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Bears Pull Out a Grinder Over Cougars

Cal 58 - WSU 54, as Jabari Bird Makes History

Jabari Bird Made History on Saturday
Jabari Bird Made History on Saturday
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Jabari Bird entered the afternoon's contest against Washington State at 47th on the all-time Cal scoring list with 997 points, three shy of the magical 1000 mark that would put him within striking distance of past Cal greats Randy Duck (1003), Monty Buckley (1035), Mark McNamara (1041), and Michael Pitts (1044). When he was asked about not reaching the milestone in Thursday's victory over Washington, he said, "I'll just get it next game."

Well.

Cal entered the contest against the Cougars as solid double-digit favorites, with theoretical superiority on both the offensive and defensive ends, and a long track record of not losing to inferior opponents at home. But we all know the cliche: we don't play games in theory, we play them in Haas Pavilion.

Cal held an early 5-0 lead on two Charlie Moore buckets, and then their shooting went home and took a nap. They missed 10 of their next 12 shots, ceded the lead to Washington State, and did very little offensively for the majority of the game to get it back. The Bears trailed by one at halftime, and never held a lead greater than one possession the entire second half.

Meanwhile, Jabari Bird was missing in action. The senior was 0-6 from the field, collected only one board, and was slow rotating the ball in Cal's offense.

Until.

With 1:22 left Josh Hawkinson hit a baseline jumper to cut Cal's lead to one, and as the clock crept below a minute, I was already envisioning what insane Cougar shot was going to go in at the buzzer to beat us, and how long I would need to get over the emotional devastation. Until Ivan Rabb motioned Jabari out of the right corner so he could receive an entry from Grant Mullins. Until Ivan reacted to the quick WSU double by initiating ball reversal up top to Moore. Until Jabari cut baseline and back out to the left wing, lost in the Cougar rotations caused by the double on Rabb. Until Moore did not hesitate after receiving the pass from Ivan out of the double and swung the ball immediately to Jabari. And until Jabari rose up with his picture perfect jumper, released, left his right hand in the air as if waving at history, and watched the ball splash through the net. 1000 points. Cal immortality. A two possession lead for the first time since the early first half.

The final minute was tense--Rabb missed a couple of key free throws and the game was not sealed until Sam Singer slid over to take a charge on a drive by freshman Malachi Flynn, who led Washington State with 20 points. But the biggest shot of the game, and relief for Jabari and for the Cal fans on the edge of their seats for the entire two hours, came in the form of that jumper from the young man who has never quite lived up to his superstar billing, but who has quietly and tirelessly worked hard to become a defender, a leader, an all-time Golden Bear. Final Score: Cal 58 - WSU 54.

We Are Who We Thought We Were

Before the season started, Cal was picked by the media, and most sensible people, to be 4th in the Pac-12, behind clear national powers UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona, but at the head of the tier below. Since then a steady stream of injuries has convoluted Cal's season picture, with Rabb, Bird, Mullins, and Kameron Rooks all missing time in the rotation. There was tremendous uncertainty heading into conference play. Would this Cal squad find their identity and rhythm? Could they hold their own at the top of the chasing pack, and could they compete to get into the upper echelon?

With 1/3 of the conference season behind us, it appears Cal is exactly the team we thought they were. They have played six games, four at home and two on the road. They have played two games against teams from the upper tier of the Pac-12, and four games against teams in the middle or lower tiers. They are 4-2. They are in 4th place in the Pac-12.

In fact, even the Bears' non-conference results look very much like what you would expect from a team with aspirations to be nationally competitive, but that was missing key parts for much of the early season: they lost to the three teams that are able to compete nationally, and beat everyone else.

So now, with 18 games under our belt, and 12 games until the end of the regular season, the story of the season will be told. Is the profile of this team what it has been all year: a borderline top 50 team fighting for the 4th spot in the Pac-12? Or is there something more waiting to blossom? The journey continues in Eugene on Thursday.

Cuonzo Gravity

In the middle of the Washington game on Thursday Nick tweeted:

Cuonzo Martin makes no secret that he builds his teams on defense and toughness. They shut people down. They take out the other team's biggest threat. They rebound. They slow the tempo. They grind.

The Bears managed to play the exact same style of game on Thursday against a team that wanted to fly up and down the court (61 possessions) as they did today against a team that wanted a long, deliberate possession every time down (58 possessions).

This year's incarnation of the Bears is Cuonzo Martin's image taken to grotesque extremes. A top 10 defense, probably the best defense in Cal history, combined with a deliberate, plodding offense that produces mediocre results. The Cal offense is 163rd in the nation in overall efficiency, and 210th in eFG%. They lock people down, but don't score enough to win games comfortably.

They are 304th in tempo.

I re-watch games and chart the Cal offense, and the results are a little mystifying, because the shots we've gotten have actually improved quite a bit over the course of the season. Ivan's reactions to double teams have been much smarter and more decisive. Cal's offense, on paper, is getting better looks than it did two months ago, or at any time last season. But we don't play games on my spreadsheets, we play them with real life shots going in the the bucket.

You saw the games this week, at home, against two opponents we should beat easily. We didn't beat anybody easily. The gravity always brings us back to the grind.

At this point it's fair to ask if this is who we are, and this is what we do. Is there something about the mentality Cuonzo coaches that leads to grinder games? Should he have been slowing down possessions today against Washington State, when the book says if you have superior talent, you want more chances with the ball? When Cuonzo is out on the floor, maniacally directing movement on every possession, is that preventing this team from flowing more freely and getting buckets? Is it tightening them up?

I don't mean to imply answers by asking the questions. I don't know. What I do know is 163rd in offensive efficiency isn't going to take you very far in the postseason, so I hope that's not where we are in two months.

Miscellaneous

  • Cal went to a 2-3 zone for long stretches of the second half, after WSU penetration led to open looks on several possessions. It resulted in multiple shot clock violations, and Coach Martin credited it for contributing to the win.

  • It was Filipino Heritage Day at Haas Pavilion. Filipino Heritage is cool.

  • Dontae Coleman missed the game after a hard fall at the end of the Washington game, but he is expected back next week. Stephen Domingo replaced him in the core 8-man rotation.