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Cal Falls to UC Riverside in Season Opener: Recap

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It’s Always Darkest Before...?

Don Coleman. Not Scared.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way up front. That was terrible. You’re all thinking it, many of you are saying it, and I think even TwistNHook stopped socializing long enough to realize it at the game last night. That was an awful performance.

The Wyking Jones era opened on November 10, 2017 against a UC Riverside team that finished 8-21 last year and will not be one of the top 250 teams in Division I college basketball this year. It took Cal more than 6 minutes to score their first points of the season. By halftime they were down 19. They shot 31% from the field. Their play on the court was largely incoherent, the crowd was never in it, and as I walked out of Haas Pavilion I overheard multiple conversations about giving up on the season.

Cal lost 74-66 to UC Riverside, a pretty bad basketball team. It was probably as bad a loss as this one, which Nick called the worst loss in decades. Which, if you believe in this sort of analysis, makes us a bad basketball team right now.

And there’s no sugarcoating it. Based on what we saw last night, we probably are.

Now let’s take a step back from the ledge.

The Context

First, let’s take a look at the context of the program in 2017. If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you know we’re rebuilding almost completely from scratch. 8 of the top 9 contributors from the 2016-17 team are no longer here. In their place are 7 freshmen and a senior transfer. Our two most significant returning contributors are a rim protecting, but limited, big and an inefficient volume scorer. On top of that we have a new head coach, revamped staff, and completely different playing style.

Remember your first semester at Cal? It was tough, right? You probably had no idea what you were doing or where you were going. You probably had a lot of self doubt, being in a really big, impersonal pond with all these damn smart people. You probably felt a little lost. You probably wanted to give up a time or two. Well, picture going through all that AND having to play high DI basketball with a bunch of other folks who don’t have much idea what they’re doing either.

This is the situation. It’s not necessarily conducive to producing high level basketball right out of the gate. And it didn’t. Coach Wyking has said repeatedly that this season isn’t necessarily about producing that high level right away. It’s about engaging in a growth process that gets us closer to that by the end of the year. And I submit to you that, despite the abysmal result, we saw signs that this could happen here. Let me make my case.

The Defense: To Press or Not to Press?

Cal played a very successful, conservative defensive style under Cuonzo Martin--forcing few turnovers but locking down the half court with position and rim protection, and becoming one of the best 2pFG% defenses in the nation. We heard a lot in the offseason about how we were going to completely change directions this year, into a tempo-disrupting, turnover-causing havoc machine. A mixture of the Louisville press and the Syracuse zone, both of which are hell to deal with when you’re trying to get into typical college offensive sets. And Cal tried that in the first half, with a mix of mostly press+zone, whenever they could set the D, and a high pressure man whenever they couldn’t.

UC Riverside, an abysmal offensive team with pedestrian guards, completely destroyed that defense. They shot 47% from the field, 40% from deep, got to the line 7 times, and only turned the ball over 6 times. They scored 40 points on 38 possessions. That may not seem like complete destruction, but we’re talking about UC Riverside against a Pac-12 school here.

And then a funny thing happened at halftime. The coaching staff adjusted. They stopped pressing, settled into mostly man...everyone got into their stances and defended...and the Highlanders suddenly had a hard time scoring. In the 2nd half Riverside managed only 33% shooting and scored 34 points on 40 possessions. That’s more like it. This is basically what a Pac-12 team is supposed to do to the UC Riversides of the world, but what we couldn’t do in the first half, we managed to adjust for and do in the 2nd half. Do we care about growth this year? Then, put a check next to the box.

The Offense: Is Don Coleman a problem or a solution?

If you watched that first half of offense, I’m sorry. No points for the first 6:05. 20% shooting. 1-9 from deep. 7 turnovers against 3 assists. And if you actually saw it with your eyes, it felt worse than that. I could go into a little more analysis, but what’s the point? It didn’t look like a DI offense. It didn’t look like an offense that would win a lot of high school games.

But again, something happened at halftime. Cal stopped trying to force feed the post, with two bigs who -- let’s face it -- are not highly skilled offensive post players. Instead, they started moving bigs away from the basket to clear space. They ran more high pick and roll, with multiple options for the guards. And guess what? Scoring happened.

In the 1st half, Don had no place to drive the ball because spacing was non-existent. In the 2nd half, the coaching staff created driving lanes for him, and our solid man defense created more transition opportunities. No, a 40% shooting, 1.07 points per possession 2nd half against Riverside is not exactly offensive nirvana. But it’s closer to real college basketball than we were. It showed both adjustment and resilience. It showed that there’s stuff here we can work with. Growth? Check.

So let’s talk about this Don Coleman thing. 32 points is good. 32 points on 9-28 (2-7 deep) and 12-20 isn’t actually very good at all, however. This has been beaten to death by many folks. But now let’s take a look at the halftime splits. After a horrific 2-11 1st half, Don kept us in it with a respectable 7-17 2nd half. 41% shooting on high volume is not efficient enough. But in this context, maybe it’s what we have to accept. And maybe it’s even what we have to appreciate, given the dearth of other scoring options on this team, for now. Growth? Check.

Don has to get better, and he knows that. The immediately obvious place to look for that is in his 1 assist against 3 turnovers. Some of where growth needs to happen is starting to get other newcomers comfortable with scoring at the D1 level. That means passing the ball in the right spots. I’m a realist. Don Coleman is never going to be a natural passer. His instinct is to attack the hole like his dinner is sitting on the rim. But if he keeps doing this 30 times a game, some gravity is going to start to kick in, and some easy passes are going to become available. If he can find those 3-4 times a game, well, that’s growth.

Optimism?

Am I optimistic? I’m really not sure. There are still too many unknowns and still too little data. But if we’re looking for stuff that’s positive, the cupboard is not completely bare. This coaching staff is smart, and they were not stubborn at halftime. That’s a pretty big deal. We’ve had stubborn guys here before. This coaching staff didn’t stick to their preconceived notions -- they changed based on what would actually work.

We also have to bear in mind that Justice Sueing hadn’t played in two months, and looked like a guy with real Pac-12 talent out there. We still haven’t seen Juhwan Harris Dyson. Jacobi Gordon, Matt Bradley, and Andre Kelly just signed this week. The pressure defense didn’t work very well last night because we don’t have a lot of long, quick, versatile guys out there right now. But we will. That’ll make a difference.

I guess my bottom line right now is: Charlie Moore and Jemarl Baker and Trevin Knell and Kameron Rooks and Cuonzo Martin aren’t here. They’re entitled to make choices that are best for them, but at the end of the day, they didn’t want to be here. The guys that are going to battle for us at Haas all year, and the guys who just signed their NLIs, are guys who want to be California Golden Bears. We’ve got one of my all-time favorite Golden Bears coaching on the bench. These guys deserve our patience. They deserve time to grow into a new environment, a new level of play, a new system. They’re fighting out there. You can see it. We should honor their commitment by recognizing that getting good at this game is hard, getting good as a team is hard. Let’s watch and see what happens. Together.