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Monday Thoughts: A closer look at Cal’s offensive struggles

Is there really one simple stat to explain it all? No, life isn’t click bait, but we’re going to try anyway!

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

A vastly simplified explanation for Cal MBB’s offensive struggles

Hey, had you heard that Cal’s offense is struggling, and that it might be causing a bit of angst and doubt amongst the fans?

All jokes aside: Cal’s adjusted offensive efficiency (basically: points scored/possession, adjusted for schedule strength) is 143rd in the country and 8th in the Pac-12 That’s not exactly Cal-defense-under-Sonny-Dykes bad, but it’s a clear Achilles heal that is the difference between Cal being easily into the tournament field, and Cal sitting squarely on the bubble.

If I had more time and technical know-how, I’d try to break down a bunch of film and give you schematic reasons for why Cal’s offense is struggling. But I lack both of those things at the moment. So let’s just talk about one really specific thing:

Cal shooting percentage, 2 point shots: 48.8%, 208th in the country

That’s not good. How not good? That would place them 58th out of 75 teams in the best 6 conferences in the nation (the football power 5 + the Big East).

Hitting 2 point shots is the backbone of the vast majority of offenses. Cal’s ability to stop teams from making 2 pointers is the defining characteristic of their elite defense. It’s obvious that Cal’s profligacy from inside the arc is a problem. But what exactly is the cause?

When you take a closer look, it starts to make sense. First of all, your dominant ball handler is a (generously) 5’11’’ true freshman. Charlie Moore is a gifted player, but he’s going to need time to learn how to compensate for his size so that he can finish inside. Grant Mullins is a spectacular shooter and a heady player, but he just doesn’t have the athleticism to consistently finish around Pac-12 rim protectors. Jabari Bird just never really developed the type of game where he could consistently drive past defenders in the half court set, and most of his 2 point finishes are either pull up floaters or alley oops when zone defenses fell asleep on the back side.

What about Cal’s bigs? Kam is shooting an appropriately high percentage for a 7 footer, but on a low volume of shots, in part because he doesn’t get a ton of looks and in part because he can be slow to gather his shot. Kingsley has a a higher volume of shooting but struggles to finish more than Kam does.

But the real mystery is Ivan. Ivan Rabb is the reason that you would expect Cal to be doing well on 2 point shots. He shot an excellent 61% on 260 attempts last year, when Cal had most of the same personnel as this year, plus Jordan Mathews and Jaylen Brown. But without those threats, Ivan’s finishing has declined to 51% on 250 shots.

Cal has at least four more games, and when the season is over, Ivan will have taken more shots than last year. That makes sense - a year more experienced, with key players gone from last year, he was inevitably going to take on a bigger role in Cal’s offense. The problem? Opponents have been able to successfully scheme for him as their defensive focus and Cal has not had many successful counters. How many times have we watched Ivan try to find his shot, get a ton of defensive attention, and settle for some sort of jumper away from the basket rather than something at the rim? How many times have we seen Ivan try to finish at the rim over two defenders?

All of the above are little factors that add up to a big offensive problem. And it’s a shame that the problem has limited the amount of success of what has otherwise been a joyfully unexpected 2nd season of Ivan in Berkeley.

Another question that you may be asking yourself right now: Is this a perpetual feature of Cuonzo Martin offenses? The short answer is no. Martin’s teams have only twice shot so poorly on 2 point shots - in his first year at Cal, and in his very first season as a head coach at Missouri State.

Why is this year different? As described above, some of it is natural limitations from the personnel on the roster. The natural skill sets of the players leads to many decisions that are more binary than you would typically see - offense or defense type questions - and Cuonzo has consistently gone with the defensive choice.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that most of Cuonzo’s teams have featured ball-dominant wings - Kyle Weems, Jordan McRae, Ty Wallace/Jaylen Brown, etc., which is something Cal can’t really do this year.

Let’s just hope that Cal can wring the maximum out of their current plan - score just enough to beat teams into submission with their D. It’s come soooo close to working all season long against the best of the best.

Cal WBB wraps up the regular season and heads for Seattle

When does one win not mean much but also feel so very, very satisfying?

The Bears beat Oregon in Eugene on Friday night. The win won’t push them into contention for the NCAA tournament. It doesn’t appreciably change their Pac-12 tournament chances. It’s probably just a footnote in a disappointing season.

But for us fans, boy was it fun. Sabrina Ionescu and the Ducks helped send Cal’s season into a tailspin with a crazy comeback win in Berkeley, so holding the erstwhile Cal recruiting target to 11 points on 15 shots was wonderful to see.

Winning also had the added bonus of boosting Cal to 6-12 in conference, a game better than four teams that finished tied for 9th through 12th at 5-13. Hooray, not tied for last!

Cal beat Oregon because of defense, holding Oregon to .79 points/possession. That’s an encouraging sign for a team that struggled to hold Pac-12 opponents below their offensive averages all year long.

Does it mean anything for the future? That’s a tough ask, but it’s worth noting that Cal’s defense was subsequently shredded by Oregon State two days later.

Cal’s first game in Seattle will be the early game against USC at 11:30 am Thursday. Should they win they’ll have to face #1 seed Oregon State, again at 11:30 am on Friday. Sorry, people who work standard business hours (myself included), you’re out of luck.