The Cal Bears followed their awful performance in China against Yale with a first half to feel good about Tuesday night at Haas Pavilion. Cal took on a Senior-laden team in the Hampton Pirates but did a nice job on both ends of the floor and jumped ahead early.
The ball movement was great in the first half with Paris Austin doing an excellent job as both an attacker and distributor. After poor showings in the season opener vs Yale, both Justice Sueing and Darius McNeil heated up early and were key reasons Cal took a 17 point lead into the locker room at halftime. The team played with an energy level that was admirable given the short preparation time and potential jet lag resulting from their long trip to Shanghai. There were some cases of aggressive defense leading to easy offense and a stronger will to make the extra pass setting up open shooters. Cal was also solid defensively against a guard-oriented team that likes to push tempo. They made life difficult on Pirates’ volume scorer Jermaine Marrow holding him to 3-12 shooting. It was the strong first half Cal fans hoped for as they entered halftime with a 48-31 lead.
The good vibes did not last the whole game, however, as Cal’s next ten minutes of basketball were vividly reminiscent of the Yale performance. Offensively, the ball movement was poor. There were less opportunities to push tempo and Cal’s offense staggered badly in the half court. There were less ball reversals and less floor communication. Possessions frequently ended with one player attempting to finish at the basket without an outlet to dish the ball to. Cal’s perimeter shooting was excellent tonight but they only attempted four three-pointers in the second half after shooting ten in the first half.
Cal’s poor play in the first ten minutes of the second half had a negative effect on their defensive energy and discipline. Marrow found some space in the lane and had an excellent second half performance willing the Pirates to within five points of the Bears at the 13 minute mark.
The Bears had an answer, however, and it was a three-pointer by 7-3 freshman Conner Vanover that ignited the spark the team needed. A few sequences later, fellow freshman Andre Kelly finished a three point play to further cement a Cal victory.
The first ten minutes or so of the second half exposed a lot of the problems that frequently come with a young team early in the season. There are some moving parts and players are still learning their role within the team. Specifically, we are still seeing Darius McNeil develop his understanding of how to be an effective player off the ball after spending the majority of his time at point guard last season. He was awesome in the first half but only took two shots in the second. Another problem for this team tonight was rebounding. This was unexpected given the size of their opponent as Cal was out-rebounded 44-37, surrendering 20 offensive rebounds to the Pirates. Cal will play small a majority of the time and it is the responsibility of every player to make contributions on the boards.
Paris Austin did some really nice things. He has some impressive scoring ability but his play as a facilitator will dictate how this team performs offensively. He looks to be the clear leader of the team.
Sueing and McNeil had great bounce-back games. They have the potential to develop into future All-Conference players but need to get better at doing the little things on both sides of the ball. They need to become true plus-players for this team.
Freshman Matt Bradley continues to look like a great addition, but the surprise of the night was Andre Kelly. Very impressed with his strength inside and ability to finish. He is not much of a rim protector but has great footwork and touch on the offensive side.
Juhwan Harris-Dyson will bring more to the team than he did tonight as he recovers from his injured finger. He looked out of sorts offensively but did a nice job on the defensive end and has proved to be the team’s top defender. It is a similar story for Jacobi Gordon. He is coming off a torn achilles and still getting himself back into playing shape. Look for him to improve as the season progresses.
Conner Vanover had somewhat of an up-and-down game. He made a few plays defensively but has tons of room for improvement as a rim protector. His shooting ability is pretty incredible but Cal fans would love to see him get some looks in the post.
Not a bad performance for the Bears. Wyking Jones cannot afford to lose games like these if he expects to win over this fan base and he did his job tonight. While beating Hampton is no win to hang your hat on, the Pirates are a team projected to finish in the top three of the Big South and performed similarly against Cal as they did at VCU on Friday. The Bears must improve, however, and their level of improvement will dictate how to feel about this coaching staff moving forward.