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Recap: Cal’s defense can’t hold down Temple in 17 point loss

Temple scores inside and out and the Cal offense can’t keep up to send Cal back home without a win in New York

NCAA Basketball: Legends Classic Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Apologies for a late recap - I blame east coast bias for putting weekday games during west coast business hours.

After watching Cal arguably outplay (Legends Tournament Champion) St. John’s in a really entertaining game on Monday night with probably their best offensive performance under Wyking Jones, cautious optimism crept through the hardy few Cal fans still engaging with men’s basketball. And with good reason - while the Red Storm are a bit chaotic, they are a pretty fair facsimile of, say, the 4th or 5th best Pac-12 team. Giving them everything they could handle in what was a road game in all but name was encouraging.

So it was kind of a bummer to watch Cal score on just 2 of their first 16 possessions one day later against Temple. After 10 minutes of basketball the Bears trailed 19-5, and the game felt like a blowout waiting to happen.

To Cal’s credit they fought back to within 4 at halftime, fueled by excellent 3 point shooting. That was as close as they got, as the Bears weren’t going to keep shooting as well from deep and never managed to get enough stops on defense to truly give themselves a chance to win the game.

Thus, the game ended Temple 76, Cal 59, and Cal will have to carry the sting of a 17 point defeat and an 0-2 trip through the Thanksgiving holiday before they return to the court at home on Monday night against Santa Clara.

On Three Point Shooting

Last year, Cal essentially had 1.5 competent three point shooters. Darius McNeill was a solid, if streaky, threat and broke the Cal record for 3 pointers from a freshman. Justice Sueing probably needed to shoot a bit better (just 32% last year) but was dangerous enough that the defense needed to account for him. But otherwise Cal was awful, and finished the season at 349th in the nation in three point shooting percentage.

So it was entirely sensible that Cal wouldn’t attempt many 3 pointers total, even if that meant fighting against the fast current of modern college basketball offense. Which is why I didn’t find any reason to complain that Cal was 337th in the country in 3 point shot attempt rate. Don’t shoot ‘em if you can’t make ‘em.

The good news is that Cal might be able to shoot ‘em this year. Darius McNeill is an established shooter and has started the season hot. Connor Vanover got attention as a recruit in large part because he’s a legit stretch 5. Matt Bradley is 6-8 to start the season, while Justice Sueing and Jacobi Gordon have looked good in limited attempts. Cal is a pretty stunning 9th in the country in 3 point shooting percentage as of Wednesday night.

And yet Cal is attempting 3 point shots at virtually the same very low rate with which they attempted 3 point shots last year, when Darius was the only viable threat.

It’s worth noting that this could be a mirage. Four games is an absurdly small sample, and I think we can all agree that Cal won’t continue to shoot 45.6% from behind the arc, seeing as that would set an NCAA season record. But it’s also true that this team is generally lacking in size and is more guard/wing oriented. And while Cal may not have great shooters, they probably have at least competent shooters.

So: Does Cal want to have 28% of their shots be from behind the arc, which is their current rate and their rate from last year? Or does this team want to shoot more 3 pointers but simply struggles to create them? Either way, deep shooting has been one of the obvious things that have gone right to start the year, and I really hope that the coaching staff and players find ways to create more attempts.

On Defense

As you might expect for a team that is almost entirely underclassmen, Cal makes their fair share of mental mistakes. As I watched the replay of the game on watchESPN I tried to make a point of going back on plays where Temple got off particularly good shots, and a theme emerged - confusion or lack of engagement with assignments. On some plays Cal was in man to man and players struggled to communicate and execute ball screen switches. On other plays Cal was in zone and players collectively struggled to swing the zone around and reestablish the integrity of the zone when ball movement and drives forced the zone out of position.

The announcing crew highlighted a Temple baseline drive with a kick out to a corner three, and it was a reasonably well executed move. What they didn’t mention is that Justice Sueing was either helping off of his defender to no real advantage or simply lost his man. Either way, that mental mistake left Temple with a wide open corner 3.

This isn’t meant to single out Sueing, because Cal’s defensive issues were essentially team-wide. Too many possessions ended with Cal players pointing in confusion at each other over defensive assignments.

Temple isn’t a particularly good shooting team, and perhaps Cal got a bit unlucky that the Owls had their best night of the year on both 2 (61%) and 3 (43%) point shots. But Temple was also able to get open looks pretty consistently, so Cal’s defense is going to have to accept some of the culpability for Temple’s hot shooting night.

Last year the Cal defense did improve over the course of the season, but the improvement was pretty marginal and was starting from a pretty low level. The early evidence is that Cal will be starting over, again from a very low baseline, and I guess the hope is that improvement this year is quicker and of a higher magnitude. If that doesn’t happen Cal will again have to depend on Ernie Kent and the WSU Cougars to stand between our Bears and the worst defense in the Pac-12.

Various notes

  • The first offensive possession of each half ended with an Andre Kelly post-up. No clue if that’s by design or just how the play flowed, but he posted up a few other times in the game and it probably says something about where this coaching staff thinks their offense can come from.
  • Paris Austin picked up his 3rd foul in the first half with a pretty unnecessary rebounding foul, and Cal will likely need him to be headier this season. Similarly, a 4:4 assist to turnover ratio will have to get better for this Cal offense to reach a level that can win Pac-12 games.
  • Early days, but Matt Bradey and Jacobi Gordon are looking like solid, well-rounded wings that can shoot enough on one end to keep a defense honest and help out with defensive rebounding on the other end. As noted above, integrating them into the larger defensive system is the team-wide challenge to be addressed.
  • The critical Temple run early in the 2nd half that put the game away was a classic everything-goes-wrong kind of sequence. First, a pretty poor Temple shooter nails a long 3 behind a ball screen. Then Temple gets a wide open 3 from their best shooter when Cal’s defense fails to set after a transition scramble. Then after a timeout Gordon gets his pocket picked for an easy bucket. Boom, 15 point lead that Temple maintains the rest of the way.