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Cal MBB suffers another eye-opening blowout defeat

And I’m not particularly interested in discussing the specifics

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

After a decisive loss to a team that the California Golden Bears would traditionally be expected to dominate, a quiet Wyking Jones faced the media. Meanwhile, Haas Pavilion’s emergency alarm blared in the background as an electronic voice implored all occupants to evacuate for their safety.

I don’t want to suggest that this is anything other than random coincidence, but the more poetic among us might be inclined to look for a deeper, mystical meaning.

An 8-point home loss to UC Riverside (Record against DI teams not named Cal? 0–6.)

A 24-point road loss to DII Chaminade

A 27-point home loss to Central Arkansas

Rather than spending time really thinking about the individual variables of this particular game, I spent some time afterwards researching the recent history of truly bad Pac-10/12 teams.

  • The 2016–17 Oregon State Beavers—due to a combination of injuries, transfers, and graduations—lost all but two players off the previous year’s rotation. They sank like a stone from getting an NCAA at-large bid to going 5–27 (1–17).
  • After the 2010–11 season, the Utah Utes fired Jim Boylen after his second-straight mediocre year in the Mountain West. They hired Larry Krystkowiak to manage the transition to the Pac-12. He would manage to retain exactly three rotation players from the previous year’s roster, one of whom would get injured halfway through the season. Utah went 6–25 (3–13) behind a weird cast of transfers and JCs.
  • One year after leading the USC Trojans to a first-round NCAA loss, Kevin O’Neill lost three seniors, one transfer, one NBA early entry, and a couple players to injury. USC plummeted to 6–26 (1–17). Their only Pac-12 win was over the Utah team mentioned in the paragraph above. (Washington won the Pac-12 regular season title that year and missed the NCAA tournament! 2012 Pac-12 basketball was the worst).
  • The 2006–07 OSU Beavers were bad, but garden-variety bad. But they lost their most efficient scorer and a couple other solid rotation pieces and fell even further to 6–25 (0–18) in 2007–08.

You know why I’m discussing it. Cal might be in for a season not too dissimilar from the seasons listed above.

The Bears are 3–6, and their best win is over Wofford. Kenpom predicts a final record of 9–22 (4–14). That projection is probably optimistic because it still includes some amount of preseason projections in the ratings, which pegged Cal at 101st in the nation to start the season. Even after just nine games, Cal’s Kenpom rating has plunged to 177th* and will continue to do so unless game performances markedly improve.

The seasons I listed are all a little bit different. 2006–07 OSU was a long, slow slide towards irrelevance that eventually resulted in the dismissal of Jay John, who was replaced by Craig Robinson. Kevin McNeill oddly survived one more year after USC’s disastrous 2011–12 and did improve to 9–9 in conference, but was fired anyway and replaced by Andy Enfield, who has returned to USC’s typical means to succeed at basketball. Larry Krystkowiak weathered his awful first season, getting Utah to the NIT in year 3 and the Sweet 16 in year 4. And we don’t yet know the ultimate outcome of last year’s Oregon State collapse under Wayne Tinkle, although it’s looking like the Beavers will be merely mediocre.

This is a long-winded way of saying two things: 1. These types of seasons are rare, but they do happen when we see a certain confluence of factors and 2. Although they certain aren’t a good sign for the long term health of a coaching staff or a program, they aren’t necessarily a harbinger of sure doom.

But good lord is the Utah rebuild not doing a whole lot to make me feel optimistic right now.

*Among the six best conferences in college basketball, only Washington State (182) currently has a worse Kenpom ranking than Cal.

I guess we need to talk about the actual game, huh?

That Cal might lose to Central Arkansas, a team that has had performances as varied as an overtime road loss to UCLA and a loss to 2–6 Little Rock, maybe shouldn’t be hugely surprising. But to lose by 27—and to trail by as much as 35? That’s another thing entirely.

Cal came out OK. They jumped out to an early 7-point lead and played an even game through the first 10 minutes or so. And then UCA went on a 36–13 run that spanned halftime and functionally won them the game.

Offensively, Cal struggled to create looks. Nine games in, I am sure of two things Cal is trying to do on offense:

  1. Get Marcus Lee post-up looks
  2. Give the ball to Don Coleman and let him attack the hoop

Unlike against St. Mary’s, UCA actually collapsed upon Lee and forced him into difficult decisions. He managed double digits, but turned the ball over six times. Don Coleman drew plenty of fouls but couldn’t finish over multiple defenders often, going for 20 points on 14 shots and his typical slew of free throws.

I’m not an Xs and Os guy, but other than that I just don’t really see much of anything that looks like an obvious plan. Other than Coleman and Lee, everybody looks hesitant offensively—as if they aren’t sure where they should be going with the ball. And considering that Cal had 22 turnovers in 77 possessions, maybe that’s more or less what’s happening.

Defensively, I’ll grant that Cal perhaps got mildly unlucky that UCA had an awesome shooting night, going 12–24 on 3 pointers and 22–24 from the line, along with a bunch of other mid-range jumpers that went down. But it’s also true that Cal’s defense, whether zone or man, didn’t really do anything to make UCA uncomfortable. They turned the ball over at about their typical rate and took a bunch of shots in rhythm. Maybe 96 points flattered them, but they were going to score enough to win the game regardless.

In the post-game presser, Wyking Jones talked about effort, talked about getting better, talked about looking at everything. I don’t expect him to say anything different. But as we discussed after similarly sobering defeats, words and actions are very different things.