Entering their current 3 game homestand, the California Golden Bears desperately sought something to break the seal on a winless conference season. From a rational, analytical perspective, this seemed like the time to get a W. All three teams in this stretch, Colorado, Utah today, and then stanford next week, are mediocre squads, and Cal would only be a single digit underdog in each of the games. After this stretch, the road will get considerably harder, with the home game vs WSU the only contest in which the opponent will not be favored by 10 or more.
Las Vegas set today’s line at Utah -5.5, and gave Cal about a 35% chance to pull the upset.
It didn’t happen.
Against a typically porous Bear defense, the Utes put up a conference season-high 1.24 points per possession, shooting 42% from 3p range, and 71%(!) on 2p shots, and the onslaught was just too much.
Final Score: Utah 82 - Cal 64
There were some hopeful signs early on. Coach Wyking Jones stopped tinkering and started the core that probably has the most long term promise for this program: Paris Austin, Darius McNeill, Matt Bradley, Justice Sueing, and Andre Kelly. Those 5, along with Juwhan Harris-Dyson, got most of the minutes in today’s action.
They played with energy and enthusiasm, producing what you’d hope for from that lineup: a 15-7 turnover edge, 39% 3p shooting, and an overall respectable 64 points in 64 possessions. In particular, that group hung tough in the first half, getting good looks, hitting shots, and went into the locker room down only 4.
Sueing continued to shine, putting up 20 points on only 13 FGAs.
But you’ve heard us say it all year, and we’ll say it again after this game: it’s awful hard to win if you don’t play any defense, and the Bears, other than using their quickness to create turnovers, pretty much don’t play any defense. Here’s our 2p FG% allowed in conference play:
How bad is it to consistently give up >60% 2p shooting to an opponent? In the last 10 years of D1 college basketball, no program has given up >60% 2p shooting for a season. The worst 2p defense in the last 10 years in Pac-12 play was the 58% allowed by WSU in 2018. The Bears are currently allowing opponents to shoot 62% inside the arc in Pac-12 play.
Simply put, no matter how much energy and spirit you bring on the floor — and to the players’ credit, they are bringing plenty — you simply can’t win games if you regularly allow opponents to get easy buckets around the rim. It’s too much of a disadvantage to overcome.
If I’m looking for a sign the rest of the way, it’s whether the staff and team do anything to make a dent in that very clear, fundamental weakness during the second half of conference play. Coach Jones is fond of pointing to recent poor Pac-12 performances, in particular Washington’s 9 win season in 2017 and OSU’s 5 win season the same year. Those programs rebuilt, so the thinking goes, and we are similarly building an upward trajectory toward conference relevance in several years.
A few questions arise from that proposed scenario.
Washington and OSU both bounced back from the season in which they bottomed out. Washington replaced Lorenzo Romar with Mike Hopkins, and put up a 20 win campaign in 2018. WSU got Tres Tinkle back in 2018 and put up 16 wins, including 7 in conference.
On the other hand, the Cal basketball program seems to have already had their rebuilding year. 2017-18 was an 8-24 season, including 2-16 in conference, and was by most objective measures the worst season in Cal basketball history. It would seem fair, in 2018-19, to expect some sign of an upward trajectory. Instead, the defense is historically bad, just had their worst performance so far, and the team is running out of realistic opportunities to get into the win column. As a rough measure of playing up to expectations, Cal has covered the Vegas spread in only 1 of its 8 conference matchups (and they’ve only been within a possession of covering once).
Whichever way you slice the pie, it’s getting increasingly difficult to see this trajectory as anything but colossal underachievement, with limited hope for the future.
stanford comes to Haas next weekend, and hopefully the Bears come out fired up and hot-shooting for that one. Otherwise, the 7 subsequent games look quite daunting indeed, and we might find ourselves looking back fondly to 2018, when we put a couple of victories in the Win column in the Pac-12.