Road trip splits in the Pac-12 conference are good. So the old adage goes. And in that sense, after suffering a difficult blowout loss at Oregon on Thursday night, the California Men's Basketball Team was happy to get a victory tonight. Led by Ivan Rabb's 18 points and 8 rebounds, the Bears were never really threatened in this game. After Cal opened up a 6 point lead midway through the first half, the Beavers were never within one possession the rest of the contest. Scoring was evenly balanced, with Charlie Moore (15), Jabari Bird (12), Grant Mullins (12) all contributing double digits. The undermanned Beavers were simply outgunned without their best player, Tres Tinkle, and the Bears took advantage by repeatedly pounding the ball inside to Rabb. Cal earned 24 trips to the free throw line, converting 18. So after a comfortable 69-58 win, the Bears return to Berkeley at 5-3 in conference, a half game behind Utah for the coveted 4th spot in the Pac-12.
It was a thoroughly predictable road trip: unable to handle an Oregon squad playing the best basketball in the conference, but easily breezing through the worst team in the conference in Corvallis. I wrote in this space a week ago that the Bears are who we thought they were: a team that is outside the orbit of the clear top three elite teams in the conference, and that's squarely in the tier below, with a very good chance to finish 4th and earn a bye in Las Vegas. The results of this trip have fit perfectly with that view, and a split ostensibly does nothing to change the season outlook.
The quality of basketball has not been strong for the men in blue and gold. The trademark Cuonzo Martin tough defense has shown kinks in its armor the last several weeks. Yes, the Bears' opponents have made more than their fair share of jumpers recently, and that's inflating opponents' efficiency to an extent, but we're also seeing continued breakdowns in point of attack defense on the perimeter, poor help choices, and slow (really, really slow) big men rotations. The once impenetrable Cal rim protection is rotating more and more slowly as the year goes along. On Thursday the defense was a step slow the whole night, and essentially gave up in the 2nd half. Tonight the Bears had no answer for an injured Drew Eubanks (22 points) in the post, while Stephen Thompson Jr. (19 points) got into the lane whenever he felt like it.
The slippage in defense might be tolerable if the offense was improving, but it's not. Tonight's 1.11 points per possession is fine. 51% on 2p attempts along with 5-15 from deep and those 24 trips to the line is acceptably mediocre. It's pretty much exactly what you'd expect based on what we've seen to date this season. But nothing in the Bears' performance suggests that the offense has or is going to improve. The trajectory remains flat, and as I look for signs it's going to get better I'm coming up empty. The flow is the same, the shots are the same, the makes are the same...and so are the misses. Without good rim finishers, or elite shooters, or more ways to get Ivan Rabb the ball, the offensive talent appears to be what it is--good enough to win close games if the elite defense is running on all cylinders.
The same defense that has underperformed lately.
Momentum Only Lasts As Long As Your Next Game
Trends are one thing, but it's a good thing we don't believe in momentum around here. While the on-court play has been uninspired in recent weeks, we are in the middle of conference play, and it's the wins that matter. Cal is exactly where it needs to be to finish 4th in conference. Upcoming: a three game homestand against Stanford, Utah, and Colorado. The Bears are capable of winning all of those games and they cannot afford to lose any of them. The biggest test, and perhaps the most important home game of the season, comes against Utah in 12 days. The Utes looks like the presumptive favorite to finish ahead of the Bears in the 4th spot. They have been playing terrific basketball. They followed up a narrow 1 point loss to UCLA in Salt Lake with blowout wins on the road up in Washington.
The Bears will have their say at Haas Pavilion. They must take care of business against the Cardinal, then welcome the Utes by playing their best basketball of the season. The keys are easy to identify. Cal has proven it can play good defense. It has to play it each and every time out, and especially in tough conference showdowns.
The time for development is over. The time to play better is now.