For the second time this year we get to grapple with a difficult duality: Cal played well enough to earn a truly impressive road win. Cal didn't make the plays in the final 2 minutes to actually get that win. You should be very pleased with that first part. I don't blame you for being extremely frustrated with that second part.
Again, Cal fans are left bemoaning a combination of fate and Cal mistakes. The Bears led by 8 when Ty Wallace hit a fast break lay-in with 1:55 left. There would be three meaningful possessions left in the game. Arizona scored 3 points on all of them. Cal didn't score on any of them. 9-0 run, Arizona win.
Perhaps the Bears were a bit unlucky that Gabe York hit three straight 3 pointers in the final 2:40 of the game. Perhaps Cal was unlucky that the refs missed a couple of blatant first half violations that either gave Arizona points or took them away from Cal. But the Bears also have to look at their end-of-game execution that led to two turnovers and another low-percentage look from Ty Wallace, when just one offensive bucket would have iced the win.
I don't want to get too bogged down in the final result. Let's start off with things Cal did very well:
1. Brilliant defense for 38 minutes
Cal held Arizona to just less than a point/possession. It was .88 points/possession before Arizona scored 11 points in their last 4 trips down the court. The latter number would have represented Arizona's lowest offensive output of the season by a wide margin. Instead, Cal has to settle for Arizona's 2nd lowest number on their home court. And a loss, damn it all to hell.
Thanks in part to more discipline and thanks in part to refs who were a little more lenient with defensive contact, Cal kept Arizona in check inside without giving up a parade of free throws, and their defensive rebounding was generally immaculate. Arizona's comeback was mostly Gabe York hitting every single jumper and runner he could find . . . and when that happens, you mostly just have to credit the other dude for hitting shots. Damn it all to hell.
2. Ivan Rabb all over the glass
This game probably represents Ivan's best performance as a Bear. Arizona's defense focused primarily on denying Cal 3 point shot attempts and not giving Ty and Jaylen easy looks on drives. What Arizona did give up was offensive rebound opportunities for Ivan. Still, Ivan had to take full advantage, and damned if he didn't do just that. 15 points, 13 boards (6 on the offensive glass) and even some great positional defensive awareness to force a few turnovers that led to critical fast break opportunities. Against the team that desperately wanted him, Ivan stepped up big time.
He also hit a 3, and when that shot went in I yelped because I was absolutely sure we were going to win if THAT shot was gonna fall. Damn it all to hell.
Now, let's move on to what went wrong:
1. A discussion of Pac-12 refs
First, the simple stuff: the refs missed an obvious Arizona travel that ended up resulting in a converted 3 point play for the Wildcats. They missed an obvious goaltend that took 2 points from Cal's total. Maybe if they get those right, Cal wins. Maybe not. These calls are maddening, but I also kinda expect them to happen. We've seen them happen to road teams ALL SEASON LONG in this conference. Just ask Washington about their trip to Corvallis, or Arizona about their mountain road trip. You get the idea.
There's one other area worth discussing. Cal committed five nearly identical offensive fouls - 3 from Ty and 2 from Jaylen. In each case, they were driving on their defender, with maaaaaybe a half step lead. In each case, they extended their arm out to create seperation. In each case, the Wildcat defender flung himself to the ground. In every case, it was called a push off.
Those plays were all really damaging. They took away five scoring opportunities (so, if you extrapolate, perhaps 2-3 points) away from Cal. They put Arizona into the bonus faster, although Arizona never really took advantage of that. They contributed to foul trouble that caused Jaylen Brown to play just 15 minutes of basketball, which might be more important than any of the above, even if Jaylen had a game to forget.
For my money, the calls ranged from 50/50 calls that went in Arizona's favor to pretty blatant push-offs. If this game were in Berkeley, some of them would have probably been called as blocks. My main frustration? Ty and Jaylen didn't react to how the refs were calling the game. Even after picking up early offensive fouls, they persisted on trying the same trick, and it bit Cal at the end of the game. Damn it all to hell.
2. Ty and Jaylen shut down from the field . . . particularly late in the game
A big part of Cal's offense is successful drives from their dynamic guards. Arizona managed to limit them with strong efforts from their guards and excellent help defense. True, drives from both players created some of Ivan's put-back buckets, but too many drives resulted in bad looks or turnovers.
And when the game was on the line, the first option was Ty or Jaylen trying to beat their mark one-on-one, even though it hadn't been working well for the entire game. Part of me wants to criticize Cuonzo for not going with a different look. Part of me knows that Arizona was shutting down lots of the stuff we usually like to run, and the options were limited. I don't know what the answer is, but there will be concerns for the rest of the season about our end-of-game offense as tense tournament moments draw nearer.
Ty had one of his roughest games as a Bear: 1-10, 5 turnovers to 2 assists, and iffy defense down the stretch (although I'm generally wiling to credit Arizona for that rather than blame Cal/Ty.) Easily the biggest question mark of this team is how to integrate Ty's offensive talents with what Cal wants to run on offense. For everything else that Cuonzo has been able to accomplish this season - developing two freshmen, building a top 10-15 defense, getting Jabari Bird going on offense - he hasn't been able to answer that one question. Maybe it's unanswerable. Either way, time is running out.
Objectively, this game shouldn't hurt Cal too much come tournament time. Maybe it hurts Cal because their road record is still a resume black mark, but losing in Tucson is pretty understandable. If Cal bounces back with a win in Tempe and a solid showing at the tournament, this game doesn't mean a ton.
Really, this game confirms many things we already knew. Cal has a defense that makes them very dangerous. They have enough offensive weapons to stay competitive even when many of those options aren't firing. But this team has just enough weak points that it leaves them vulnerable. It's a good sign that Cal can put themselves in coin flip situations in places like Charlottesville, Eugene, and Tucson. But getting into coin flip situations means that you put yourself at risk when you play other excellent teams - the type of teams that March brings.
This one stings, and it will sting for as long as it takes Cal to grab another win. Let's hope that we don't have to stew for more than 48 hours.