clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bears Hold on to Beat Fullerton in OT: Recap

Cal 95 - Cal State Fullerton 89

It’s an adventure, isn’t it? Cal Men’s Basketball 2017-18: you never know what you’re going to get. Since last I wrote a recap after the St. Mary’s game, the Cal roller coaster has taken us way up and way down. First, a shocking, thoroughly demoralizing 27 point loss to Central Arkansas, a game in which the Bears were not competitive, and at one point trailed by 35. Then, in the toughest true road game of the non-conference schedule, a trip to SDSU as 16 point underdogs, the Bears improbably, impossibly, opened with energy and closed with toughness, coming back with the one point upset. You never know what you’re going to get.

Going into today’s contest against the fighting Smiths of Cal State Fullerton, I had zero expectations but I was looking for two very specific things: What level of energy and focus would the Bears bring to start the game? What kind of poise would they show if they faced adversity? Beyond any specific mechanical and schematic issues we’ve seen during the young season, the number one indicator we’ve seen with this young team is that success follows energy and poise. We’ve talked a lot about schemes and statistics in this space over the years, but at its core this season is more simple. These players have to learn how to consistently compete at the college level.

On the basis of those two measures, Cal was successful. They opened with lock down defense and outstanding ball movement on offense -- and yes, a LOT of energy -- to start the game 12-0 in the first five minutes. Then, when the Titans unleashed a barrage of threes to erase the early lead in the 2nd half, they remained calm, stuck with their strengths, and eventually pulled away easily in overtime. It wasn’t always pretty, but it checked both of the key boxes in the early season: energy and poise. It was a W. And most importantly, it showed growth.

Final Score: Cal 95 - Fullerton 89.

First Half

The Bears opened as well they possibly could have, with the now familiar 4-out starting lineup with Marcus Lee in the middle. Two weeks ago it looked like the zone had been abandoned for more reliance on man to man, with occasional, but not frequent, full court pressure as a change of pace. In the SDSU game the 2-3 zone defense had tremendous success, and everything we thought we knew went out the window. The drawing board now said we’re a zone team and not a pressing team. Against Fullerton, another mediocre three point shooting team, Coach Wyking Jones decided to stick with what had worked. Cal came out in the 2-3 zone and only came out of it for a handful of possessions throughout the game.

In the early going, the zone looked as good as it has all season. Fullerton struggled to find passing lanes and shots, turned the ball over in 3 of its first 5 possessions, and the zone seemed like it was going to choke the life out of the Titans. The young Bears were active, with hands all over the passing lanes, and feet moving quickly to shut off driving lanes and recover. It was textbook Syracuse basketball in Berkeley.

Meanwhile, on offense, we are starting to see consistency in what the Bears are trying to do: work inside out from its bigs, or get its guards, especially Darius McNeill and Don Coleman, into pick and roll mismatches that help them create space and opportunities for themselves and others. Again, the Bears came out and executed to perfection: Lee drew attention inside, the spacing was beautiful, opening up a variety of looks for McNeill, who had a hot hand early.

No slow start for the Bears today, and they led by 9 at halftime.

Second Half

But you knew it was coming. In 2017-18 you never know what you’re going to get, but you can probably anticipate that it’s not going to be easy. In the second half it started to fall apart. The Cal offensive spacing broke down and they simply couldn’t get good looks at the basket. Meanwhile, a Fullerton team that started to find their offensive rhythm at the end of the first half did not let up in the second. Cal’s perimeter stopped cutting off penetration and the Titan offense became the drive and kick show. Drives to the basket created multiple easy opportunities for the Titans: either easy shots at the rim, or kick outs for open threes. Fullerton ended up shooting 12-24 from deep and the rest of their shots came at the basket. In a heartbeat, what had been a double digit lead was gone, and Cal trailed by 4

TwistNHook was convinced we were going to lose the game. And maybe three weeks ago we would have. But down the stretch we saw two things that are encouraging signs for the development of this team.

First, the defense didn’t collapse. It tightened up again. So much of what was discouraging at the start of the season was lazy, lethargic defensive fundamentals in both the zone and man, especially when things got tough. Today the opposite happened. The energy and focus picked up in overtime. The whole team communicated, moved, and recovered better. If we’re looking for good signs going forward, that’s what I’d point to. Not that the defensive effort was perfect, because it most certainly wasn’t. But that when push came to shove, and their backs were against the wall, they executed the basic stuff you need to do to win at the college level.

Second, the offense had a plan for what to do. In previous close games, whatever offensive execution we had previously demonstrated fell apart easily in crunch time. It’s hard to quantify poise, but in our early games you could see the panic and confusion on the floor. Today felt different. The stuff we ran down the stretch was pretty simple: a lot of high ball screens for Darius and Don, looking for kick outs or dump offs. But we ran it without hesitation. Fullerton threw some 2-2-1 and then 1-2-1-1 full court pressure at us, and we didn’t panic. We broke it easily. This, too, might not have happened three weeks ago.

Simply put, the Bears did what they needed to do. If one of the tests of growth is learning from your failures, the shortcomings we’d seen in the past were mitigated down the stretch today. That was a game they could have lost. They won.

It would be easy to find negative in giving up a big lead and going to overtime against yet another Big West opponent. There’s been plenty of negative to go around lately. The California Golden Bears men’s basketball team won, and what will hopefully happen is, having experienced this situation, they will be able to draw on it in the future. The journey continues.

Miscellaneous

It’s been hard to write coherently about this team, because patterns have been hard to identify and it really is hard to know what to expect from game to game. But here are a few other things I’ve noticed. They may or may not continue to be true in a week.

  • Darius McNeill can ball. He might very well end up the best player on this team by the end of the year. 30 points on 17 shots, 6 boards, 6 assists, 5 steals, and he’s running a D1 offense in just his 11th college game.
  • For the second game in a row, we did not press. For the second game in a row we spent most of our time on defense in a 2-3 zone. I don’t know if this was due to the matchup, or it’s what our base is going forward. And I’ve stopped trying to predict. Let’s see what happens next week.
  • Don Coleman really wants the ball down the stretch. And he’s got the courage to handle it. We saw that in Viejas Arena last weekend, and we saw it again as he secured the win today. On a tough 5-23 shooting day, he still took the ball down the stretch of regulation and overtime, making the right play more often than not. His four point play with 2:00 left was the Cal offensive highlight of the game, and ended up being a key to sending the game to overtime. There’s value in having a guy who wants the ball in the clutch. Don is that guy on this team right now.
  • The evolution of our lineups continues to be something to watch. Although Wyking started the game with one big, he played Marcus *with* Kingsley for about half the game. That may have just been a matchup choice against an undersized Fullerton team. That may be part of a trend to start playing them together again. There may not be any consistent lineup patterns with this team all year. But let’s keep an eye on it.
  • Speaking of lineups, only 6 players got double digit minutes for the Bears. After the starters + Kingsley, it went all the way down to 5 minutes for Harris-Dyson, 4 for Anticevich, 3 for McCullough, and 2 each for Welle and Winston. For now, the rotation is tight tight tight.
  • Relative to opponent, the 1.16 points per possession Cal put up today was probably the best offensive game of the year. And significantly, the offense did not look abjectly terrible. That may not seem like much, but it’s a ray of hope compared to what we saw early in the season. After we get past the basics of playing hard and focusing, offensive competence is among the next big hurdles. Hopefully today was a sign.