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Cal just can’t hit shots in frustrating loss to UCLA

The Bruins pull away late for a 70-57 win

NCAA Basketball: California at UCLA Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a source of constant discussion throughout Pac-12 play. When will Cal finally get a game where their opponent doesn’t shoot the lights out?

Well, it finally happened. UCLA, typically an excellent shooting team, put up their 4th worst shooting performance of the year (by eFG%), fueled mostly by an ugly 5-20 night from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, Cal’s own shooting problems are very real. The Bears had a bad shooting night even by their own, 311th in the nation/12th in the Pac-12 baseline, and that allowed UCLA to escape with a comfortable win despite a pretty mediocre performance.

The turning point was the last 10 minutes of the first half. With Marcus Lee on the bench with foul trouble, Cal couldn’t buy a bucket. UCLA went on 24-4 run that quickly erased a surprising early Cal lead and put the Bruins in position to eventually pull away in the 2nd half.

Cal’s roster was even more precarious than usual. The Bears had essentially been playing a 7 man rotation in conference play. With Don Coleman out due to a suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules, Cal was left with a 6 player rotation. And when anybody gets in foul trouble, where do you go? Wyking gave two minutes each to Cole Welle, Roman Davis, and Deschon Winston, but this game illustrated something we already knew: Cal is not a deep team, and they need their very best players to be on the court and firing on all cylinders to stay in games.

Which leads us to:

Between a rock and a hard place on defense

This is a dangerous speculation based on not a ton of data, but I suspect that Cal’s man to man defense is a bit better, on average, than their zone. And I think that’s particularly true against a team like UCLA, who can shoot you out of the gym on the right night.

And Cal got off to a solid start defensively playing man to man. Holding UCLA to 1.08 points/possession probably counts as a win for this defense. But playing man-to-man comes with an obvious price: fouling.

Cal’s defenders, asked to guard a bunch of athletic wings one on one, unsurprisingly struggled to stay with their man on drives and contest shots without fouling. This is a two pronged problem: foul trouble for some players, and lots of free throws for UCLA. While the foul (and foul shot) disparity mildly annoyed me and I think the refs called a few borderline things I’d prefer they let slide, I can’t deny that UCLA was better at forcing contact and making young players make difficult decisions.

And when you’re going to basically play a 6 player rotation, man just might not be a viable defense for more than occasional stretches against most teams, even the ones that can destroy a zone with their distance shooting. Such are the challenges of Cal basketball 2017-18

The section where Reef and Kodiak write my recap for me

While I’ll take any excuse to insult Steve Alford, I know when to bow to the master:


If UCLA shoots their normal % from distance, the Bruins are winning this game by 20 points and we’re probably just shrugging our shoulders about more of the same. But it was nice to have another team finally go cold, and to have a glimmer of hope for a win into the 2nd half as a consequence.

The challenge of being a primary ball handler in this offense

One thing that the basketball writing crew has been trying to figure out is what Cal wants to be/what Cal is trying to do on offense. And so far, the answer has been attempted post ups to Marcus and King, and high ball screens for Darius, Don, and Justice. And thankfully, a pretty consistent ability to make noise on the offensive glass.

Entering this game, a new question emerged: how would Don’s absence impact things on offense. Don gets lots of heat from fans for his high-usage*, low efficiency numbers, but I think we got a bit of an illustration on why that happens against UCLA.

*I think it’s worth noting that Don’s usage rate in conference play is actually 4th on the team among rotation players, as Cal’s offense became much more balanced once the freshmen settled into their roles.

Cause here’s the thing - Cal has many (and I mean MANY) possessions where they can’t get a post up look and their high ball screens don’t lead anywhere, and the shot clock starts to run down and the only thing left to do is for the primary ball handler to try to improvise a shooting opportunity. And generally, that guy was Don Coleman, particularly early in the year.

Against UCLA, that guy was frequently Darius McNeill. And the result was a 2-16 from the field performance. And I guess what I’m saying is that until Cal figures out a way to manufacture shots out of their offense, there will be at least one player with numbers that suffer because somebody has to shoot at the end of a possession that never creates a high value look.

Thank Oski for Justice Sueing

As noted above, Justice has been the guy taking shots in Pac-12 play that Don Coleman was taking in non-conference play, and that makes for an exciting development curve. Consider:

In Pac-12 play, Justice has faced a consistently higher level of competition, while also being asked to play a larger role in the offense and take more shots. Yet he’s hitting on a higher percentage of his 2 point looks, drawing more fouls, and turning the ball over less often. Essentially every aspect of his game has gotten better as the season has moved on, even as he’s asked to carry a heavier burden against better opposition.

And we’ll wrap things up on that optimistic note. If nothing else, we do get to keep watching Justice and the freshmen grow and learn.