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The ship has sprung a leak

A 30 point loss at the worst possible time

NCAA Basketball: California at Utah
2017 is Ivan Rabb, double teamed by two big dudes, while not even being all that close to the basket.
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

I started writing this recap at 9:23 pacific time, when there was roughly 15 minutes of actual game time left. This is probably bad fandom - or at least, some would describe it as such. Particularly when it comes to college sports, you’re supposed to be a loyal die-hard who never gives up and keeps cheering through thick and thin.

But I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this particular game wasn’t worth staying up until 10:00, plus however long it would have taken to write up a proper recap. The quality of my writing is roughly proportionate to the quality of entertainment provided by each game.

Which is an overwrought way of saying that you should stop reading now.

The optimist would point out that these types of games aren’t exactly unheard of in the mountains. Plenty of decent teams have traveled into the thin air of the Rockies only to get beaten badly by a team that’s adapted to the altitude.

But I don’t think being on the road, at altitude, can explain anywhere near a majority of the deficit Cal lost by on Thursday night.

The Bears were run off the court. The first few minutes of the game were reasonable close, but as Cal’s offense struggled to create anything worthwhile, Utah was increasingly able to pierce Cal’s defense in transition. As they built a lead, Cal’s offense devolved into an increasingly unwatchable quagmire that only fed Utah’s offense more, a feedback loop of pain and misery that quickly turned what should have been a competitive game into a laugher. Utah never let up, and the only drama of the night was whether or not the Utes would end up doubling up the Bears.

By the way, Utah lost to Oregon State 11 days ago.

A truth that most everybody recognizes but is rarely vocalized: the NCAA tournament is too big, and being a fan of a true bubble team isn’t all that fun.

Yeah yeah yeah, it’s better than having a season like OSU or UW. And the tournament, by inviting somewhere between 64 and 68 team, makes itself more entertaining by sheer volume and by increased chaos.

And it’s probably largely in Cal’s benefit that the NCAA tournament is so large, because Cal’s natural place in the larger college basketball environment is as a bubble team. If you took an average Pac-10/12 season from the last 20 years, Cal is probably gonna finish 5th and spend Selection Sunday hoping that they get a 10 seed.

Sometimes being a bubble team is fun, like when the 2013 Bears turned a switch midway through the conference season and gave Syracuse a tough game in San Jose. But more often than not, being a (power conference) bubble team is kinda miserable. Your team is almost certainly fatally flawed, destined to lose nearly half of your conference games. Each night out feels like a referendum on the season and a chance to screw up more than a chance to excel. I mentioned that this year reminded me most of all of Cal’s 2012 season, when a promising season suddenly went off the rails and ended in a dispiriting blowout loss in the first 4 in Dayton.

And right now, Cal needs to do something right just to have the chance to lose a first round game.

Most of the time I’m relatively subdued about Cal’s offensive struggles. It’s about the big picture, right? Obviously it would be better if we had a lethal offense to go along with our stifling defense, but it’s not exactly realistic to expect that out of this roster. As long as the whole package adds up to 4th place and an NCAA tournament spot, so be it.

But that? That was offensive futility on a whole new level. It was offensive futility that actively sabotaged strength of the team.

One of the (many) reasons that Cal’s defense is so good is because this team can typically snuff out the transition attack of other teams. But against Utah, the missed shots were so ugly, the turnovers so boggling, the offensive failures so glaring that it granted Utah opportunity after opportunity to attack Cal’s defense before it was set.

Cal was so bad on offense that they didn’t even have a chance to turn the game into an ugly scrum of defense and rebounding that occasionally allows them to be competitive in games where they, by all rights, shouldn’t be able to keep up.

It was unwatchable.

Cal managed to get to 44, thanks to an excellent night from the free throw line. The Bears were really focusing on the line, just when it mattered most.

That this team can’t fully leverage the talent of Ivan Rabb is frustrating, but a reality that we are mostly used to.

What’s more perplexing is that the Bears have seemingly gotten worse at getting Ivan the ball in positions to make shots as conference play progressed.

This is your obligatory section on how Ivan Rabb went 0-3 from the field in what is as close to a must-win game as you can ever get without officially being a must-win game.

It’s bad to reach conclusions after the best performance of the year. It’s bad to reach conclusions after the worst. That was, I can only assume, the worst of the year. It’s not fair to judge this team now, when they have more opportunities to right the ship.

The ship is off course, and taking on water.