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Wandering the Desert: Cal Can't Find Signature Win Against Arizona

Arizona 62 - Cal 57

Kameron Rooks fought hard for 29 strong minutes.
Kameron Rooks fought hard for 29 strong minutes.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

This wasn't the recap I was dreaming about writing. I knew going in that Cal was a solid underdog on paper, and that this was going to be our toughest matchup the rest of the regular season. I knew that this was a Cal team that has played right on the chalk the whole season. I knew I should keep my expectations low, and that a victory was unlikely. But I'm a fan, and an optimist, and I was tired of writing about the same ol' same ol'...and so I had a dream. I looked at a recent, slight, uptick in Cal's level of play and a recent, slight, downward dip in Arizona's level of play and I thought, why not? This is a phenomenal group of young men. They've worked so hard. Why shouldn't we have any surprises this season? Why can't we go down there and get our signature win?

So I had a story drafted in my head about dreams, persistence, courage, guts, and vindication. It was gameday, it felt so right, and I was ready to growl.

Alas, it was not to be. Cal entered Sunday's contest in Tucson as 7 point underdogs, played the Wildcats even for 15 minutes, let the deficit grow to 9 at the half, fought back in the 2nd, but couldn't ever get over the hump. During the final 20 minutes, Arizona's lead was never greater than 9, but never less than 4. Cal was never able to close to a one possession game and, despite a few twists and turns, the final result was completely predictable. The Bears left the desert with a 5 point loss, 62-57.

What kind of glass do you like?

Do you like your glass half full or half empty? If you want it full, you've got some good things to drink from that game. The Bears fought through a lot of adversity. Their starting point guard Charlie Moore went down with a hip injury. Ivan Rabb picked up his second foul 9 minutes into the game and sat out the rest of the half. He came back for the 2nd half in a fog, and was never a factor, finishing the game with 4 points on 2-6 shooting, 3 boards, and 3 turnovers. Don Coleman was still not able to play meaningful minutes. Yet despite all that, and despite playing against the first place team in the conference, in one of the toughest road venues in the country, Cal was in the game the whole way.

Cuonzoball is about loving getting dirty and getting ugly. Cal did that. They held the game down to 58 possessions, the slowest game Arizona has played all year, and exactly where the Bears needed it to have a chance. As they usually do, the Bears played excellent defense and kept the other team's stars in check. Allonzo Trier scored just 3 points on 0-5 shooting, while Lauri Markkanen only managed 6 points on 1-6 shooting. And while I don't have a stat for heart, I can tell you what I saw was a team that was scrapping and clawing and fighting for every last possession. I saw a team that clearly believed they could win the game, and that got stop after big stop to keep themselves within striking distance. This is what Coach Martin says we're supposed to be, and this is what we looked like on Saturday.

On the other hand, if you like your glass half empty, you can focus on a lot of liquid that has spilled on the ground. Against elite teams, the 150th offense in the country just isn't going to get it done most nights. And with Moore out, Ivan Rabb's complete absence was a killer.

Arizona plays a defensive style similar to the Virginia Pack-Line defense that has given Rabb fits in the past. Like Virginia, Arizona settled back into the paint, cut off angles for entry passes, doubled immediately from several directions with smart, big athletes, and recovered masterfully back out to the three point line. Ivan hates that defense and, I think we've established, can't do anything about it. Neither, as it turned out, could most of the rest of the team.

Jabari Bird had a nice game with 19 points on 13 shots, and Grant Mullins pitched in with 13 on 7 shots. But they got too few attempts, and with Moore out there was too little contribution from Rabb or anyone else. I'm running out of ways to say this, so I'll just be plain. .98 points per possession against a good team just isn't going to get it done. Time after time Cal needed a big shot, and they couldn't get it. Time after time they looked for post entries that weren't there. Time after time they ran the same action that we've all seen, and that Arizona knew was coming. And every time Cal was ready to pressure Arizona into a one possession game, the offense came up empty.

This is not new--it's been a familiar refrain this season, as is the reality of losing to a superior team. On January 14th I wrote that Cal looked exactly like what we thought they were: the 4th best team in the Pac-12, able to beat everyone outside of the top 3, but unable to compete with the big boys. It's been a month and what has changed? Absolutely nothing. Cal remains in 4th place. They still have not fallen to anyone outside of the top 3. And they remain unable to get a win that would break them into the elite.

We do not know if past is prologue. There are 5 remaining games on the schedule, and 4 of them will be difficult. How Cal performs in those games, and in the Pac-12 tournament, will tell the story of the season. That's why we watch and that's why they play. But as of today, Cal sits at 9-4 in the conference, alone in 4th place, with our 4 losses coming against Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon. If we're better than 4th place, we've got to prove it.

Ring of Honor

Finally, a special shout out to Kameron Rooks, playing at the McKale Center for the first time since his father -- all-time Arizona great Sean Rooks -- passed away last summer. Kam is finally getting back to his old form after mid-season knee surgery, and he showed toughness and heart tonight that would have made his father proud. 10 points and 6 boards to go with stellar interior defense was a fitting tribute. Well done, big man. Well done.