The story of Cal's regular season ending loss to Colorado Saturday afternoon, and of much of Cal's season overall, was told on a possession a little over 7 minutes into the first half. The Bears easily broke the Buffs' token full court pressure, and Ivan Rabb rotated the ball from the left wing into a ball reversal, then ducked inside. The ball swung to Jabari Bird on the right wing, who threw a nice skip pass to Charlie Moore, back on the left wing. Meanwhile, on the skip, Ivan was single covered inside and had sealed his man. Charlie did not hesitate after receiving the pass, and immediately threw a pinpoint look to Ivan, over the hands of an outstretched defender. Perfect ball movement. Perfect position. Perfect point blank look for our best player at the rim.
Kameron Rooks had worked his way into ideal offensive rebounding position. He tipped the ball to himself and went straight up from point blank range. Perfect work on the glass.
Kam was fouled and the Bears had another chance to capitalize on a beautifully executed offensive possession.
One possession, great play, great board, two shots, two free throw attempts. Zero points.
It might be an oversimplification to conclude that Cal's season will probably not result in an NCAA tournament appearance because we can't play offense. If it is an oversimplification, it isn't much of one.
We are watching one of the best defenses in the history of Cal basketball. It is the only top 10 Cal defense in the modern era. It is elite despite the fact it has only average length and quickness, with no spectacular athletes. On Saturday this defense held a Colorado team coming off a 91 point, 1.40 point/possession drubbing of Stanford to 54 points on just .84 points/possession. It was Colorado's worst offensive performance of the year. And it didn't matter.
Cal's offense was worse.
27.5% 2p. 26.7% 3p. 63% FT.
Ivan Rabb: 4-11 from the floor.
Grant Mullins 4-11.
Jabari Bird 3-8.
Kam Rooks 2-7.
Don Coleman 2-6.
Charlie Moore 0-6.
Kingsley Okoroh 0-3.
Sam Singer 0-3.
Cal 46 - Colorado 54. 5th place in the Pac-12. Needing at least 3 wins in the Pac-12 tournament to even entertain thoughts of an NCAA bid.
Much has been made of Cal's offensive shortcomings this year. It would take a much longer series of posts to dissect all the troubles. But it's worth noting that before the critical 5 games to end the season, Mullins was asked what he thought the keys would be for the Bears down the stretch and, while emphasizing defense, Grant said, "Offensively we're going to be okay." The Bears lost 4 of those 5 games. You do what you focus on. The offense has not been okay.
But it's also worth noting that today, the Bears executed their offense at a competent level. They got good looks. They certainly took more than enough quality shots to score 55 points in a 64 possession game. They couldn't put the ball in the basket. If you can't put the ball in the basket, you won't score. And you will waste the best Cal defense of the modern era by pairing it with the worst offense in the past decade.
Elegy to a Lost Season
I ponder, at the end of a season like this, why I do this. Basketball and Cal are my two true sports loves. During the season I devote 15-20 hours a week to basketball related activities--time that is all too precious and that can be used in so many other ways.
I've rarely regretted those choices, but in a parade of comments about "failure" and "pathetic" and "deserving the NIT" and being "done with this team," I wonder why I do it. Why we all do it.
This has been a relatively joyless season. There was one memorable moment for me, the OT win against Utah. Otherwise, I stare at four months of passion with so little to show for it and I wonder where all my time and my heart have gone.
But I also think about what it means to be an Old Blue, and how many countless seasons I've spent doing some version of exactly this...joining in the familiar March lament. I guess what it comes down to is a love that is, at this point, unconditional. When I see men in blue and gold in the arena, I see family, fighting for us and ours and everything we stand for. When I hear Big C, Fight for California, Sons of California...my heart races. The University of California, and its basketball team, are part of who I am, and as little joy as this particular season gave me, I simply cannot turn my back on who I am.
After Thursday night's debacle, the worst game of the year, I was tired, angry, disgusted. I had had enough. I didn't even want to watch the game today. But in the middle of the action, when the announcers talked about Ivan's History midterm, I remembered my own midterms at Cal, how overwhelming they were, and I imagined what it must be like to take one while in the middle of the toughest road trip of the year, at the end of a long season, not fully healthy, in the lobby of a strange hotel, with all the pressure of being a student and an athlete.
And I thought to myself, I am proud of these young men, and this coach, and all I want them to do is fight hard.
You now what? They did. They came out with energy and fight and fire. They played the best basketball they were capable of on this day. They gave Colorado the toughest defensive battle it has faced all year. They worked hard to get good shots and executed as well as they have in several weeks. They did everything they could possibly do, but they couldn't make the ball go into the basket.
We don't love because we choose to. We love because of who we are, and who they are, and who we all are together. I will watch the Pac-12 tournament with my heart. I will hope for magic. And if there is no magic, I will watch the NIT and I will still bring my heart. And I will beam with pride when Grant Mullins, Stephen Domingo, Roger Moute a Bidias, Sam Singer, Jabari Bird, and Ivan Rabb walk off the court for the last time. Whenever that is. Regardless of the outcome. Regardless of the results of the season. This much will always be the same: Go Bears.
Stalwarts girded for the fray,
Will strive for victory,
Their all at Mater's feet will lay,
That brain and brawn will win the day.
Our mighty sons and true
Will strive for us anew,
And FIGHT! for California,
For California through and through!