First, let’s be clear: The Bears stand at 15-8 (6-6) and will probably finish the regular season with a record around 19-10. They are likely to make the NCAA tournament. This season is hardly a disaster, and there are many programs who would gladly trade places with the Bears.
And yet this team aspires to much more than a middle of the road Pac-12 team destined to get a 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. That’s what happened last year, and that’s what the Bears have shown so far this season. For two years in a row, Cal raced through the non-conference schedule with strong performances, a national ranking, and a high RPI. And for two years in a row, Cal has shown only brief flashes of competitiveness against the upper half of the Pac-12.
Last year, Cal went just 2-10 against Pac-12 teams that made the NCAA tournament. But to Cal’s credit, they were frequently competitive. They lost in Tempe in overtime, coughed away a late lead against Oregon at home, and stayed within 10 points of a few other teams that made deep NCAA runs.
Of course, last year’s Bears also blew games against weaker Pac-12 teams, which is why this year’s team looks better in the W/L column. But the Bears have actually been less competitive against the Pac-12’s elite, losing by an average of 21 points to the five teams above them in the standings who are sure-fire NCAA teams.
Which leads to the obvious question: What is it about Pac-12 play that causes Cal so much trouble?
It’s not like the Bears have been incapable of competing with non-Pac-12 teams with NCAA tournament quality. Last year Cal beat Oklahoma and LSU and very nearly beat highly ranked Missouri this year.
When you look at the numbers, there’s a ton of little things and one very big thing. Obviously Cal’s efficiency numbers are going to come down in conference play when the quality of opposition is significantly higher on average. Sure enough, Cal’s defense has ticked down a bit. The Bears aren’t hitting their 2 point shots as frequently as they did in the non-conference either (52% vs. 44.6%).
But the biggest issue is that Cal’s 3 point shooting has fallen off a cliff.
Much of the excitement over Cal’s non-conference performance was because the Bears seemingly found enough shooting. For years fans had been hoping to see a team with multiple shooters. Asha Thomas gave Cal one. Kianna Smith seemed to give Cal two. Add it occasional triples from Mikayla Cowling and Jaelyn Brown and the Bears seemingly had more than enough threats to stretch out opponents.
Cal shot a stunning 44.6% from behind the arc in non-conference play. That number was almost sure to come down a bit (the very best teams in the country shoot around 40%) but Cal had plenty of room to regress and still shoot plenty well enough to support their interior scorers.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Cal has shot an equally stunning 28.1% from three in conference play.
The presumed analysis at this point is that better opponents have done a better job of defending Cal’s shooters, thus causing the decline. But I’m not particularly convinced. Most of Cal’s opponents sell out to stop Kristine Anigwe. Arizona State dared Cal to shoot as many open 3s as they wanted in Berkeley. The plan worked to perfection and Cal was paralyzed offensively. Mostly, I have no choice but to conclude that Cal’s non-conference shooting was the mother of all hot streaks, because Cal’s Pac-12 shooting is much more in line with previous statistics.
Because this has happened before. Last year the Bears made a respectable-ish 33.5% of their 3s against non-con opponents, then shot . . . 28.7% against Pac-12 opponents, again powerless to punish teams for lavishing attention upon Kristine Anigwe.
There are other areas in which the Bears could improve. They’re an average rebounding team. They don’t typically force as many turnovers as they commit themselves. But at the heart of Cal’s offensive struggles is a problem that has been present ever since Cal made the Final Four - the Bears just can’t shoot well enough to complement their interior threats.