In many ways this game is probably the archetype of a 2018-19 Cal men’s basketball loss.
This game was full of little intriguing reminders of the individual talents that the Bears can call on. There’s Justice Sueing flashing his offensive diversity en route to a double double, driving to the bucket on one play, nailing a 3 on another. There’s Matt Bradley with a decisive spin move to the basket after pulling down an offensive board. There’s Connor Vanover launching an unstoppable 3 from the corner. There’s Austin Kelly bulldogging his way to a bucket in the paint. There’s Darius McNeill shaking off a rough shooting night to splash in a beautiful rainbow 3 just before the shock clock expires.
All throughout Cal’s nine point loss to USC, individual offensive skills were on full display as the Bears took advantage of a depleted Trojan roster (just 7 scholarship players suited up!), and that allowed Cal to stay within touching distance on the road, even climbing within four points with 2:45 to go.
Cal put up the 3rd most efficient offensive performance USC has allowed this season, on the road. Even considering USC’s injury issues that’s impressive, and on another night might have been enough to win, or at least keep the result in doubt right down to the buzzer.
But for whatever individual talents Cal’s roster may have, and for whatever offensive cohesion the coaching staff has built (and they honest to goodness have!), the Bears are unable to paper over their inability to play team defense. USC was able to outscore the Bears because they were able to get easy baskets in the paint almost at will. USC’s interior duo of Bennie Boatwright and Nika Racocevich combined for 46 points on 17-23 shooting on 2 point shots.
USC put up 1.24 points/possession, a pretty strong indication of bad defense. But consider that they were able to put up that massive number without getting hot from three (only 5-15) or with good free throw shooting (57%). No, USC was able to score easy bucket after easy bucket with pretty basic post entries, or simple dribble penetration.
It didn’t matter which players were out on the court, the results were identical. 13 games into a 30 game regular season, and Cal’s players still don’t really seem to know their responsibilities within their base zone defense. They don’t know when or how to help, and they struggle to stay in front of their assignments. When players are near enough to maybe make a play they’re more liable to foul than bother a shot legally.
Cal’s Kenpom adjusted defensive efficiency now sits at 324th out of 353, a few spots ahead of Maryland Eastern Shore but a few spots behind the Presbyterian Blue Hose. That ranking is essentially unprecedented for a power conference team in the history of Kenpom rankings that go back to 2002. I could only find two teams that played in the Pac, ACC, SEC, Big East, or Big 12 with similarly poor defensive efficiencies:
- The 2014 Boston College Eagles sported a defensive efficiency slightly worse than what Cal has now, and with a national rank of 294th.
- The 2005 Baylor Bears finished 300th in the nation in adjusted defense with an efficiency number that is basically identical to what Cal is sporting right now. For those not familiar, that Baylor team was just two years removed from one of the darkest scandals in college sports history and in the midst of heavy NCAA sanctions.
You will occasionally see truly awful power conference offenses (we spent a depressing amount of time talking about one last year) because height and athleticism and speed doesn’t mean that you have anybody that can shoot. But truly awful defenses are rarer. Everybody in power conferences have access to power conference recruits, the fastest and/or tallest and/or most athletic high schoolers in the country. And physical superiority is typically a key part of playing at least passable defense.
Cal’s recruiting is certainly well within the power conference range, with four players in the roster who are consensus top 200 recruits and a bunch of other guys who aren’t out of place on a Pac-12 roster. Sure, Cal is a little lacking in size. Sure, this team is very young. But these are not unprecedented problems. These are basically unprecedented results.
Last year, Cal’s defense was hardly great, but it wasn’t an out-and-out disaster. Assistant coach and zone specialist Tim O’Toole was largely presumed to be Cal’s lead defensive coach. Cal’s defense slowly improved over the course of the season, and Cal increasingly showed an ability to force turnovers.
O’Toole departed in the off-season for Pittsburgh to work for Jeff Capel, and the Panthers have seen their adjusted defense rise from 166th to 41st in the nation. Meanwhile, Cal’s defense has fallen off a cliff. The Bears rank near the bottom of the barrel in shooting defense, defensive rebounding, and fouling, and they don’t force anywhere near enough turnovers to begin to make up for those deficiencies. I can’t say for certain that O’Toole’s departure is the cause of Cal’s defensive collapse, or that his arrival in Pittsburgh is the cause of their defensive resurgence.
What I can confidently say is that the 2018-19 Cal coaching staff has failed to get their roster to play any semblance of team defense, and time is running out to find a way to do so.