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WBB Conversations: A Crushing Loss, a Bounceback, and on to the Desert.

The Ups and Downs of a Home Split to Open Pac-12

Photo Credit @CalWBB

Reef, Friday Morning

Responding to a few questions we got last week, as I eagerly await tonight’s UCLA conference opener.

-- No, we do not have a highly touted recruiting class of 2019, so ostensibly this is a season we need to maximize, with three valuable seniors leaving. I do take some solace in the fact that neither Brittany Boyd nor Asha Thomas were highly ranked recruits, so stars aren’t the be-all, end-all of building a team. But we both know that ultimately a foundation is built on talent, and recruiting stars will win out in the long run. I suppose at some point we need to talk about next year’s roster, but the beginning of conference play doesn’t seem like a good time to dwell on it quite yet.

--Re: the question of “turning around” our defense, I’m not sure that’s exactly what’s called for. By the numbers, it’s quite a solid defense -- better than last year and competent enough to be a top 25 team. What it doesn’t do is pressure the other team, and what it sometimes does is let other teams control the terms of the conflict, as we saw last week. And, put bluntly, it’s not elite. It makes too many mistakes, in a way that (maybe this is an unfair comparison) a Tara Vanderveer coached team seems not to, especially late in the season. It’s really about whether that is good enough with a what will hopefully be an improved offense in conference play, or whether it can just take a few baby steps forward. The last few defensive possessions of the Harvard game were quite frustrating, in the sense that at times we just weren’t quite focused or tough enough, and Harvard ended up scoring on all their key possessions. A few small, incremental shifts in our level of play and we win that game last Sunday. Do we have that in us heading into conference games in which one or two late possessions will probably matter a great deal?

-- I don’t know what the balance is between Kenzie’s vast offensive potential and her obvious defensive struggles. I don’t know what her playing time arc is going to be this season, and I’m not sure coach really knows at this time. I like the toughness the bigger lineup (with CJ playing alongside Kristine) has given us, and I wonder whether exploiting those matchup advantages (Kenzie and Kianna out there with CJ and Kristine is suddenly really long and athletic) isn’t some of the inevitable direction we’re headed toward.

-- Heading into tonight, I’m scared of Michaela Onyenwere. I’ve only watched three of her games this year, but she seems to beast inside at will. This isn’t particularly mysterious: some combination of Kristine, CJ, and Jaelyn is going to have to control her. Hopefully without Kristine getting into foul trouble, as she did trying to guard Billings last year at Pauley. At least UCLA is not the complete pressure machine they were a year ago, and we’re unlikely to see a repeat of last year’s 24 turnover debacle at Haas. I’m excited. Let’s go.

Nick, Friday Morning

Agreed that Coach G probably doesn’t know exactly how playing time will shake out for certain players. I think we have players that are going to get a ton of playing time because they’re the focal points of what we try to do on either end (Kristine, Asha), and then there are complimentary players who can earn themselves playing time within games and within seasons due to match-ups or hot streaks or improved play. Kenzie I think falls into that latter category along with players like CJ West and Jaelyn Brown, where they can get 25-30 minutes one night and 10-15 minutes the next due to game flow or match-up advantages or disadvantages. I’ve never gotten the sense that Coach G is particularly stubborn with her rotation, as along as her playing time decisions were in service of earning the win.

Reef, Friday Evening Pregame

UCLA pregame, so as I sit here in anticipation, let me continue with the reasons I love this team.

They do everything with such joy -- in what they’re doing, in each other, in the tremendous good fortune that they get to play this great sport at the highest level. You can see it in the way they warm up, go through drills, support each other. Maybe it’s an unconventional reason to like a team...but joy matters. It’s enough of a draw for me that I get here an hour early just to bask in it.

Mr. West and I just had our customary pre-game chat, and he is *nervous.* He saw me eating a burrito and said he couldn’t eat since breakfast, because WE NEED A WIN TONIGHT. And he’s right, we do. But I told him I watched some UCLA tape, and there’s nothing that should keep us from this W if we play our game. Hopefully didn’t jinx it.

The team’s Rep the Bay shirts are SO SWEET. Where do I buy one of those?

I’m flashing back to last year’s game. The anticipation, the energy, and then the deflating feeling of having to sit through a disheartening blowout. I really need us to turn that around tonight. I really need revenge. My soul will be crushed if we don’t get it.

Reef, Friday Evening Postgame

Well, you’re probably working on the MBB preview right now, so I’ll get UCLA postgame started. Which one of us do you think has the more miserable job?

These are spontaneous observations, and I was yelling most of the second half. You probably have a much better perspective from watching it on TV, but I gotta get this off my chest, so here we go:

-- I’m going to stop gushing about this team in our conversations, right before game time. Clearly that’s not a winning strategy and they need some tough love.

-- A week ago we were hoping this team was a top 4 NCAA seed, and it may be time to re-calibrate that expectation. It’s just two losses, but it’s two home losses against teams that a high end NCAA team should handle without much distress in their own building. Plus, do we have any real data to indicate we’re anything more than what we’ve been in past years -- a top 25-35ish team in the country? To date our best data point was a surprisingly close loss to UConn, but the Huskies’ stretch of basketball from Oklahoma through Baylor indicates that game may not have been the bellwether we thought it was. You have to prove it on the court, not on paper. We haven’t.

-- The primary reason for the expectations downgrade is a failure of the basic structure of what we thought our team was going to be. On paper, this was the year we surrounded Kristine with weapons. So many weapons. Teams were not going to be able to collapse on her, because there were too many threats around her. The promise of that roster has failed to materialize. We’re still heavily reliant on Kristine, and our offense is this odd mix of trying to find whatever entries we can for her, then scrambling around for whatever odds and ends we can find elsewhere if that doesn’t work. Meanwhile, Kianna and Recee are hesitant whenever they touch the ball. Neither is playing with any kind of confidence. Jaelyn is getting left completely alone, and doesn’t have a great idea what to do in those situations, or what her role is. Kenzie is dynamic, and is clearly going to be an offensive star sooner than later, but she’s still so obviously a freshman in many instances, and I’m not sure if her integration can come fast enough. Asha is roughly the same Asha, thank goodness, but we’ve seen this show before with Asha and Kristine as our primary threats, and we know there’s a limit to how far that can go. The only player who has exceeded expectations is CJ, who has given us solid, dependable minutes alongside Kristine in what has surprisingly been our most effective lineup. But everything else feels very confused right now, and we very rarely look comfortable with what we’re running, the rhythm of our offense, or where the shots are supposed to come from (unless Kristine gets the ball in great position inside).

-- 5-18 3p shooting is just not good enough (I’m not counting the last heave), for a team ostensibly stocked with perimeter talent, and that has the benefit of Kristine Anigwe gravity. This is a recording.

-- More to the point tonight, it boggles the mind how a team whose strength this year was supposed to be a bolstered back court with three--count’em THREE--players who are high D1 point guards could turn the ball over 19 times against a UCLA team that is a shadow of its former ball-pressuring self. In all too familiar fashion, the Bears dug themselves a deep hole in the first half, in large part because they couldn’t take care of the basketball against UCLA pressure. To my eye we were indecisive and rushed in too many possessions, passing the ball without much purpose into predictable spots where UCLA could jump into passing lanes. I thought this year we were going to be aggressive with all the weapons that we have, and too often it feels like we sit, waiting for the set to develop, and allowing possessions to deteriorate.

-- We talked about this before, but once again I think the opponent dictated terms to us today, and we played way too passively on defense. Say what you will about Cori Close, but her teams are not passive. They pressure you on defense and they really want to get downhill and/or get into the post on offense. They come hard after offensive boards. The Bears played much of the early part of the game on their heels. During the key stretches of their comeback, they finally began to pressure up in man and jump into passing lanes in zone. But it would be nice to see that from the jump.

-- I didn’t get a good look at the offensive board that gave UCLA the tie. I take it that was a missed box out?

[Edit: I watched it on tape.


-- I did see our last play in regulation, and it seemed like a communication disaster. Cal was warned for coming out of the huddle late, then on the sideline as Kenzie was inbounding she was clearly confused and yelling over to the sideline. At least two coaches were yelling back. Then during whatever set it was we were running (it was unrecognizable to me in real time), nobody moved with any purpose, we got an awful shot, and (unforgivably), we gave UCLA the ball back with time to get a shot themselves. Maybe it won’t seem that bad when I see it on tape, but in person, it was a really bad look for everyone involved.

-- We opened the overtime abysmally on offense. All our offensive purpose was lost. You know I am not the biggest Cori Close fan, but in overtime her team knew what they wanted to get, and they methodically went after those spots on the floor. I didn’t have any sense we knew what we wanted (when the Kristine entry wasn’t available). Much will be made of the officiating, and it is absolutely true that there were some blown calls that did not go the Bears’ way. There were also a lot of quite favorable calls, especially during the comeback, that did go our way. Women’s college basketball officiating is abysmal. It just is. It’s something that has always been and probably will always be. If you’re going to be a fan of this sport, you just have to walk into every game expecting this to occur. I firmly believe we did not lose this game because of officiating. We lost this game because we were passive, indecisive, disorganized, and just didn’t play well for too many long stretches.

-- I guess I’ll end with this, and you can then send me your thoughts to talk me off the ledge. I don’t think we have any right, at this moment, to even say we aspire to elite basketball. We’re too often not even playing good basketball. But there are moments--there were clearly moments today--when you can see the shadow of a confident, elite team peeking out from behind the clouds. I’m not sure if, or how, we get there from here. I’m pretty sure it involves clearer, more decisive offensive roles. It’s probably gotta involve more intense defense. I’ve got a feeling Kenzie Forbes fits in there, and her star and Kristine’s star having too much gravity for defenses to reasonably handle. We need to develop a mojo, a Brittany Boyd, Layshia Clarendon, I’m-better-than-you-and-I-can-prove-it swagger that these players just don’t seem to carry (except for Asha, love you Teezy). A clarity of purpose. This team only seems to get that when it’s in a deep hole, and recently it has failed to step on throats once it’s out of that hole. But I suppose if you believe in a team, you have to believe the magic will come out despite all evidence to the contrary. Okay. I’m done. And I’m exhausted. Your turn.

Nick, Sunday Afternoon Pregame

I’d like to dispute much of what you’re saying, or at least find a way to put a positive spin on it, but I think you essentially have it right. This is a team that hangs its hat on one obvious thing (Kristine Anigwe’s all-around interior play) without maximizing what that could mean collectively, and as a result we play good-not-great offense and defense. I think we can all see some of the new points of emphasis Cal has put into the offense to try to take advantage of Kristine’s senior season, but the reality is that those attempts haven’t really borne any fruit. And in the Pac-12, good-not-great will result in more than a few losses.

We come back to shooting a lot, and what I see is a team that is still very hesitant to take open 3 pointers. And I can’t decide if that frustrates me, or if that’s an accurate response to the quality of our shooting. So many times the ball swings out to a guard with space because of Kristine’s gravity in the paint, and there’s a window for a solid shot, and more often than not the Bears don’t take that shot. And really the only game where we saw Cal decisively take that shot was the UConn game. Maybe this is the reason to give Kenzie 30 minutes/game and make her learn defense in a trial by fire.

The way we lost to UCLA is particularly ominous because of the types of teams up next on the schedule. USC has a similar defensive profile to UCLA, but slightly better. Arizona State (not shockingly) and Arizona (shockingly) have defensive numbers that are easily in the national top 25. Cal’s start to Pac-12 play was supposed to be relatively soft but based on Friday’s game that might not necessarily be the case for this team and their current level of performance.

What I want to see against USC is a really strong defensive effort, which would mostly be about holding a suspect USC offense to a low shooting percentage, few offensive rebounds, and minimizing fouls and free throw attempts. It might mean winning ugly, but when you’re riding a three game losing streak style points go out the window.

Nick, Sunday Evening Postgame


Or, well, at least we’re not on an active losing streak. Cal beats USC in a disjointed, defense first battle. The good: holding Trojans not named Mariya Moore to 26% shooting, and winning the turnover battle against the team that currently leads the Pac-12 in average turnover margin. The bad: another iffy shooting night from the field, and Mariya Moore’s 36 point outburst that single-handedly kept USC in contact.

For the nth game in a row Cal couldn’t get efficient scoring from anybody other than Kristine and (in low volume) Asha, but Cal’s defense was so good/USC’s offense so bad that it didn’t much matter. And while I think we’d all prefer more beautiful wins, it’s also true that strong defensive efforts and Kristine will be enough to win lots of games. Winning this one mostly comfortably with Kristine only playing 27 minutes is a solid accomplishment. And Kenzie Forbes is increasingly looking like an offensive asset beyond her 3 point shooting, as she had a couple of beautiful entries to Kristine.

Cal may have ran some box-and-one in an attempt to slow down USC’s only viable offensive player, but I don’t have any real objections to how Cal handled the red-hot Moore. Two of her buckets were desperation heaves and nothing stood out as glaringly bad otherwise. And when everything else is on complete lock down (forcing turnovers, locking down the defensive glass, avoiding putting USC to the line, etc.) it’s much easier to survive one player going supernova.

Reef, Monday

Mariya Moore’s craziness is going to leave a lasting impression on everyone, but let’s not forget the object of defense is to stop the other TEAM from scoring, and we allowed 59 points on 68 possessions, despite Mariya’s 36. That’s a great day of defense. If you don’t count the silly heaves, we had a better defensive game against them than stanford did at Maples. That’s encouraging.

I tend not to trust psychological analysis of sports outcomes, but in this case I did come away impressed with the Bears’ mental effort on Sunday. They knew, and stated repeatedly, that it was a “must win,” and then they came out and played like it. We’ve talked about the differences between aggressive vs position defense. If we’re going to rely on the latter, then we better damn well keep our focus and get to the right positions. There’s been some shortcomings in that regard this year, but not on Sunday. The overall defensive effort--the defensive focus--was clear from the start. To my eye, the Bears were extra careful about making sure they were communicating and defending diligently, and it showed up in the results. I do think sometimes defense is just a matter of building really strong habits of concentration and effort, and maybe we saw on Sunday that we’re capable of that. I hope so, because that’s the sort of effort we’re going to need for 16 more conference games.

Especially so since I may just need to accept that my fears about the offense are well founded. There’s just not the amount of perimeter firepower I was hoping for. Our 0-6 4th quarter from deep (an important and overlooked factor in USC’s comeback), on mostly good looks, is an illustration of the problem. With Kristine out much of the quarter, we *had to* generate offense from the perimeter, and we simply couldn’t. I still have hope that increased minutes + skill improvement from Kenzie, and some upward reversion from Recee and Kianna, will jump start us out of this fog. But right now we just can’t rely on it.

So for the foreseeable future, I think the formula is going to have to be the heightened overall focus and purpose (especially on the defensive end) that we saw on Sunday, combined with some good-enough offense, led by Kristine. I think we can win with that in the desert, but I haven’t yet had the courage to research the Arizonas, because every trip down there always feels like an unpleasant slog. I assume this year will be no different?

Nick, Tuesday

Pretty much. Arizona State is even more Arizona-Statey than usual - only three times this year has the losing team in an ASU game scored in the 60s or higher. They hang their hat on defense, they slow the game down to a crawl, and they hope they scratch out just enough offense to win. Cal will either need to find their deep shot or play the same type of defense they brought against USC, because easy buckets and second chance points just aren’t going to be there.

Arizona is the wildcard. They used to be the pleasant, guaranteed win of the desert road trip. But they’re a surprise 2-1 in conference with a shocking 12 point win over ASU, and they have a number of blowout wins over smaller schools that suggest they could be for real. If you can force volume scorer Aari McDonald (25 ppg!) into an inefficient night the offense can be slowed down, but for the first time in memory Arizona has a defense that can be disruptive and force missed shots.

I hate to say it, but looking at the schools on this list and Cal’s year-long performances . . . I wouldn’t categorically say no to a 1-1 trip.