only, as well as for the season. We needed JMat to go nuts to beat Arizona just like we needed Jaylen to blow away Washington. Jabari was the driving force in our sweep over the Oregon schools, but Ivan was the guy who wasn't going to let us lose to Arizona State. Ty, meanwhile, hasn't finished below double figures in a single conference game that he has played in.
Rarely have all five players been firing on all cylinders at once, in part because there are only so many shots to go around, and any individual team is going to successfully take something away. But against USC, we saw the Bears get as close as we've seen to their offensive pinnacle. Sure, the Bears have had more efficient offensive games - say, against Oregon when they couldn't miss from 3, or against Washington State because it was against Washington State. But in terms of getting everybody going and finding a high value look on nearly every trip down the court, this was Cal at close to their best offensively.
USC is in the process of collapsing, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, so it's dangerous to assume too much. March will be tougher. But it seems clear that Cal has established a very high floor of minimum offensive production. Sure, maybe one of Jabari or Jordan will be cold. Maybe you have an interior defender who can limit opportunities for Ivan. Maybe you actually have two dudes who can stay in front of Jaylen and Ty (but I doubt it). Nobody has all of those things, and very few teams have a defense that can consistently account for all of those threats possession by possession. Short of an extreme turnover forcing defense (please keep West Virginia, Wichita State, and Texas A&M away from us, please) Cal should be able to get their looks on just about anybody.
Cal may continue to turn the ball over too much to become the elite offense that we all dreamed and speculated about. But they are doing too many other things right to be anything less than a very healthy compliment to an increasingly elite defense. It's a combination that will continue to receive dark horse March buzz.
In continued appreciation of a truly absurd statistical combination
We've talked about it all year long, but it's worth further admiration. Just look at these two stats, side by side:
1. Cal's 2 point field goal defense: 40.6, 3rd in the nation
2. Cal's thee point attempts allowed/field goal attempts allowed: 26.0, 5th in the nation
Teams long ago figured out that Kameron Rooks, Kingsley Okoroh, and Ivan Rabb are 21 feet of intimidating interior defender. Opponents have been given every single incentive to attempt as many 3 point attempts as they can reasonably try. And yet, Cal is the 5th best in the entire damned country at preventing teams from attempting shots from behind the arc.
That is how Cal has a top 15 defense despite never forcing turnovers and fouling too often - the Bears are perhaps the best in the nation at forcing teams to attempt the shots that the Bears want them to take.
It's worth noting that the Pac-12 is not a 3 point happy league, and the relative paucity of 3 point bombers in the Conference of Champions probably has something to do with Cal's elite numbers. Still, you don't rise into the top 10 in both of the categories above by accident.
Cal has been winning the shot selection battle since some time shortly after the Las Vegas debacle, an apparently watershed moment in the season that served as a wake up call rather than the canary in the coal mine. It's worth noting that Cal has also improved their defensive rebounding numbers and foul rate during their current win streak. That improvement is perhaps a function of an easier schedule, but if the improvements are real/permanent and the Bears have figured out how to play the same level of defense while reducing their fouls . . .
Mandatory March Update
Cal is virtually locked into a top 4 seed and first round bye in Las Vegas. Only an upset Colorado win over Utah and an 0-2 desert road trip would set up a tie for 4th, which Colorado would win by virtue of their 1-0 record over Arizona (vs. 1-1 for Cal in this hypothetical scenario).
If I'm doing my tie-breaker math correctly, here's what's most likely:
Cal sweeps in the desert: 2 seed behind Oregon, who wins the tie-break even if they drop a game in L.A.
Cal splits: 3 seed behind Oregon and Utah
Cal gets swept: 4 seed if Utah beats Colorado, 5 seed if Colorado beats Utah.
Well, that's not remotely clear. That means Cal could play damn near every team in the conference in their first game, from likely 5 seed Colorado all the way down to 12 seed Washington State in the opening round. I just typed 150 words that can be summed up as "ask again later."
Right now, Cal is a consensus 6 seed in the Bracket Matrix, with the following breakdown:
4 seed: 13 ballots
5 seed: 30 ballots
6 seed: 48 ballots
7 seed: 4 ballots
9 seed: 3 ballots
If the wisdom of crowds is to be believed, Cal is much closer to a 5 seed than a 7, although it's worth noting that there is a logjam of teams in the 5-6 range that the crowd cannot form a consensus upon.
Also, the three ballots that list Cal as a 9 seed need to be thrown out for basic incompetence.
I'm going to continue to act under the assumption that Cal will earn a first round Pac-12 tournament bye, and thus has between 3 and 5 games left to play before the NCAA tournament. What's our worst case scenario, minimum needed to maintain our current projected seed (6) and what's our best case scenario?
Our worst case scenario is 0-3, with losses to Arizona, ASU, and likely a team like Colorado in our first game in Vegas. None of those losses are crippling by themselves, but losing two more road games and another neutral court game would leave Cal with a 21-11 record, and a rather ghastly 3-11 record in road/neutral venues. Going 0-3 would possibly plunge Cal back into the dreaded 8/9 range.
I think all Cal needs to do to maintain their current tournament projection is to beat ASU and win their first round conference tournament game. That would mean adding another top 100 road win and a likely top 50 neutral win, to go along with two forgivable losses against Arizona and a team like Utah or Oregon.
If we imagine a dream scenario where Cal goes thermonuclear and wins five in a row (to finish the season on a 12 game win streak!) I still think that Cal would get a 3 seed. Consider what Cal's resume would look like:
- 26-8 record
- 18 wins over RPI top 100 teams
- 11 wins over RPI top 50 teams
- Respectable 8-11 in road/neutral venues
- 12 game winning streak that includes 11(!) wins over RPI top 100 teams and ~6 wins over eventual tournament teams
That's a 3 seed resume, easily. Trust me, I looked up 3 seed resumes from previous years, because I get obsessive in March. Of course, it also requires Cal to win 5 games that includes only one game in which Cal would be favored to win even 2/3rds of the time.
Teams in Cal's current seed range (4-7) to root against over the next two weeks
Iowa, Iowa St., Purdue, Texas, Indiana, Texas A&M, Arizona, Baylor, Notre Dame, Dayton, Wisconsin, Texas Tech
Yes, you will be required to root against both Sean AND Archie Miller. I suspect you are up to the challenge.
A reflection on protecting our Haas, and a hope for the future
Sunday night's game against USC was a spectacular performance by not just the Cal basketball team. We also saw an engaged, energized fan base bring an A+ performance. Cal fans arrived in numbers, early, to acknowledge Cal's seniors and to sing the Alma Mater. They stayed late, to soak in the atmosphere and grab high fives as the entire roster and coaching staff traversed the arena to express their appreciation. And in between fans brought 40 minutes of noise that included warning yells to ball-handlers in danger and targeted heckling that seemed to impact the game.
By Pac-12 standards, I think Cal has a pretty solid fan base in terms of numbers and loyalty. But we also know that it takes some time and some results to get warmed up, and that a raucous crowd is not a default setting.
So this is a note of appreciation to the students, many of whom discovered the joy of college basketball for the first time this year, and didn't let inexperience prevent them from bringing great energy this season. And this is a challenge to students and alums alike to build on this season. It's entirely possible that the Bears won't be quite as good next year. It's more likely than not that Jaylen and Ivan will both be leaving alongside Ty. But what we've seen this year is that Cal has a coaching staff that a) can win critical recruiting battles, and b) knows how to build an elite defense and a solid offense out of a collection of player skill sets that don't naturally mesh.
So have some faith, and if you have the extra cash, renew those season tickets everybody. I fully expect the coaching staff and players to continue to hold up their end of the bargain, so let's do our part. There's no reason why Haas can't be this intimidating every year.