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Flashes of freshmen growth in road loss to Washington

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Alas, foul trouble for Cal’s upperclassmen foiled any chance of the upset win.

NCAA Basketball: California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In some ways, analyzing struggling teams is easier, because they have fewer options. We all know what has to happen for games to go the way we hope.

For Cal to compete against Pac-12 level opposition, they need certain things. They need Marcus Lee on the floor. They need Don Coleman to take shots. They need one or more of their freshmen to have a strong game. They need their opponent to miss a decent percentage of the 3 point shots that will inevitably be available to take against Cal’s zone.

Against Washington, Cal got only one of those things (hooray for the continued development of Justice Sueing and Juhwan Harris-Dyson!) and so took a relatively routine loss on the road to the Huskies.

One problem Cal faced today is not an uncommon one. Cal’s most important player has serious trouble staying on the court. Marcus Lee picked up two fouls in the first five minutes of the game and sat for the rest of the 1st half. He picked up his 3rd and 4th fouls five and a half minutes into the 2nd half and sat for another nine minutes.

While Marcus sat in the first half, Cal immediately endured a nine minute stretch with just one made field goal. While Marcus sat in the 2nd half, a 3 point Washington lead turned into a 13 point lead. This team needs Marcus Lee on the floor to generate offense.

Cal might have been able to overcome Lee’s foul trouble . . . except, more unusually, Don Coleman got himself into even more foul trouble than Marcus, managing three first half fouls in just 7:30 of court time. To be fair to Don, his 3rd foul was a truly awful charge call, and his 4th foul, 7:30 into the 2nd half, was a bizarre phantom rebounding foul. But Don compounded his own problem by reacting strongly enough to draw a technical foul that relegated him to the bench for the remainder of the game.

17 foul plagued minutes from Marcus Lee, 14 foul plagued minutes from Don Coleman. To the extent that Cal has veteran leaders, it’s Marcus and Don. Just as importantly, the duo are by far Cal’s most frequently used players on offense - they combined to take about half of Cal’s shots when they’re on the court.

So it shouldn’t be surprising then that Cal put up a miserable .82 points/possession on offense, their worst output of the year. The shame is that it wasted perhaps the best game of Justice Sueing’s young career. Cal’s freshman guard scored 27 points on just 16 shots, flashing the kind of versatility and athleticism that can give Cal fans hope for the future. He was a consistent threat whenever he got the ball at the free throw line in the weak spot of the zone and sank his 3 pointers with confidence. It’s a shame that Cal’s offense couldn’t get him the ball more often considering his hot hand and Cal’s lack of other alternatives.

Cal did enough right defensively to keep the game vaguely close. Unfortunately for the Bears, Washington managed to shoot 9-19 from behind the arc, which is a pretty excellent number for a team that had been mediocre at best from distance entering the game. That shooting compensated for Washington’s inability to create extra possessions for themselves via rebounding or ball handling.

Two defensive numbers should be encouraging: 1. Cal locked down the glass against a decent offensive rebounding squad, without getting big minutes from Marcus Lee and 2. Cal forced 20 turnovers, 11 of which were steals.

The primary drivers of those numbers? Justice Sueing and Juhwan Harris-Dyson. Cal’s freshmen wings cleaned up the glass, and both were disruptive in the zone - particularly Juhwan, who managed 5 steals and is beginning to look like one of the better natural perimeter defenders Cal has had since . . . well, maybe since Jorge. Cal hasn’t exactly had a ton of guys who came in with obvious defensive chops.

And so it was a loss, but a loss with more obvious bright spots than most. We got to watch one freshman dazzle on the offensive end, and another dazzle on the defensive end. It wasn’t enough to win a road game with most everybody else struggling with foul trouble, but it’s a reminder that this roster isn’t bereft of reasons to keep paying attention, and that there’s hope for the future.