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Cal Basketball: Mid-Conference Evaluation

We’re halfway through the Pac-12 season - how are the men and women’s teams shaping up?

NCAA Basketball: Washington at California Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Cal MBB at the halfway point: Treading water with critical games to come

Nine conference games in, and it’s easy to see where the Bears stand. Cal is 0-3 against Arizona, Oregon and UCLA, losing by an average of 13 points to each. Cal is 6-0 against everybody else, winning 4 of those games by double digits.

Conference play has gone almost exactly to script. The Bears weren’t able to play competitive games in two tough road trips (Oregon, UCLA). They won all of the home games they were supposed to win (plus a roadie over woeful OSU), mostly without drama. That left close-to-toss-up games against Arizona at home and USC on the road . . . and Cal split the difference. Thus, 6-3.

And so we’re in limbo, waiting for critical games to determine success or failure for the season.

The Good

Ivan Rabb - Not surprisingly, Cal’s best player has performed at an all-conference level. Only once has he failed to reach at least 14 points and at least 8 rebounds, all while playing typically excellent defense and mostly better decision making on double teams. He’s put Cal on his back in multiple games, and the biggest highlight of the season so far was his decisive block to seal the critical win over USC.

Rebounding - Cal has been the best rebounding team in the conference by a solid margin. Granted, much of that is due to that one dude we just described above, but Kam Rooks and especially Kingsley Okoroh have more than played their part as well. No other team earns more extra possessions on the boards.

Team defense - Looking solely at conference play, Cal’s defense isn’t quite as efficient as last year. But it’s worth mentioning that this year’s Pac-12 is a very offensively minded collection of teams, highlighted by absurd offenses in Oregon, Arizona and UCLA with some pretty solid mid-tier attacks with ASU and the mountain schools. In any case, Cal is still playing excellent field goal defense, particularly on shots they can consistently contest around the basket.

The Bad

Shooting generally, but especially finishing from anybody other than Ivan (and Don Coleman?!) - The Bears are 10th in the conference in 2 point field goal percentage, and if you’re looking for reasons why Cal’s offense has struggled, that’s probably where you need to start.

Honestly, even Ivan’s finishing isn’t great, but I think you’ll take roughly 50% shooting around the basket from a high volume shooter who attracts a ton of defensive attention. Cal’s problem is that nobody else is adept at finishing in the lane. Grant and Charlie struggle to finish over most Pac-12 rim protectors due to size and athleticism deficits. Kingsley and Kam still have trouble with ball security and speed going back up. Jabari is spending much more time (necessarily, I think) stretching the defense at the 3 point line.

Meanwhile, Don Coleman is shooting 55% on 2 pointers in conference play (in an admittedly small sample) and it’s his aggression and ability to make buckets in traffic that has earned him unexpected playing time.

Turnover deficit - What Cal gains on the boards is cut into by a mostly consistent deficit of 2-3 turnovers/game. That Cal doesn’t force turnovers with their defense is neither a surprise nor a problem, but Cal’s offensive turnover percentage has not meaningfully changed from last year despite adding two players with point guard skills to the rotation in Grant and Charlie. There’s still room for growth from both players (particularly true freshman Charlie) but there’s also a solid chance that we are what we are at this stage of the season.

The future

Hold on to your butts - Cal only played two games that were expected to be close at tip off in the first half of Pac-12 play. In the 2nd half? Kenpom has five games in which the favorite is expected to win 60% of the time or less. If Cal plays to form then you can chalk up a home win against Oregon State a road loss to Arizona, and everything else is expected to be a single digit butt-clencher.

But hey, that’s why we watch, right? We’ve watched these Bears fight through injuries, bad luck, tough opponents at the wrong time . . . but despite it all they are in position to make noise down the stretch. To quote Reef: This is why we do it.

Cal WBB at the halfway point: It’s the defense

I’ve barely written about Cal WBB of late. That’s partly due to important family commitments, but I’d be lying if watching the team struggle so badly hasn’t sapped my enthusiasm.

If there’s one aspect of the women’s team that tends to drive fans bonkers, it’s turnovers on attempted entry passes to Kristine Anigwe. If there’s a 2nd aspect, it tends to be bad shooting, either from 3 or from the free throw line.

But here’s the thing: Cal’s offense could be better, but it’s not nearly the problem that we see on the defensive end.

Cal’s offense is, from a points/possession standpoint, within shouting distance of 2nd place Stanford (nobody is within shouting distance of first place Washington, who are in the process of putting together one of the greatest offensive seasons in conference history). Meanwhile, Cal’s defense is mired in 9th, just as measly .02 points/possession better than last place Washington State.

The defense doesn’t do a ton well. The Bears do have a reasonably good FG% defense, but that mark is buoyed by unsustainably bad shooting on 3 pointers by conference opponents, and given away by Cal’s inability to secure the offensive glass or force turnovers. If Cal were playing above average Pac-12 defense, they would probably be 5-5 or 6-4 in conference right now, with a totally plausible path to the NCAA tournament. Instead, the Bears are 3-7 with zero value wins and a likely WNIT berth in March.

So what exactly is the issue? On paper, Cal should have a pretty good defense. The Bears have size, both inside and at the wing. The Bears have length, the type that should be able to force turnovers and disrupt passing lanes. The Bears have athleticism to spare. What gives?

As with any issue, there are likely multiple explanations. Cal doesn’t appear to have any inherently gifted natural defenders, the types of players with the pure instincts and ball hawk abilities of a Brittany Boyd. I think they’re also hurting themselves, somewhat counter-intuitively, with sheer effort - players often get out of position by chasing after open players outside of their defensive assignment, which can lead to easy baskets and offensive rebounds.

But more generally, the best guess I can offer is that the Bears are playing too many defenses. Cal plays man-to-man defenses. They play 1-3-1 zone. They play a 3-2 zone (and maybe a 2-3 zone). I think they have multiple full court press looks. I’m probably leaving out a look or two (have we played any box and 1 this year?)

While defensive versatility can theoretically be a huge strategic advantage, it only works if your team can execute each defense at a reasonably high level. Based on the evidence of this season, the Bears aren’t executing. It might be time to go back to basics and pick one or two defensive looks to focus on in the hopes that this team can execute them at a high level, either this year or next.