When you’re trying to pull yourself up from the abyss, all you want is hope. After the worst season in Cal basketball history, the narrative of 2018-19 was never going to be about rankings or conference championships or tournament bids. It was always going to be about foundation and improvement. What signs could we discern that the Cal Men’s Basketball Program was on its way back? What reasons do we have to anticipate, and perhaps even enjoy, a journey of upward mobility? Is this a program to watch, to follow, to believe in? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
It is December 29, 2018. The non-conference schedule is over. The Bears just closed out 2018 against the Seattle Redhawks, a team they beat in Seattle in 2017. A team missing its second leading scorer and best 3p shooter, Matej Kavas. A team that is a reasonable proxy for the bottom of the Pac-12: about the 150th best team in the country, with a 9 point win over WSU and an 8 point loss to Washington on its resume. Vegas had the line at Cal -1.
Heading into conference play, an appropriate test to measure the Bears’ chances of pulling themselves up from the bottom of a down Pac-12 conference, and to compete at a higher level.
Final score: Seattle 82 - Cal 73.
As the game opened, ageless duo Barry Tompkins and Dan Belloumini told us the emphasis in Cal’s pregame huddle was focus. They did not successfully meet that goal. At the under 12:00 timeout, Seattle led 21-4. On defense, Cal provided little resistance to inside attacks from Myles Carter and Morgan Means, who shot a combined 7-8 to open the game, mostly on easy post-ups or drives to the basket. Meanwhile, the Cal offense forgot everything that had made them successful in recent games. After an initial drive to the basket by Darius McNeill that resulted in an and-1 opportunity, Cal decided sharing the ball and attacking the basket were optional, settling instead for a series of long 2 point jumpers that did not go down. There was no energy, little defensive communication, and a complete lack of offensive cohesion. In short, there was no focus.
Cal did fight their way back into the contest. On offense they began to attack the basket, finally realizing that nobody on Seattle’s squad could stay in front of Cal’s superior wings. On defense they utilized 3/4 court pressure and increased energy to disrupt Seattle’s rhythm. They cut what had been an early Seattle edge in offensive rebounds to just 2 midway through the 2nd half. The Bears fought all the way back, playing smart, sound basketball, and using what was quite clearly a talent edge to come all the way back to take a 51-50 lead with 9:45 left.
Then they squandered it all again. Down the stretch, the Bears decided to stop running their offense, and to complement this bizarre development, they also decided to stop getting back on defense. As they pulled away in the final minutes, the Redhawks out-hustled the Bears in transition, once again gobbled up key offensive boards, forced the Bears into inopportune turnovers and bad shots, and just flat-out wanted it more. It was a discouraging display of execution, and of focus, and of heart, during what could have been the culmination of a rousing comeback. And it gave loyal Cal fans too little of what they desperately need to stick with this team: hope.
After a 5-7 non-conference campaign, the Cal Men’s Basketball Team has a worse record than they did a year ago, and fans are left grasping for any reason to look forward to the Pac-12 season.
- The defense, thus far, has been the worst of any Power 5 team, and has been unable to hold any opponent this year below their season average offensive efficiency. What that means in practical terms is that the Seattle offense had an easier time scoring on Cal’s defense than when they played such powerhouses as Portland, Longwood, and Fairfield. The Bears cannot guard anybody. The most successful defensive stretch of the game was when Cal used pressure to change tempo and pick up their own energy. The strategy clearly took Seattle out of its rhythm. But when the game was on the line, Cal was unable to maintain anything resembling an adequate level of focus or intensity, and Seattle pulled away easily down the stretch.
- Cal has some relatively simple ways to get decent offense, and thus far this year, whenever they have shown a commitment to those options, the Bears have put up far better offensive numbers than 2017-18. Those options are: (1) get players going downhill and attacking the basket off of ball screens and dribble handoffs; (2) use court imbalance from those drives to kick to open three point shooters; and (3) feed Andre Kelly and his 68% eFG. So tonight, (1) for critical periods at the beginning and end of the game, Cal stopped attacking the basket and settled for jumpers; (2) the Bears only got up 10 3p attempts in the first 37 minutes of the game (despite shooting 40% on those attempts); and (3) they limited Andre’s touches (he ended up with 6 FGA and 4 FTA).
- Coach Jones after the game: “We came out flat. We weren’t ready to play to start the game. I don’t know why. I have to do a better job of making sure we’re ready to play. Because today I could see it in shootaround. The energy level wasn’t there for whatever reason.”
- “We didn’t take too many midrange shots. We took good shots. They just didn’t fall when we needed them too.” Cal opened the game taking 6 two-point jumpers in their first 10 shots. At the end of that stretch they were down 21-4. After Cal took the lead, 3 of the next 5 shots were two-point jumpers, and another was a step back three after no ball movement in the possession. At the end of this stretch, Cal’s 1 point lead was a 6 point deficit.
- It’s disturbing when a coach does not seem to know what’s happening on his own team, or what’s happening on the court right in front of him. I don’t know what else to say about those post-game remarks without sounding overly harsh or bitter, so I’ll just leave it there.
- I really wanted this last recap before conference play to be optimistic. I wanted to channel positive improvements from the early season into a sunny outlook against a terrible Pac-12. But it would stretch any semblance of analytic integrity to try to spin a forecast in that direction after tonight’s performance. There are things this team can do well--we have seen flashes of those tools this season. We’ve also seen a lot of bad basketball. Whether this staff and this team can more consistently turn the flashes into brighter light is the operative question as they head down to Los Angeles to open the Pac-12.
If this leaves a bad taste in your mouth, come out to Haas tomorrow at 2pm and watch Cal WBB dominate.— ReefCGB (@ReefCGB) December 30, 2018