What if this is as good as it gets? For the Cal basketball team, and for the CGB writing staff, searching for light in the middle of the darkest season in Cal basketball history, the question all year has been where the hope is. Can we find effort, and growth, and glimmers of talent -- and signs, any signs, that a season of incessant losing is not an indicator of the long term health of the program?
It turns out, other than one improbable (and fortunate) comeback win over Stanford, this really is as good as it gets. The highlights of Cal’s season, other than the one glorious night at Maples: competitive losses to superior competition -- 30 minutes with the lead against Wichita State, hanging within 10 of St. Mary’s, keeping ASU within 2 possessions for much of the 2nd half at home, threatening Colorado in Boulder, and then today, at the McKale Center, with 5:28 left in the game Cal was tied with conference champion Arizona 53-53.
Unexpected because basketball expert Scott Chong had given Cal a 0% chance of winning, the Bears and coach Wyking Jones used an intelligent gameplan on both ends of the floor. On offense, they spread the floor with motion and weaves out high, making the formidable Arizona bigs play defense in space. This Arizona squad sports the worst defense since Sean Miller’s first year, and they often look like they are allergic to effort. Likely number one overall pick DeAndre Ayton does not deign to guard inferior insects, and especially not on the perimeter. For much of the game, Cal made Arizona pay the price, shooting close to 48% eFG until a last, disastrous stretch. (48% may not seem like much, but Cal is dead last in the conference at 42%, so in a big game, this is as good as it gets.)
Defensively, the Bears laid back in zone most of the game, choosing to ferociously defend the rim and letting Arizona have kick out threes over delayed close-outs. The strategy worked, as Cal’s bigs were able to protect the rim without much foul trouble, while Arizona obliged by making only 5 of 18 3p attempts (28%). In particular, 42% 3p shooter Alonzo Trier decided to throw up a bagel, going 0-7 on the day.
Unfortunately, this is the 2018 version of Cal basketball, and the Bears face a talent gap almost every time they take the floor. Arizona does not face a talent gap against anyone. In the last 5 minutes, they decided they wanted to win after all. Arizona playing at full speed is a formidable force, and from that point forward, Cal scored 1 point. Arizona scored 13. And once again, Cal had to settle for good try, good effort.
Final Score: Arizona 66 - Cal 54.
Thank You Seniors
It’s easy to forget, sometimes, as we all engage in our varying levels of snark and cynicism, that there are proud young men out there representing our university to the best of their ability. Thank you Cole Welle and Nick Hamilton for giving every bit of your talent, and your considerable character, to build a bridge to the future of this basketball program. Thank you Kingsley Okoroh for your quiet good nature, your even keel -- for always doing what was asked of you...and for throwing countless opponent shots right back in their face. Finally, thank you Marcus Lee. I was bitterly disappointed when you did not join us the first time around, and I wish you had more time with us. I wish we could change the fates, and this season did not have to be what you experienced of Cal basketball. But through it all, your energy, your positivity, your bright light, has been a blessing to our entire community. To all the seniors, thank you, and have a wonderful, wonderful life.
This is (thankfully) my last men’s basketball piece of the year. It’s been difficult. I appreciate everyone who stuck with the team and with us writers, and who resisted the urge to give in to our darker instincts.
Cal is a proud, strong basketball program, and we will be back. This is not as good as it gets.