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Cal falls to Portland State in a nightmare matchup in final non-conference game of the year

The Bears fall behind quickly, and never manage to recover in a frustrating home loss

NCAA Basketball: St. Mary's at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

There are a number of facets of basketball that this Cal team struggles with. The number one weakness is offensive turnovers. After playing Portland State, Cal has a turnover percentage of 21.7%. More than one of every five possessions ends with the Bears losing the ball. That number is good for 289th in the country. Only two power conference teams are worse at taking care of the ball. (This is one of them, amusingly).

Portland State is currently 7th in the country in defensive turnover percentage. Those two facts right off the bat should’ve made you nervous before the game. There was every possibility that Cal would be sunk by their inability to initiate their own offense.

But there were other factors at play. Portland State is also a fast team, a top 10 tempo team. They’re good at speeding you up. Cal’s offense (or, perhaps more accurately, their chances of playing competitive basketball) has been better when they slow tempo down, but they’re not particularly good about dictating game speed to their opponent.

Portland State shoots lots of 3s and makes them at a decent clip. Cal’s defense allows lots of 3s and they’re often not very well contested. You get the idea.

The Vikings are extreme enough, unusual enough, and good enough, that it can be difficult to prepare for them. That difficulty is magnified for young teams with new coaches, and that difficulty is even more magnified when their strengths play right into your weaknesses.

And so, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Portland State ran off 11 unanswered points to open the game in 2:23, or led 30-12 after 11 minutes of game time. The Bears got blitzed by a team built to exploit them. By the time Cal’s play had stabilized, the lead was too big for Cal to have a realistic chance of coming back.

Portland State sank a 3 on 3 straight possessions a bit later and their lead ballooned to 23. From that point forward, the score was PSU 67, Cal 65. I’m not going to suggest to you that Cal knocked my socks off with their play, or that they earned some kind of moral victory. I’m mostly just suggesting that once they weathered the initial storm and figured out how to play against a weird team like PSU, the game was more or less even, which is what Our Computer Overlords predicted ahead of time.

Is it cold comfort that Cal reduced their turnovers from 16 before the half to 10 after? Yes, yes it is. Still, Cal noticeably improved their ability to break through PSU’s press as the game went on.

An obvious question about turnovers would be ‘why?’ Both in this game and generally, why does Cal struggle to maintain possession. And while the answers are mostly pretty obvious, it’s worth restating: this is a team with a collection of young shooting guards, no true point guard, and an offense built around giving two post players with turnover issues of their own post-up opportunities. Some issues extend from our offensive strategy, but many of them are endemic to the state of the roster.

On the 60 possessions (out of 86) when Cal didn’t turn the ball over, things tended to go pretty well. Cal generally got the ball inside and either hit a shot, drew a foul, or grabbed an offensive board. But then again, that’s kinda how things work when you play PSU - they play their style because they’re not great at the other aspects of strong defense.

Cal did what you would expect them to do against them in the half court. Cut out 10 turnovers, give Cal the points they probably would’ve scored from those possessions and subtract the points PSU got off of those transition opportunities, and maybe this is a competitive game. But Cal isn’t that team yet, and maybe won’t be until they get a true point guard.

I’ve barely talked about Cal’s defense, in part because I want to distinguish between the points PSU got off of transition and what they got in the half court but I’m not entirely confident in my ability to separate the two. The Vikings were credited with 26 fast break points in the box score. They put up a silly 1.23 points/possession, their best against a DI team so far this season.

Cal’s half court defense wasn’t as bad as the points/possession stats indicate, but neither was it good. As evidence piles up, it’s harder to reach any conclusion other than the fact that Cal will not be good at preventing other teams from getting off good looks from behind the arc, and will be dependent on divine providence from our spiteful god kaidoK for defensive success game to game.

There were a few post-game quotes from Wyking and Don about effort, or lackthereof. I’m hardly in a better position to judge these things than the players who actually know how focused they were, and how much effort they put in, but I certainly didn’t feel like it was lack of effort while watching. If anything, it felt like Cal was trying too hard to start the game, matching Portland State’s frenetic pace and playing right into the hands of the Vikings. Perhaps that’s a lack of focus, but if the players and coaches are being honest, it’s disturbing that losing to Chaminade and Central Arkansas were apparently insufficient to learn the lesson that no wins are handed out at this level of basketball.

I’ve kinda never trusted athlete answers on effort, because I think it’s an easier answer for players to give as an explanation for a loss than lack of talent or some sort of strategic/tactical error. It’s easy to say that the only thing that needs fixing is to just try harder . . . but it’s almost never that simple.

The Bears now have nine days to prep for Stanford. You will be happy to learn that Stanford is also bad. You will be happy to learn that they don’t force turnovers or shoot free throws. Hell, if you buy into the ‘Cal plays better on the road’ theory, this is about as favorable a matchup as one could ask for (although Maples might be one of the few arenas deader than Haas right now). In a season that clearly won’t end with any collective, season-long achievements, the joy of winning individual games is the best we can hope for. Beating Stanford is right in that possible/pleasurable wheelhouse, so let’s make that happen.