On November 20, 2017, the California Golden Bears flew to Hawaii for the fourth game of Wyking Jones’ young career. They entered the Maui Invitational as heavy underdogs to Wichita State, at that time the #6 team in the nation. It turned out to be one of the more memorable games of the season, for reasons both good and bad. The upstart Bears, 15 point underdogs going in, shocked the Shockers, playing fast-paced, electric basketball, and at one point held an 18 point lead in the 2nd half. They ultimately wilted under the relentless full court pressure, giving the lead up with 5:35 to play and getting blown away down the stretch, ultimately losing by 10. The collapse would become emblematic of a lost season: brief flashes of talent, washed out by the inability to play together and execute, culminating in inevitable disappointment.
And so, almost a year to the day, another unknown Bear squad went on the road to test their mettle. This time 3 hours east to New York, again with question marks, again with everything in the world to prove. To be sure, the St. John’s Red Storm is not the powerhouse that Wichita State was. But they are a solid, respectable opponent: a fringe at-large team, one that would compete in the upper half of the Pac-12. A 14-point favorite to win. But also an opportunity. A chance to show that 8-24 is behind us. A chance to win back fans. A chance to state emphatically: this year is different.
The Bears almost pulled off the upset. And perhaps, just perhaps, they did in fact make that statement.
First Half: Unsustainable
The Bears started the game with a series of mid-range and long range jumpers. Six of them, all of which went in. They sprinted out to what eventually became a 22-16 lead on the wave of 9-10 shooting, including 4-5 from deep for Darius McNeill. The sophomore would finish the game 8-16 from the field, including 5-10 from 3p range (21 points), and was joined by Paris Austin’s 7-11 (17 points), despite a disturbing inability to get to the rim.
However, an efficient offense in Berkeley is not going to be built around two guys shooting long and mid-range jumpers, and St. John’s was aware of this. They continued to patiently play a switching defense against Cal’s high motion, content to let the Bears settle for jumpers. The Bears obliged, and as their shooting cooled, St. John’s slowly began to pull away. The Red Storm led 38-31 at the half. Paris and Darius had taken 14 shots. The rest of the team combined for just 8. Justice Sueing had just 5 points on 3 shots, Matt Bradley 2 on 3 shots, and Andre Kelly 2 on 2 shots.
Second Half: Sustainable?
And this, loyal Blues, is where we find our hope. The 2017-18 Bears would have come out in the 2nd half and looked exactly the same. They would have kept hoisting jumpers, regressed to the mean, gotten frustrated, lost their poise, and ended up getting beat by double digits. That’s what happened against Wichita when they were tested.
That’s not what happened against St. John’s.
Throughout the first half, the Bears looked lost against perimeter switches, content to reverse the ball, and eventually settle for jumpers. In the 2nd half they figured it out. On some switches, a defender can get a half step behind. If you can turn the corner as he’s recovering, you can create an advantage, either forcing help, or getting all the way to the hole. Belatedly, Cal--and in particular Justice Sueing--discovered this, and began to make St. John’s pay. Time and again he pressed his advantage and got downhill, either going all the way to the rim, or making the extra pass against an out-of-position defense. Then Darius did it. The Paris did it. Then Juwhan Harris-Dyson did it.
The shot distribution looked entirely different. Justice ended up getting 7 shots in the half, and got to the line 5 times. Andre went 3-3. JHD went 2-3. And Connor Vanover did this:
With the defense off balance, the Bears began to get better and better looks. They put up a 48 point half and stayed within one possession until the final minute. But for an incandescent 32 points from Shamorie Ponds (on 11-15 from the floor and 7-7 from the line), and this particularly frustrating 3p bomb, the Bears’ effort would have been enough.
The Bears did not wilt. They got outgunned by a gun slinger. Around here, after 8-24, I think we can call that progress.
So Where Are We?
Almost despite themselves, Cal has become a modern offense. Gone are the days of wasting 10 seconds of clock, dumping the ball into the post, and waiting for an inefficient, indecisive player to make a bad decision. There’s no obvious post to dump it into. There are however, guys with multiple talents. Paris can beat guys off the dribble. Darius can shoot it. Matt Bradley has a J and can attack. Justice is deceptively good when he gets going toward the basket, and is a clever finisher. Andre is active against a scrambling defense. Connor can pick and pop.
Learning how to mesh those talents will be the test of this season, but at least we know from early returns that it won’t be rote--it won’t be standard. And it just might look like offense is supposed to look in 2018.
Last year the California Golden Bears sported a comically bad 44.5% eFG. Despite being an elite offensive rebounding team, they were by far the worst offensive team in the Pac-12. On that front, tonight was a good sign. The Bears put up an impressive 65% eFG, and as we have discussed, the 2nd half of that shooting was based on a style of offense that might have legs.
Tonight the Bears posted 1.18 points per possession. They only reached that figure twice last year, the last time on November 16, 2017 against Wofford. To do so against St. John’s is quite the feat. Relative to opponent, it was better than any single game offensive performance all of last year. Will they do that every night? Probably not. But are there signs they can avoid being the worst Power 5 offense in the country? Very likely yes.
The defense? Well, despite what may have been some fortunate shooting by St. John’s, it allowed way too many looks at the rim and open threes. It’s the reason we lost. But this is going to be an optimistic post, damnit, and that critique can wait for another day.
For now, we face an interesting crossroads. Last year Cal collapsed after the near miss against Wichita, losing by 14 to VCU and following that with the worst loss of the season against Chaminade. Tomorrow they get an opportunity against a beatable Temple team, to show us the worst is behind us. A win would go a long way toward setting a very different tone for the upcoming season.
Tune in to ESPNU on Tuesday at 2pm to see if the hope is real.