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Conference play beckons: Where do WBB and MBB stand before Pac-12 play?

Both teams face very different questions as the calendar flips from 2017 to 2018

NCAA Basketball: California at San Diego State
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Technically, this post is jumping the gun by a week. The Cal women will play a tough road game against Kentucky on Thursday, and the Cal men play at Seattle and vs. Portland State. But not long after the 18 game conference journey begins against in-state rivals for both teams. And since I damn well won’t be writing a post on Christmas Eve just so nobody can read it on Christmas morning next Monday, let’s talk about it now.

Let’s begin with the women, because, if things break right they can credibly challenge for the regular season title.

Cal women’s basketball

What have we learned so far?

This year’s Bears are deeper and more versatile. That should hardly be a surprise - Cal’s sophomores are no longer freshmen, and Cal’s freshmen are actually on the roster. Still, Cal has seen a slight downtick in the volume of Kristine Anigwe’s production in favor of a bit more depth and versatility. As a consequence, Cal has been generally better at managing situations when Kristine is either limited (due to constant double teams) or absent. And Cal has, with two notable exceptions, blitzed every defense they’ve encountered.

Kianna Smith came ready to play. Cal’s freshman point guard has integrated herself into the lineup with remarkable speed. Other than an understandably rough game at UConn (welcome to DI hoops!), Kianna has had more assists than turnovers in every game of the season, with an assist to turnover ratio better than 2:1. Just running the offense efficiently would’ve been enough, but she’s also been a consistent, efficient scorer and much needed 2nd shooter to compliment Asha Thomas. Based on early returns she might be Cal’s best recruit since they signed Kristine.

What don’t we know?

Can Cal score efficiently against high end defenses? OK, let’s just throw out the game against UConn because they’re on a different level. Cal’s 2nd most challenging game was a narrow home loss to Missouri in which Cal struggled for much of the 1st half to create good looks on offense, against a team that controlled tempo and forced Cal to play in the half court. Cal did eventually get it going in the 2nd half, and we’re talking about a sample size of one game, but it’s still an open question now that the schedule is set to get much stiffer.

Will Cal have the defense to match their offense? Despite the above, I’m pretty confident that Cal will be able to score. But the arc of the season may well be defined by how well the Bears can stop their opponents. Cal has never had a truly shut down defense under Coach G, but they’ve put a couple of dominating performances together early in the year, holding Santa Clara and BYU to fewer than 50 points in medium tempo games. Those performances suggest that Cal might be capable of high end D, but they’ve also had weaker performances, allowing Brown and UOP to both surpass 1 point/possession efficiency. If Cal puts in performances more like the former and less like the latter they can make some serious noise.

What should we expect in conference play?

The Pac-12 this year will be one of the best conferences in the country, which is a small but real step down from being hands down the best conference in the country. Still, the league is not lacking in either depth, with eight teams in the Sagarin rating top 50 and five teams ranked with another two receiving votes.

For the purposes of making a run at regular season title, Cal has the fortune of seeing Oregon and Oregon State only once (though on the road) and avoiding the often tough trip to altitude in Colorado and Utah. And if the Bears can defend their home court then they can get off to a fast start, with only one tough road game (at ASU) in their first six conference games.

Still, it feels silly to look past the first weekend, when a rejuvenated USC and #11 UCLA come to Berkeley. Basically every weekend of the season will feature at least one team fully capable of beating the Bears at home or on the road - but that’s why the race for the Pac-12 title is perhaps the most compelling in the country this year.

Cal men’s basketball

What have we learned so far?

That Cal’s performances can vary wildly from game to game, or even in the middle of the same game. That this is the case isn’t particularly surprising, considering Cal’s inexperience at both head coach and on the roster, but it is noteworthy largely because this team has hit higher highs and lower lows that just about anybody might have predicted.

Cal has at least five players who look like legit Pac-12 level contributors. That’s a positive development, since you could only say that about Marcus, Kingsley, and perhaps Don depending on how you felt about his limited, inconsistent minutes in conference play last year. Darius McNeill and Justice Sueing will have their ups and downs, but we’ve seen enough to know that they will play valuable roles as long as they spend in Berkeley.

Cal probably can’t run their offense through their centers. While Marcus Lee and Kingsley Okoroh bring a variety of valuable skills to the table, their post-up offenses simply aren’t efficient enough to be the focal point of a Pac-12 offense, where they will face taller, more athletic, more disciplined interior defenders than they generally saw in the non-conference schedule.

What don’t we know?

Does this team have the depth for the conference grind? Cal is 312th in the nation in bench minutes, and Cal’s coaching staff have leaned heavily in particular on Don Coleman, Darius McNeill, Justice Sueing, Marcus Lee, and Kingsley Okoroh. If the coaching staff was hesitant to give major minutes to bench players against the CSU Fullertons of the world, it seems unlikely that they would do so against Arizona or Arizona State.

What is the best base defense for this team/what base defense will the coaching staff go with? Hopefully those two questions have the same answer. Either way, if this team is going to be competitive in Pac-12 play, the most likely path would be through solid team defense that can keep a limited offense in games. Maybe the choice will be match-up dependent, but if I had to guess I’d say that this coaching staff seems pretty wedded to zone defense as the way forward.

Can Cal’s offense find good shots without turning the ball over? Cal’s lack of point guards both in terms of experience and pure numbers, and lack of multiple options on offense, has led to the twin problem of low shooting percentages and high turnover percentages. The best chance to shift these numbers would likely be the growth of Darius McNeill, both as a decision maker at point guard within the offense and as an option to shoot himself.

What should we expect in conference play?

Obviously, the goal here is to play competitively, get better, and hopefully grab a handful of wins along the way. Towards that end, the Pac-12 should present opportunities for wins, even for a team like Cal.

Quite simply, the Pac-12 is down this year - down enough that they are roughly equal to the AAC rather than the Big East or the ACC. Five conference teams other than Cal are outside of the Kenpom top 100. If the Bears keep getting better, they will grab more than a handful of Ws.

Whether the schedule is cruel or kind depends on your point of view. The Bears avoid hosting Colorado and Utah and the Oregon road trip. Not having the Mountain schools in Berkeley is unfortunate, as they typically struggle more on the road than other schools, but it’s mostly unfortunate that Cal can’t skip either the Arizona or Los Angeles schools.

Mostly, Cal has a really tough start to the conference schedule. Cal’s first five Pac-12 home games (vs. UCLA, USC, Arizona, ASU, & Oregon) all come against teams that are going to be competing for an NCAA tournament bid. True, Cal will play some weaker teams on the road, but SDSU aside, the Bears aren’t good enough to be favored against anybody in the Pac-12 on the road.

If you’re worried about team morale, you’re worried that Cal will fall victim to playing a bunch of good teams at home while losing to mediocre teams on the road and find themselves with a record like 2-8 before they reach the softer 2nd half of the conference schedule.

If you’re hoping to see improvement, then you’ll note that Cal has time to keep getting better before a stretch of five winnable February home games. If the Bears keep their heads above water in the first half and then play strongly in the 2nd half, they could enter the off-season with optimism that would put their non-conference struggles well into the rear view mirror.