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WBB Conversations: Hearts Broken In the Desert

Swept. Despondent.

Photo Credit @CalWBBall

Reef, Friday Night Pregame

This one makes me nervous. It’s all downside and no upside. I get it, Arizona is improved, and they play defense, and they make it tough for opponents this year, yadda yadda. The reality is, especially after the Harvard and UCLA losses, we can’t afford a slip here. If we’re as good as we aspire to be then we beat this team, whether it’s on the road or not.

I don’t think it’ll be easy. I think they’ll make it tough if we’re not at our best, so we gotta come out with the same stuff we brought at home vs USC.

Am I oversimplifying things when I think: if we hit from the perimeter, we win this pretty easily, and if not, we’re in an ugly game until the 4th quarter? Because that’s where I’m at. The good news is, I took a little bit of a look at Aari McDonald, and I’m not blown away. We should be able to stop her if we’re focused.

Anyway, here we go. Big one to get to open this trip. I guess they’re all big these days.

Reef, Saturday Morning

Did you watch the game? It felt a little bit like a tree falling in the forest last night. There was virtually no discussion of the game on social media. It’s almost like it wasn’t happening. It was awful lonely suffering through that defeat with nobody to share the misery.

Nick, Saturday Morning

No, I had a work function that went late. Have it on DVR, but not sure I actually want to watch. This has turned into quite the bummer of a season unless something drastic changes.

Reef, Saturday Evening

This is a really discouraging time of the season. A part of me is telling myself I shouldn’t overreact to a tough 4 game stretch, but the underlying fundamentals we’ve discussed all year continue their disturbing patterns, and we might be at the point where we just have to accept this team’s shortcomings.

The losses to Harvard, UCLA, and now Arizona have exhibited the same disheartening pattern: slow start due to failures in intensity and execution, stirring comeback, and inability to make enough plays down the stretch to secure a victory. I guess I’ll take that latter issue first, as I just watched the tape of the final stretch yesterday.

In the last several minutes of the game, the last really good look the Bears got in a meaningful possession was Asha’s open FT line jumper at 3:33 to cut it to a two point deficit. After that it was:

  • a step back 22 footer by Kristine, with her feet squarely on the 3p line
  • a blown 2 on 1 fast break between Asha and Jaelyn, that was improperly spaced and terribly executed. Asha took it too deep into the paint before passing it (and it wasn’t a great pass), Jaelyn wasn’t ready, and the ball sailed out of bounds.
  • a pass to Kristine behind the backboard surrounded by two players (she did manage to get her own board and finish)
  • an open Recee 20 foot jumper around a Kristine screen out of a timeout
  • an Asha floater in the lane attempting to shoot over two frontcourt players

We’ve heard this year about how veteran this team is, how together they are. None of that matters if you can’t produce when it counts, and we have not. A high end, talented squad with veteran leadership should produce, on balance, FAR better looks than the list above, with the game on the line. I also wondered why Jaelyn was on the floor the entire end of the game, when there were plenty of opportunities to sub in Kenzie in offense for defense switches. Jaelyn’s 4-7 box score line is a bit misleading, in the sense that we did work some cutting action for her to get some stuff under the basket earlier in the game, but in our standard halfcourt set she is simply not being guarded on the perimeter, really mucking up spacing for everyone else. On her 0-3 line from deep, she didn’t come close on any of them. I appreciate what Jaelyn continues to bring to the table in terms of defense, rebounding, hustle -- but when you’ve got a chance to get Kenzie in there for offensive possessions, don’t you have to take it? If for no other reason than people will guard her on the perimeter (not to mention she is already a far superior passer to Jaelyn)?

But the deeper issue last night was the thing we keep coming back to: our offense and its limitations. I tweeted this extensively into the void, and I don’t want to relive all of it right now, but pretty simply: if our highly touted perimeter players don’t knock down open shots, we are never going to have a fully functional offense. We were 2-12 from deep in the 1H with 11 turnovers, and those failures were intimately related. Arizona simply did not respect our shooting and stayed in the paint. The bulk of our turnovers came from trying to force it into Kristine anyway. We ended up giving up 1/3 of our possessions without getting a shot off, not knocking down jumpers, and going into the locker room at the half down 11. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Like last game, much will be made of one player going off, but despite McDonald’s 36, Arizona put up .90 ppp (not including the intentional fouling at the end, but including 5 points on jumpers that were way off that banked in). I’m good with that. Ideally it’s a hair better, somewhere in the .80s, and maybe that’s the difference maker last night (if we had been a bit more focused in Q1), but I’m generally fine with where our defense has been the last several games.

We have to fix this offense, and maybe the perimeter talent just isn’t there to fix it. I’m in almost physical pain writing that. Hopefully I’m wrong.

Nick, Saturday Evening

It’s of course simplistic to say that teams that can shoot the 3 are better than teams that can’t . . . but it’s also true that Oregon, Oregon State, and Stanford (and, interestingly, Utah) are all top 15 in the nation in 3 point shooting percentage, while Cal languishing in 183rd. Kristine and good team defense can mask the problem a healthy proportion of the time, but not against teams that can score efficiently, or against teams that can organize a defense that will slow down Kristine. Arizona was able to do the latter, and I can guaran-freaking-tee that ASU will be able to do the same.

Now, maaaaybe we win a hideous game 47-45. I hate being repetitive . . . but it’s more likely that we’re going to need to knock down jumpers to beat the Devils.

If we could get this win it would go a long way towards washing the taste of last few weeks out of our mouths. An RPI top 25 road win! Those are legit valuable, and we don’t have as many shots at them as you’d think considering the quality of the Pac-12 this year.

Reef, Sunday Afternoon Pregame

stanford completely wipes out Arizona by 30, holding them to .7 ppp while shooting 42% from deep themselves. OSU by an easy 24 over USC, while shooting 44% three pointers. Oregon, as I write this, is handling UCLA by double digits at Pauley. It’s long past time to acknowledge the very clear reality that there are three elite teams in the Pac-12, and we don’t belong among them. Right now, we are a 7 seed at best, unless something fundamentally changes about the structure and strength of our basketball team.

In a way, it’s freeing to come to terms with that. A top 30 team is not nothing, and there will be special moments to appreciate as we journey through the next 15 games and beyond. God knows it’s a better experience than we’re getting on the men’s side. But dreaming of better is just not a wise investment of emotional resources, so instead I’m just going to hope for a competitive effort today in Tempe, and go from there.

Reef, Sunday Evening Postgame

You wanna start, or are both of us going to curl up into a ball until Friday?

Nick, Monday Morning

Time to pick up the pieces.

I’m trying to ignore my emotions on this one, hard as it is. If I knew nothing about the rest of the season - if I didn’t know we’d lost close games at home to Harvard and UCLA, and on the road to Arizona - and you told me we played a dead heat with ASU and lost by 1, then I’d be sad but ultimately understanding. ASU is a really good team, and they’re particularly good at taking away our best source of offense. There’s a reason we haven’t beaten them since Penina Davidson was a freshman. This game was by far the lesser sin.

But we do know everything else that’s happened. For that very reason, beating ASU was a critical opportunity to make up for some of our earlier missteps, and to right the ship with the chance to stabilize things at home this week. That opportunity is gone, and the opportunities for big wins that are left are significantly more daunting. This game, by itself, lowers our NCAA seeding expectations considerably.

In this exact moment though, I want to focus on something positive. Not for the sake of being positive in the face of a painful weekend, but because this particular positive DEMANDS acknowledgement.

This was quietly one of Kristine Anigwe’s best games, or at least she was impactful in a different way than usual. Watching her play, and thinking about how she has changed over her 3.5 years in Berkeley, I’m impressed by her growth in areas that were once relative weaknesses for her. Her rebounding has steadily improved, and her anticipation and ability to contest almost every rebound is thrilling. Her defense is miles better than it used to be, and she’s finally grown into the type of interior enforcer I dreamed about when a 6’5’’, uber-athletic post first arrived on campus.

Underpinning all of this, I suspect, is an increased stamina that allows her to be an excellent rebounder and defender without sacrificing the absurd amounts of energy she has to expend to wrestle for position and score through contact on the offensive end. In previous years, I don’t think she had the energy reserves to focus and disrupt on defense without sacrificing on the other end. This improved stamina may also have something to do with the fact that she’s not fouling as frequently as before . . . though I would guess that fans of rival Pac-12 programs might suggest (and not with 100% inaccuracy) that she is getting more than her fair share of calls on both ends in her senior season.

Of course, the game ended on an inbound lob pass directly to Anigwe, that she of course caught and gathered and went up with, and was probably fouled. So Kristine didn’t get the most important call of the day. Would Cal have been in position to win on the last play if she hadn’t been getting calls all night? Probably not. But ASU also goes into every game against Anigwe with the (I would guess explicitly stated) game plan of fouling her constantly on the assumption that the refs won’t call everything, so they get zero sympathy from us. Either way Kristine managed 21 points and 16 rebounds despite obsessive attention from the ASU defense. She was magnificent.

Reef, Tuesday Afternoon

It took me two full days after the ASU loss to respond because losing that game was so devastating for me, both in the manner that we lost it, and because of what it means for the complexion of our season. I’m going to do my best to put on my robot hat and think dispassionately about trends and implications, but I’ll be’s tough right now. I was not at all expecting us to lose 4 of the last 5 games.

One caveat--some of these observations come with no or relatively light stat work, because I just haven’t had the heart the last couple days. I do feel good about my general instincts and observations, but normally I’d have dug a little more to support my eye test.

I wholeheartedly agree with your observations about Kristine’s all-around game. I’ve raved in various tweets about her defensive presence and awareness this year, and her rebounding, while always remarkably impactful outside of her area, seems to have taken a leap this year when she’s been forced to play (often) without a traditional big by her side.

The one thing that’s taken a dive this year is Kristine’s efficiency. She’s been a remarkably steady 57% eFG% finisher in her time at Berkeley, but this year she’s down below 52%. I think in part because she’s trying some less efficient jumpers and drives, but in part because defenses are geared even MORE to stopping her (if that’s possible). We saw the peak of that vs Arizona, and I think Lindsay finally came out on Sunday and said the heck with this--we are going to use all our weapons if teams are going to sag on Kristine. In the 1st quarter we almost entirely abandoned the post entry for wing offense, with, at various times, Jaelyn, Recee, Kianna, and Kenzie attacking as if they were primary options, rather than afterthoughts. Jaelyn, in particular, played like a demon offensively.

We saw the revamped emphasis pay dividends in 1.04 ppp, a big step up from the .85 on Friday, and a number I feel pretty good about vs a team like ASU. Early offense away from Kristine led to more openings later, and although she had a tough day finishing over a pesky ASU frontcourt, she feasted at the line and we didn’t turn the ball over nearly as much trying to force it to her.

The result was excruciating: some good shooting variance from ASU, an abysmal penultimate possession, a brilliant SLOB on the final possession and the ignored foul. And well, losing a coin flip in a critical game sucks. Really, really sucks.

But if I’m just analyzing, I at least see a path forward schematically and strategically that gets us out of this mess, and I feel a lot better with that as our latest data point, than I would if the Arizona memory was fresh. The outlines of a top 20 team are more solid in my mind after Sunday’s game, despite the outcome.

With that said, all of a sudden we have 5 losses, and we are on the cusp of going from “what seed?” to “are we in?” Straight up, bottom line, we need two wins at home this week. I don’t think there’s anything about WSU or Washington that should make me worry about not getting those wins. Disagree with me. I dare you.