That was a strange one to figure.
On the one hand, if I had told you before the game that St. Mary’s was going to beat Cal by 11 points, you would have shrugged and not given it a second thought. Although struggling lately, especially defensively, and coming off of two losses, the Gaels remain an elite offensive club that can compete at the high national level.
On the other hand, if I had told you Marcus Lee was going to go off for a career high 23 points on just 14 shots, that he would foul out All-American candidate Jock Landale, and hold him to 13 points, you might pause for just a second. What if you learned that Nick Hamilton would come up with a career high 16 points on a perfect 7-7 shooting? Maybe you’d start to grow intrigued. How about the prospect that St. Mary’s, a 43% 3p shooting team coming in, would go just 6-19 (31.6%) from deep? We have to be competitive if those things happen right? Well, all those things did happen. But we really weren’t competitive.
The Bears trailed by 14 at halftime and never trimmed the lead to single digits the entire 2nd half. It was, ultimately, not a suspenseful outcome, as Cal’s record fell to 3-5 on the season. Final Score: St. Mary’s 74 - Cal 63.
And so the mystery year of Cal basketball, and the 2017-18 search for growth, continued on Saturday night. Having round some post-Hawaii success on Tuesday with a smaller lineup and more man to man defense, the Bears opened with that same lineup on Saturday...along with a token 2-2-1 press and their 2-3 zone. The press turned out to be just food for thought, however, as Cal pressed on only a handful of possessions the rest of the night. This development was unsurprising, considering St. Mary’s is the best in the nation at taking care of the ball.
The zone versus man dilemma is a harder one. St. Mary’s is one of the best pick and roll teams in the nation, and when Emmett Naar or Jordan Ford run it with Landale or Calvin Hermanson, against a man to man look, they inevitably test every hedge, switch, help, recovery principle in the defensive playbook. When a savvy, veteran team puts that much pressure on a young team like the Bears, it quickly becomes a film study in how to patch up your defensive holes.
The zone was its own type of poison. St. Mary’s is also a terrific deep shooting team, full of mature decision makers and adept passers. Whenever Cal went zone, they rapidly moved the ball into and out of the middle, found gaps in the zone or open shooters, and got quality shots. The best you can do, I suppose, is mix up looks, and the Cal coaching staff did that. Unsurprisingly, against all the different looks, St. Mary’s offense had relatively little trouble getting the shots they wanted, and they ended up at a workmanlike 1.17 points per possession, slightly below their season average.
The Bear offense could not keep up. After Lee and Hamilton, there was very little firepower in the Cal lineup tonight. Justice Sueing was aggressive early, but never did get in the flow, ending up with only 7 points on 5 shots. Darius McNeill could not find his stroke, scoring just 3 points on 1-7 shooting. And finally, the Don Coleman dilemma. 8 points on 3-16 shooting, in a game when he could not get going. I was not in love with some of those shots, but I also don’t have a great suggestion for where the offense is supposed to come from otherwise. And therein lies the most pressing issue at this point in the season. We are starting to see what this team’s identity might be defensively (and surprise, it might not be so different from what it was last year). I’m not sure anyone can tell you what the identity is offensively. And so we are left to sit and ponder, heading into the second month of the season.
The Quarter Pole
The Bears will play about 32 games this year, so it’s been my intent to give a progress report every 8 games, to see how much of the mystery of this year has been unveiled, and how much growth we’ve seen. But here we are, and it turns out there are more questions than answers. We can say a few things, however:
- Defensively, what worked last year has ended up working this year. Previous Cal basketball incarnations have relied heavily on solid man to man principles backed by elite rim protection, and after the debacle in Maui, we seem to be leaning that way again. While the press has been moderately effective in speeding up opponents, and has raised the defensive turnover rate marginally, the Bears never have looked comfortable, and have been beaten for a lot of easy layups. Simultaneously, the 2-3 zone has given up a lot of good looks from deep. So if I had to guess what’s going to be effective the rest of the way, that guess would be more man, with zone as a change up. I’m sure we’ll play zone for 40 minutes next game to make me look life a fool.
- Offensively, we have no identity. I watch our sets, trying to figure out what our plan is, and so far no pattern has emerged. We run a lot of action to get post touches, but those touches have been ineffective for long stretches of the season. But then Marcus goes off like he did tonight, and you wonder if it’ll work with better spacing and 4 out. You watch Don explode on Cal Poly or Wichita and you wonder why we aren’t running more stuff to get him downhill. Then you watch a night like tonight and you wonder where the ball movement is on the perimeter. We are not, in the foreseeable future, going to be generating tempo and turnovers as the primary offensive activators we were hoping for. So something needs to develop in the half court, and it needs to happen soon.
- We are young, but we can be competitive with energy. We are going to make mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes. This system might change significantly a dozen more times before the end of the season. But an early common denominator across our catalogue of games is that competitiveness follows intensity. We saw this in games like Wichita and Northridge, and we saw the converse against VCU and Chaminade. Tonight was a tough test for that, because St. Mary’s cuts your heart with excruciatingly deliberate precision, but even then, there were moments when we got them out of their comfort zone and started to turn the game into a free for all. Those are the moments that work for us.
Growth has not been linear, but we have improved in some areas. Finding the right lineup balance and the right roles for our bigs. Discovering that Justice and Darius can play at this level. Don working to find the right balance between aggression and discretion. The test of the next quarter of the season is taking some of this growth and turning it into consistency. Consistent youth? Is that an oxymoron? Stay tuned as we head deeper into December to find out.