It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Cal flew out to the Maui Invitational and faced its first strong opponent of the year on Monday. And what an opponent it was: #6 ranked legit Final Four contender Wichita State, a team that returned all its major contributors from a 31-5 squad.
For 24 minutes of the game, our baby California Golden Bears, the team that returned 1 of its top 9 contributors from a 21-13 NIT season, thoroughly dominated the action.
Coach Wyking Jones wants to play an aggressive, pressing, trapping style in order to get things sped up. Cal’s defense is designed to not only create turnovers, but to get opponents out of their comfort zone. The idea is that if you make the other team uncomfortable, get them out of their rhythm, push them into spots that are unfamiliar, and don’t let them run their offense, you disrupt all of their flow. You will also turn them over, creating easier opportunities for you own offense.
The thing is, big, bad Wichita State wanted to do the exact same thing. And they wanted to do it with better, stronger, more experienced athletes. Should be no contest, right? Well it was. In favor of Cal.
For the first 24 minutes of game action, the young Golden Bears dominated the tempo, the execution, the shooting, the turnovers. At the 16:00 mark of the 2nd half Cal was shooting 51.4% to the Shockers’ 35.1%, including 8-11 from deep compared to Wichita’s 5-17. They had turned the ball over 8 times while forcing 11 Shocker turnovers. Don Coleman was having the game of his life, scoring 28 points on 10-17 shooting and getting to the hole at will. Justice Sueing had 14 points on perfect 4-4 3p shooting, and the Bears were holding their own on the glass, 24-24, despite some early foul trouble for Marcus Lee and Kingsley Okoroh.
With 15:30 left in the game, Cal held a 58-40 lead. The team that just 10 days prior had gotten dismantled by mediocre Big West opponent UC Riverside was dominating one of the best teams in the nation.
The rest of the game we put our heads in a guillotine for Wichita’s Reign of Terror.
The Shockers, who to that point were using some token 2-2-1 full court pressure, started to turn up their press with an aggressive, trapping 1-2-1-1. They left passes to the corner open and then aggressively trapped in those corners. Cal, for their part, kept throwing the ball into the corner. On the next 30 possessions, Cal turned the ball over 11 times. I counted exactly two times during those 30 possessions when they tried to use the middle of the floor to advance the ball. One time it was successful. The other time the ball was thrown away from our cutter and straight to Wichita State. Mostly the Bears kept trying to either step through the trappers or dribble up the sideline. It didn’t go well.
Meanwhile, offensively, Wichita State discovered weakness in the middle of the Cal zone and began to ruthlessly exploit it. Time and again -- entry to the high post or drive and dish to a big. And whenever they missed they pounded relentlessly on the offensive boards. Slowly the rebounds and buckets piled up for the Shockers, while the fouls piled up on Cal’s bigs. Lee fouled out. Then Okoroh fouled out. And in the final stretch of a battle with an elite team, Grant Anticevich was left to protect the rim and the boards for the Golden Bears. It did not go well. Shaq Morris finished with 28 points on 10-14 2p shooting. Rashard Kelly came up with 7 offensive boards in only 19 minutes. Rauno Nurger added 5 offensive boards in 20 minutes. Wichita State started getting good looks and buckets every time down.
When Cal did manage to cross half court, their shots became rushed and low percentage. Don Coleman walks a very fine line. When he is in rhythm and in the flow he is unstoppable. But when he rushes and forces, the offense struggles. Finding the right balance for Don’s scoring talent is going to be a key for the rest of the season.
In the end, the guillotine won. Wichita outscored Cal 52-24 in the final 16 minutes. They were the veteran team and they played like it. Final score: Wichita State 92 - Cal 82.
- That’s the way uptempo basketball is supposed to work. Cal brought a ton of energy to open the game, and owned the pace and style for 24 minutes. They dictated the way the game should go, and they got Wichita to take a lot of bad, rushed shots. A key lesson of the Wyking Jones style of play is that your energy dictates the tone of the game. They learned that tonight, and they learned that this can affect the best of teams.
- The Don Coleman of the first 24 minutes was a beast. Probing, attacking, fearless in transition, finishing, drawing contact. Understanding where the holes are in the defense and making them pay. Wichita State is an elite, veteran defensive club and he shredded them.
- Grant Anticevich can play, and my bad for doubting that through much of the off-season. He’s poised, savvy, and continually makes the right play. He’s composed out there and he knows what to do. There is not nearly as big a drop off when our starting bigs go to the bench as we might have anticipated.
- Justice Sueing continues to grow as a composed, college-ready talent on both ends of the floor. Is he a plus shooter? It looks like he might be.
- Juhwan Harris-Dyson showed some nice rebounding out of his area. His long arms get to a lot of stuff.
- Darius McNeill never seems flustered. He makes mistakes, yes. He’s a freshman. But he maintains his composure and that’s gonna be huge in the long run. And we saw him attack the basket harder than he has all year. I hope this continues.
- The whole squad did not back down. They played hard the whole game. They played like they belonged. Yes, their execution unraveled, and it got ugly out there, but never once did they look even a little bit intimidated.
Room for More Growth
- Our bigs need to hold up better against high end competition. What was disappointing was not so much the number of fouls, but the number of times they got out of position, lunged at shooters, and didn’t stay vertical. I’m not sure how much mileage we’re going to get out of them offensively, but I know we can get more out of them defensively and on the boards. They have to be our rock in games like this.
- You cannot break a press by getting trapped in the corner and you can’t let the other team continually use the sideline as an additional defender as you dribble up the floor. In the heat of the moment, those mistakes were repeated over and over. I trust this will be corrected.
- Don is continuing to learn the balance between aggressiveness and forcing his shot. When they start sending multiple guys at you 20 feet away from the basket, other stuff is opening up for other guys. They’re going to have to figure that out together as a squad.
- If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. Did I just use a second old British author in this recap? Yes, yes I did. But it captures perfectly the lesson the Bears need to take from this. When the game speeds up, your thought process has to calm down. You can’t learn how to do that until...well...you experience it. Wichita has been there. Our guys will be there more. Today was a start.
Heading into Round 2
Cal plays VCU on Tuesday, in a game that just got way more interesting. First of all, VCU is the equivalent of a middle of the road Pac-12 team. There may be reason to think, after today’s performance, that the Bears may not be the Pac-12 bottom dwellers the media has predicted. Their performance tomorrow will tell us a lot about the outlook for the season. Second, VCU can also play a 94 foot press, and likely will show us that look—given the final stretch of tonight’s game. Our theme of the season continues to be growth. What will the Bears learn with one night of preparation?
But let’s take a step back and put this in perspective. The week after struggling against mediocre Big West and Southern Conference competition, these young, untested Golden Bears stood toe to toe with one of the best teams in the country. This was not just a top 20 level club, this was more like a top 5 level club. The fact they were capable of hanging matters. And the experience they got from being in that moment matters. The better team executed. The better team imposed their will. And in the end the better team won. But experiencing a game like this and figuring out how to get better is how you become a squad that can compete at a high level. Today was a big, big step. Trust the process. Embrace the growth.
Tuesday’s game tips at 1pm PT on ESPN2. Tune in. This team is going to be fun.