Growth is not linear; it is a journey. For a young basketball team and a first year head coach there will be moments of difficulty and failure. There will be moments that are thoroughly discouraging, and make it seem like nobody has any clue what they’re doing. But if you tune out and call for the coach’s head, you just might miss something. You might miss a team learning, maturing, and yes, growing. You might miss the development of good basketball. You might miss a special moment. And, most tragic of all if you’re a Cal fan, you might miss a Cal team going down to the Farm and slaying the Stanford dragon.
On December 30, 2017, the young, mercurial Cal Men’s Basketball team gave us one for the ages, and reminded us why we stick with a team through thick and thin.
In three acts.
The Bears came out poorly, which was not the result we wanted to see after a full week to prepare.
Defense was the biggest culprit. After a three game absence, the Bears vaunted full court 2-2-1 made another appearance and had no effect on the game. In theory the plan was sound. Stanford is one of the worst teams in the nation at taking care of the ball, losing it on more than 22% of their possessions. Against Portland State the Cardinal had turned the ball over 28 times and all by himself freshman point guard Daejon Davis had coughed up a mind blowing 11 possessions. We are no Portland State. After the first 8 minutes of play, Stanford had 1 turnover.
The 2-3 zone that had been so effective against mediocre outside shooting teams like Stanford also seemed like a good idea on paper. Unfortunately, in practice it was horrific. Typical sequences went like this:
- At 16:20 Davis penetrated into the middle of the zone and after Marcus Lee came over to help he fed an easy bounce pass to Reid Travis. No help. Dunk.
- At 13:25 this time Oscar da Silva in the middle of the lane, easy bounce pass to Josh Sharma, dunk.
- At 12:07 it was Kezie Okpala’s turn to dribble into the middle of the zone, bounce pass to Sharma, dunk. You get the idea.
After television came back from the under 12:00 timeout, they showed Coach Wyking Jones in the huddle exhorting his players, “YOU GOTTA DROP, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM, WHY AREN’T WE DROPPING?”...meaning the back line of the zone was allowing guys to roam free to the rim.
Score after Act One, Stanford 21 - Cal 10.
After the timeout, Cal did drop. Defensive execution improved and Stanford found it harder and harder to score. However, with Okpala and Dorian Pickens back from injury, and matchup problems in Travis and Michael Humphrey, the Bears had trouble guarding without fouling in either their base zone or their occasional man to man. Fouls started to mount up, in what was looking like a war of attrition. At halftime Lee had 2 fouls while Kingsley Okoroh and Grant Anticevich both had 3. Okoroh’s 4th came less than 2 minutes into the 2nd half, and Roman Davis entered the game.
Prospects did not look good for the Bears, who were having a difficult time cutting the deficit below double digits. Nevertheless, after the abysmal start, they had stabilized and were playing more or less toe to toe with the Cardinal. For the next 28 minutes of game time, the Bears got rid of the full court pressure, mixed up their (now solid) defenses, and began to find holes in the Stanford defense through shot fakes, dribble penetration, and kick outs. For the next 28 minutes, the Bears played their rivals basically even. Some of the highlights as they held the line:
- Lee picked up his 3rd foul with 16:33 left in the game, and with Kingsley and Grant already at 4, I started having visions of Roman Davis playing center. Then Marcus did what seniors are supposed to do--he stayed in the game, played big, but did not pick up another foul for more than 16 minutes. He ended the game with 19 points on 9-11 shooting with 7 boards and 2 blocks, but most importantly he remained a presence for the Bears inside without getting that 4th foul. Huge.
- Speaking of Roman Davis, with the whole front line in foul trouble he stepped in and gave us 9 minutes, 3 points, 3 boards, credible defense, and a ton of energy. Easily his best and most important contribution of his college career. He looked like he belonged tonight.
- There isn’t a stat for energy, but if we could quantify it, Don Coleman would be off the charts. He kept flying around out there, and was on the floor several times for loose balls. He’s a volume guy, but if you’re going to accept 15 points on 16 shots, it’s going to have to be with other intangibles, and his lead was one of the intangibles Cal needed.
- It looked like Darius McNeill and Justice Sueing picked up on that lead, as they, too, began to attack the basket and get layups or kick-outs. Darius’s technical with 9:36 left seemed like a backbreaker at the time, taking the air out of a Cal run. But it also showed that he was absolutely still in the game emotionally.
The Bears did not quit, but with 3:29 left in the game at the last TV timeout, prospects for a moral victory, rather than a real one, were high. Cal had played Stanford exactly even in Act Two, and the margin was still 11.
Score after Act Two: Stanford 70 - Cal 59.
This is why you don’t give up on your team. This is why you stay for the journey.
- 3:27 - Darius gives it up at the top then does what he had been failing to do most of the year: move without the ball. He fakes a screen right for Don, slips it out to the 3p line, nice look from Don, Darius 3, splash. Cal down 8.
- 3:00 - King now back in the game alters Pickens’s shot and gets the board.
- 2:47 - Darius misses an open look from the left corner but Justice slips in among the trees for the O board and put back. Cal down 6.
- 2:13 - Justice gets Travis on the wing, realizes he can’t stay in front, blows by him, blows by the help. And 1. Cal bench goes wild. Cal down 3.
- 1:58 - Travis offensive board, follow, and 1, fouls out Darius, and gets the lead back up to 6. We think it’s over again.
- 1:41 - Marcus goes over the wrong shoulder with the wrong hand, moves his pivot foot, no travel call, bucket. Cal down 4.
- 1:19 - Justice clears the Pickens miss and takes it himself on the break to the rim, is met by two defenders, and kicks to Grant wide open in the right corner. Three ball. Splash. Cal down 1.
- :52 - Haase calls a timeout to draw up nothing, gets a bad Okpala long two, and Marcus clears the board.
- :29: - Justice attacking right wing gets a screen from Marcus, goes hard to the rim. Bucket. And 1. Free throw is good. CAL UP 2.
- :21 - Travis drives and gets a weak foul call on Marcus but can only make 1. CAL UP 1
- :17 - Don Coleman always wants the ball in these spots, because he ain’t scared. Fouled and drops two free throws. CAL UP 3.
- Jerod Haase, who abandoned Cal for Kansas more than 20 years ago, then decided to coach at Stanford, draws up a play for Pickens to use two screens baseline in 6 seconds. There is zero chance that action can be run in that amount of time. By the time he clears both screens there are 2 seconds left and Travis, who has been holding the ball on the right wing, has no chance to even pass it to him. He throws up a brick.
Good wins. Evil loses.
Don’t give up on a fighting Bear.
There will be time, maybe in the comments, maybe next week, to talk about scheme, maturity, growth. There will be time to talk about some good and some bad from this game, and what that means for our place in the conference pecking order. But right now, all you need to know is this:
Score after Act Three: Cal 77 - Stanford 74.