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This time Cal can’t recover from a slow start in loss to Trojans

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Cal falls in their Pac-12 home opener, 80-62

NCAA Basketball: California at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

30-12
21-10
29-10

In each of the last three games, those have been the deficits Cal has faced roughly halfway through the 1st half. Three games in a row with all kinds of issues showing up repeatedly, forcing the Bears to play catch up almost immediately. And while you can take some encouragement from a stirring comeback against Stanford and even 2nd halves vs. Portland State and USC, at some point the Bears are going to have to figure out what it takes to start games off . . . well, strongly would be nice, but I’d settle for decent starts at this point.

The numbers this time around are suitably grisly. Cal turned the ball over on 15 of their 36 first half possessions while shooting just 30% from the field, which meant that they had roughly twice as many turnovers as made field goals. Just initiating the offense was an ordeal, and were it not for a couple of late 3s (including a bank shot from Roman Davis) Cal wouldn’t have even reached 20 points before the break.

Cal’s defense was a comparatively lesser sin against USC’s excellent offense, and it took USC awhile to truly capitalize on Cal’s offensive shortcomings (there was a near five minute stretch of the game that saw just one made field goal from either team). But eventually USC started to score, often in transition against a shell-shocked collection of Bears.

Cal’s primary problem was dealing with USC’s ball pressure. The Trojans aren’t typically much for forcing turnovers, but they pressed the Bears and extended their zone, and as has often been the case this year the Bears struggled to hold onto the ball. USC, to their credit, were very active with their hands and got 11 steals often as a result of strips in and around the basket.

Even when Cal got into their offense they struggled to create decent looks. Marcus Lee was fed with some frequency, but turned the ball over as often as he was able to get a shot up. Much of the half saw Cal setting ineffective ball screens and struggling to pass around and over USC’s lengthy zone.

Cal came out in their usual zone defense, and again struggled with defending high post passing. One thing I’ve noticed is that Kingsley Okoroh and (to a lesser extent) Marcus Lee are often unsure how to handle entries to the free throw line. If they come up to engage the man in the high post they’re leaving the low post vulnerable to cutters for easy dunks, but if they hang back then the man with the ball has free reign for a quick jumper or to attack the basket. Cal hasn’t been able to prevent that entry and hasn’t collapsed well from up top, and most Pac-12 offenses will be able to exploit the issue just like Stanford and USC. In the 2nd half Cal switched to man-to-man. I can’t say that it was any more or less effective than the zone.

And to add salt in the wound, the entire miserable half was narrated by a stern, disapproving Mike Montgomery, who seemed to find much more to dislike from Cal’s effort and execution than he found to like about USC’s performance. Monty criticized Cal for their effort, body language, floor spacing, offensive initiative, and passing (or lack thereof). It was a constant, brutal reminder of where Cal basketball was in the not-so-recent past and where Cal basketball is now.

The 2nd half was significantly better, but not in a way that felt like it mattered much. Cal cut their turnovers in half and started hitting shots, and USC looked a little bit more interested in highlight-reel dunks than consistently high-level execution. A late flurry of 3 pointers added a cosmetic touch to what was otherwise a dreary home blowout.

Cal is now 4-5 in home games and 3-0 in true road games, which totally makes sense.

UCLA is up next, coming off an overtime loss to . . . wait, really, Stanford? It’s supposed to be hard to win on the road in Pac-12 play, even for teams in the upper half of the standings, and I’ll be looking for Cal to show a little more fight to defend their home court against the Bruins.