We’re in a weird time for Cal men’s basketball. Because last year was so historically bad, and because Wyking Jones was hired as perhaps the least experienced head coach in program history, many are ready to see a change. On the other hand, Jones has only been on the job for 1.25 season, an amount of time generally considered woefully inadequate to determine whether or not a coaching hire is successful or unsuccessful.
And so the Cal fan base goes through narrative convulsions, with calls for a new head coach after every defeat and claims that the young Bears have found their footing after every victory. This is generally an unwise way to approach a season, but we all succumb to the temptation from time to time.
Heck, even a full season record can be misleading, or at least can be massaged to shape a certain narrative. Cal fans were arguing about the relative merits of Cuonzo Martin’s 15-16 season multiple years after the fact (He was perfect at home! But he lost to Hawaii!).
So let’s try to push past the narrative and dive into the actual results. What exactly has happened so far this season? And more importantly, how do this season’s results compare with last season’s results? How has this year been different, and what do those differences say about the direction the program is headed? Here is what I am comfortable declaring, this early into the season:
Cal is almost certainly better this year than last year, but the current level of improvement won’t make a huge difference in the W/L column
You might not look at this year’s 3-5 record so far compared to last year’s 6-7 non-conference performance, and see anything all that much different. But Cal’s 2018-19 non-conference schedule has been meaningfully more difficult than last year’s schedule. All five of Cal’s losses so far have come against top 100 teams Kenpom teams. Meanwhile, Cal narrowly earned a borderline top 100 win at home against SDSU along with two easy wins against bad teams in Hampton and Santa Clara.
The difference? Last year Cal lost three games to teams (UC Riverside, Chaminade, and Central Arkansas) who were ranked 200th or substantially worse – about as good as teams like Hampton and Santa Clara last year. Two of those losses were shocking blowouts.
True, Cal has played fewer bad teams this year and so they haven’t had the opportunity to lose to them. But in their losses to top 100 teams, Cal’s average margin of defeat has been 14 points and their worst loss was by 19. Cal is playing legitimate solid teams tougher this season than they played some of the awful teams like Central Arkansas and Chaminade, or middling teams like Portland State and Washington State, last year.
The problem is that if you’re good enough to typically lose to top 100 teams by 14 points rather than 22 points you’re not going to get that many more wins with a power conference schedule. Cal got 8 last year and are projected to get 10 this year. Hardly a marked difference in the standings, no? The 2017-18 Bears were so bad that the modest improvement seen so far this year isn’t going to be enough to win many more games.
Unlike last year, the offense is ahead of the defense.
Last year, Cal’s offense was bottom of the barrel. While the Bears drew plenty of fouls and pulled down lots of offensive rebounds, their turnover problem pared with historically awful shooting meant that scoring was always a massive problem. Cal’s 2017-18 defense wasn’t exactly great shakes, but it was the lesser sin and did improve as the season went by.
These problems have reversed this year, as Cal’s offense has recovered to marginally respectable levels while the defense has fallen badly and struggles to do anything particularly well.
Cal’s offensive growth is perhaps not a huge surprise. The Bears now have a true point guard (more on that below). Matt Bradley has been a knock down shooter and the Bears are generally solid as a team when shooting threes. Andre Kelly has been an efficient low-volume interior scorer. The Bears are still drawing lots of free throws (but making them at a higher rate!). Cal’s offense is still one of the weakest in the conference, but it’s no longer an unfathomable outlier.
If you’re looking for reasons to hope: Cal’s defense slowly but steadily improved last season, and there’s reason to expect that as a young team learns both individual skills and gains team cohesion that the Bears could similarly improve on defense this year. However, Cal is starting at such a low floor on that end that even pretty significant improvement might not be enough to make much of a difference in the standings.
The offense is massively less turnover prone
Last year Cal was 314th in the country in turnover percentage, and this year they have improved all the way to 78th. But what do those numbers mean?
Well, at Cal’s (slow) pace of play, that’s about 3 fewer turnovers per game, which means that Cal is getting up 3 more shots, which means that Cal is scoring a few more points/game just by virtue of taking better care of the job.
Why? There are a whole bunch of reasons. Marcus Lee and Kingsley Okoroh were both pretty turnover prone, and the players that are taking their minutes are less so. Paris Austin is pretty trustworthy with the ball (as you would expect from a point guard), and Darius McNeill has seen his turnover rate cut in half thanks to a combination of being a sophomore and playing much more off-ball.
Add it all up and you get one of the biggest reasons why Cal’s offense sits in the low 100s in adjusted efficiency the nation rather than the 296th Cal finished last year.
Rebounding and rim protection are going to be big problems all year long
Last year’s team was built around two 7’0’’ centers, and this year’s team is built around a bunch of guards and wings. The statistical profile was always going to be different. And while, as noted above, the Bears are on the whole a better team this year, they do have some very obvious weaknesses.
The Bears do a poor job securing the defensive glass. And unless Grant Antecevich’s one-man 2nd chance show against SDSU is sustainable, they make even less noise on the offensive glass.
At the same time, teams have been able to finish at the rim with frequency and consistency. The Bears are 298th in the nation in 2 point percentage defense. To be clear, this is a bigger issue that size and rim protection (more on that below). But it’s also true that there isn’t anybody inside who can alter shots or deter drives into the paint. It’s possible that Connor Vanover may develop into that kind of player, but right now his offensive game is ahead of his defensive game and he doesn’t play enough minutes to be an impact interior defender.
. . . as is stopping opponents from getting off the shots they want to take
As noted above, the Bears are an abysmal 298th in 2 point shot defense. But they’re also 319th in 3 point shot defense. Modern basketball says that your offense should be predicated on earning shots near the basket or from behind the 3 point line, and right now Cal’s defense doesn’t do a good job of taking either option away from teams.
Other than the baseline defensive shooting percentages, I don’t have numbers to use to illustrate the issue – just my own observations when I watch the Bears. Zone, man-to-man, regardless of the system Cal’s players have struggled all season long to play good defense either individually or as a collective, and the results show in the box scores. St. John’s, SDSU, USF – all of them produced individual offensive games at or near their most efficient of the season against Cal.
How much progress do you expect in year two?
In year one Cal finished 8-24 (2-16) and 244th in Kenpom.
In year two, Cal is projected to finish 10-20 (5-13), and is currently 170th in Kenpom.
That’s a not insignificant level of improvement. 75 spots better in the national rankings isn’t nothing, particularly when you consider that Cal’s rotation is almost entirely made up of underclassmen.
On the other hand, it’s generally not super hard for a power conference team with access to power conference recruits to meaningfully improve when the prior season saw performance on the level of, say, a below average Big Sky team. Improving from ~250th to ~150th isn’t nearly as hard as the step from ~150th to, say, 9-9 in Pac-12 play. Just ask Ernie Kent, Ken Bone, and Craig Robinson.
The good news is that there’s still 75% of a season left to figure out how much better this team is, and whether or not that level of improvement is enough to make any sort of meaningful difference. The other good news is that you’re not Jim Knowlton, and you only need to decide whether or not the current MBB powers-that-be deserve your attention as a Cal fan.