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WBB Conversations: Sweeping into the Mountains

2-0 at Haas Heading into a Critical Game at Utah

Photo Credit @CalWBBall

Reef, Friday Morning

I’m going to open this week on a more sober note than usual, which is perhaps not ideal...but we are in a sober time of the season right now.

With the commitment of Jazlen Green, Cal’s 2019 recruiting class stands at Green, Cailyn Crocker, and Lauren Fields. I’ll start of stating clearly and unequivocally that I wholeheartedly welcome and am proud of anyone who commits to the University of California. They’re coming to be part of a great program, community, and university.

But based on overall recruiting evaluations (which are admittedly sparse and sometimes inaccurate for girls high school recruits), it’s our most lightly regarded class in recent memory, and we have not yet signed a big in a year when we’re losing the best big to ever play for Cal. I can’t help contrast this to our rivals on the peninsula, whose 2019 class includes 3 players ranked in the top 25, including the number 1 ranked player, and another one who’s become a youtube sensation for dunking by people.

There will be plenty of exciting talent left in the Cal program next year, including two McDonald’s All-Americans who have made solid on-court contributions already, but with a stellar senior class leaving, that makes this year take on a greater sense of urgency.

And we have lost 5 of the last 6 games.

Speaking of, today’s WSU game is a bit of a disappointment for me. As you know, I upgraded my season tickets to chairbacks this year, not because of any great value (general admission pretty much gets you anywhere you want besides courtside for most games), but on the general principle of showing support for WBB. As a season ticket holder, I place immense value on the ability to watch 9 conference games first hand, and I’m disappointed that one of those opportunities is taken away from me with an 11:30am Friday start.

I’m a high school educator and sports coach, so I appreciate the value of the School Haas Rock game, and its impact on young people. Just this year a student told me how she attended the game a few years ago, and Mikayla Cowling became one of her heroes.

But the game has traditionally been a non-conference game against a cupcake opponent, not one of the 9 conference experiences I treasure so highly. I’m sure there was some unavoidable scheduling issue that made them move it to conference time this year, and if you asked me if I’d want them to cancel the event this year for my own season-ticket-holding pleasure, I’d say of course not. I just wish there was a way not to have to take from one to serve the needs of the other. I’ve already been slightly disappointed with my treatment as a season ticket holder by Cal Athletics. I know the dollar commitment is not huge for WBB, but still, you’d think they’d value their loyal fans at a time when the revenue sports are struggling to find traction in the community.

Anyway, whether I’m there or not, we absolutely, positively need a win today. A loss would signal the turn of this season into disaster territory. Let’s defend home.

Nick, Friday Morning

I guess it’s nice to have a free Friday night in January/February . . . although the weather doesn’t make we want to do anything tonight anyway.

This should be a stress-free week, which makes this the perfect time to reflect on the state of the season and the program rather than the specific games of the week. Washington State and Washington are probably the 10th and 11th worst teams in the conference, and Cal gets them at home this week. If these aren’t routine wins, then it’s time for a radical reevaluation of this season.

I’m not sophisticated enough to calculate Cal’s Pythagorean record over the last six games, but seeing as how the average margin of victory has been -3.3, I think it’s fair to say that the Bears have been a might unlucky to only go 1-5 in this stretch of games. There hasn’t really been a game the Bears have played where they didn’t have a shot of winning late in the contest (maybe UConn) but they’ve come up empty every time. One more piece of evidence against the truism that veteran teams invariably find ways to win close games?

What I want to see this week are absolutely stress free wins. Both Washington and Washington State are good enough (and Cal not dominant enough) that on the right day they could give us a scare at Haas. But it’s high time Cal finally takes control of a few games so that late game randomness can’t possibly bite us again.

Reef, Saturday Morning

I actually really value my Friday night Pac-12 experiences at Haas, especially since there are only a handful of those experiences every season. I’m also sad I missed Paige Bowie’s appearance. I was a fan when she played -- she was in the Ryan Drew / Randy Duck mold of solid guards who could shoot the rock. But I’ve said my piece on that bit of scheduling. I’m glad it was a successful event, and I hope that next year they can go back to holding it when it doesn’t take a Pac-12 game away from the rest of us fans who really want to be there for all of them.

It’s nice to be talking about a W. I only got to watch about 5 minutes of game action (surreptitiously on a laptop in a lunch meeting), and there’s only so much you can get out of a box score, but overall I probably feel reasonably positive. I don’t know if it was completely the relaxed and stress free win you were hoping for. It was a single digit lead in parts of the 4th quarter. But we did go on a big scoring run shortly thereafter (I missed it) and had the lead stretched past 20 at one point, so I’d give it mixed grades for the level of dominance.

It’s dangerous to analyze offensive execution from a box score, but 10 shots each from Kianna, Teezy, Kenzie, plus 8 from Recee (compared to 18 for Kristine), and only 11 turnovers, suggests we made some progress with offensive balance and not repeatedly jamming it into the post. Jaelyn’s efficient scoring line indicated she’s continuing to find ways to make an offensive impact. WSU is dangerous in the sense they’ve beaten Washington and Colorado, and only lost by 7 on the road at OSU, and they are a very good 3p shooting team, so on balance I think it’s fair to at least take some measure of optimism. I don’t know if you were able to watch more of the stream and glean anything more specific.

To your point on win expectation and luck, a good analysis would involve a weighted Net Rating, which I have no access to, but I suspect we’ve been slightly on the unlucky side. It’s pretty unlucky to lose 4 coin flips in a row, but we won one earlier at St. Mary’s. Our margins weren’t exactly dominant against inferior competition in the non-conference. We were likely on the bad end of some shooting variance in some of those losses, but that’s a really hard place to draw definitive conclusions without a systemic way to measure our defense. I think if we had been 1-3 in those games I’d find no reason to complain, but I do feel a little bit snake bit at 0-4. But a true top 20 team probably doesn’t flip coins continually with that level of competition, and a team playing at its best finds better execution down the stretch of those games.

At any rate, I watched stanford’s 37 point demolition of Washington, and it would be nice to see something at least approximating that in our level of play on Sunday. In the postgame on Friday, Lindsay said they’ll take wins any way they can get them, because the conference is so tough. I get that this is something a coach is pretty much obligated to say, but the reality is if we’re measuring ourselves against the top of the conference (and maybe we shouldn’t do that anymore), here’s some really simple data: Oregon, OSU, and stanford are a collective 15-0 in the Pac-12 with an average margin of victory of 18.7 points. That’s a pretty blunt statistical tool for predictive purposes, but I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that (1) we have said all year we aspire to be in that group and (2) we have not come close to playing to their standard yet this season. Because, however you want to use fancy statistics to dig into what’s going on in the meat of a basketball game, ultimately the measure of success is what’s on the scoreboard.

Reef, Monday Afternoon

Did you get a chance to catch any of the games? I’m riding a bit of a high just seeing the team again, feeling some Haas energy, and leaving Haas on a high after a win. I kind of don’t want to take a rational look at where things stand on the season. This is what I rely on you for...

Nick, Monday Night

Well, let’s start with the positives: Cal won twice, and in relatively comfortable fashion. And while nobody will mistake Washington or Washington State for world-beaters, they are both dangerous enough to give good teams a tough time in the right circumstances. Cal did what they needed to do, and with a little bit of style thrown in. And when you look at the conference standings, Cal’s spot looks a lot less frightening.

We already went over this last week, but good god is Kristine Anigwe a dominant, dominant player. 59 points (on 36 shots!), 41 rebounds, just 3 turnovers, and consistently dominant defense. Neither UW or WSU have dominant bigs, but neither are they helpless. Kristine made them look helpless. She’s been close to unstoppable throughout conference play.

Meanwhile, the other nice story from the homestand was Recee Caldwell’s solid play. She’s looking more comfortable within Cal’s offense, picking her spots intelligently, and generally looking more like the heady player we were all expecting when her transfer was announced. If the idea of Cal’s offense was having multiple players with point guard level handles and passing, this weekend was the weekend where it started to actually look like that ideal, as Kianna, Asha, and Recee combined for 25 assists over both games. Granted that playing teams incapable of stopping Kristine does help build assist numbers, but it’s still impressive. As you pointed out on twitter, these games represented Cal’s most efficient offensive performances in conference play, and it wasn’t entirely Kristine.

On the defensive side, I think two numbers pretty clearly explain things. UW and WSU shot a combined 50% from 3, and a combined 37% from 2. That’s wild, even by the wild standards set by weird things that happen to the teams that we root for. While this plays into some larger questions I’ve had about Cal’s defensive strategy that tends to allow teams to get 3 point shots off (if anybody has an Athletic subscription, check out Kenpom’s exploration of Man vs. Zone defenses), it’s pretty clear that Cal took away a ton of things from both teams, and that WSU and UW both kept the games sorta-close thanks to silly 3 point shooting.

So. We’re 3-3 at the end of the ‘easy’ portion of the conference schedule, thanks in part to three agonizingly close defeats. We’re headed to the mountains, which should provide a routine win over maybe-worst-team-in-thePac-12 Colorado on Sunday. But first we get the shockingly good Utes, who have only suffered one 2 point loss to ASU (notably in Utah) so far. We’re probably underdogs entering this one. But if you assume a win over the Buffs (dangerous, perhaps) that means that if the Bears can steal a tight one in SLC they could be back to 5-3 before the real heavy hitters come to town.

Reef, Monday Night

I won’t belabor the details here (follow me on Twitter if you want minute to minute stat musings and hand wringing), but I am quite pleased with the uptick in offensive performance since the Arizona game. After that nadir (by FAR the worst offensive performance of the year), we’ve reeled off three straight good ones, using Kristine’s dominance as a leverage point that generates across the board efficiency, rather than a crutch that opponents can exploit. I don’t think it’s particularly complicated -- better perimeter play via execution and assertiveness means better looks for everyone, including Kristine, and overall better offense.

The defensive question is more complicated. To my eye test, the defense has been...fine. No better or worse than it’s been all year. This is purely an eye test, and a limited one at that, because the main Pac-12 network had neither WSU or Washington on their coverage this week (not even on late night replay), but I don’t fault our defense for much of Washington’s offensive performance. I watched a lot of elite Pac-12 play this week (OSU, Oregon, stanford), and our defense is worse, but I don’t think the main place it’s worse is at the three point line. To take a simple comparison: stanford’s very solid defense allows more 3PA (us 28%, them 32%) but we allow a higher percentage (us 36%, them 33%). That’s not the pattern you would expect if we were attributing 3p defense “problems” to our zone defense, as discussed by kenpom and others.

I heard a lot of grumbling in the stands as Washington hit 3 after 3, and I get it. It’s frustrating. Why can’t we do something about that? But rationally, letting a 29% 3p shooting team take some threes is not bad strategy, and when they somehow hit 55% it’s simply bad variance. I get a ton of pushback whenever I say this, but I’ll say it again: when a 29% 3p shooting team shoots 55%, that’s bad luck.

I suppose the reason to be all the more frustrated is we’ve already felt some outlier shooting recently from Harvard and ASU, and when you’re losing, you want to blame it on something. I guess I’d suggest blaming it on execution that wasn’t quite good enough in close games, because at least that’s within our control. Which is the main reason the Washington win felt so good -- despite an insane opponent shooting day, we played our best offensive 4Q of the year, and calmly got ourselves a comfortable lead and won the game. Good sign.

Anyway, there may not be a respite from the barrage. I’ve watched Utah a few times this year, and they are a good offensive squad, with shooters all over the floor. Yeah, you heard me, Utah has shooters. Their record is a tad inflated by softness of schedule, but they are a legit top 50 team. They will be a slight favorite at home. You and I talked at the beginning of the year about 13-5 being a benchmark for a good conference season. Perhaps that ship has already sailed, but if we get a win on Thursday, we can at least leave it on the table as an upward bound. If we lose, we’ve gotta start talking about what our outlook looks like at 10 or 11 wins. Or worse.

We’ve had enough disappointment lately -- I’d much rather talk about a W.