The Mark Fox era opened this season on a promising note. After several years struggling against mediocre competition, lacking the fundamentals necessary to compete at the high D1 level, this year’s Cal basketball team immediately established a higher floor under their new leader. Basic competence. Three solid wins against Pepperdine, UNLV, and Cal Baptist showed that the Bears are no longer a doormat. Gone are the days watching one of the worst defenses in the nation -- watching opposing teams routinely shoot 60% on 2p attempts, via a parade of layups and dunks at the rim. No longer do Cal fans have to suffer through defensive possessions ruined by players who do not have the slightest idea how to stay in front of their man, or communicate on the help side when a teammate is beat.
Cal basketball is respectable again. The worst era in program history is over.
And so we begin to ask what more we might be.
Coinciding with Cal’s newfound commitment to defensive fundamentals, at least in parts of their first three games, was what appeared to be a new, dynamic offensive system. In those first three games, the Bears also produced high efficiency offense driven by generating favorable matchups through the use of high ball screens, and some of the best shooting in the nation. 1.23, 1.14, and 1.19 points per possession in the first three games, respectively. Could it be true? Were we seeing a renaissance on both sides of the ball? Were we ready to compete in the Pac-12?
Not so fast, my friend.
On November 18, Cal produced an offensive dud at home against Prairie View. .81 points per possession, as 2nd half foul trouble for Matt Bradley and Andre Kelly took Cal’s offense completely out of rhythm. Then last night, .79 against Duke. Maybe not the most reliable data point, against one of the best defenses in the country.
Which brings us to Friday afternoon in Madison Square Garden against the Texas Longhorns. Shaka Smart has been a disappointment in Texas, generating only two NCAA tournament appearances in four years, but one thing his squads have always done is play solid defense, regardless of personnel. As an early litmus test they were ideal: the equivalent of a middle of the Pac-12 squad that will probably be around the bubble come tournament time. A test of whether we can compete in the middle of the conference.
Cal more than held its own defensively. For the first 35 minutes of basketball, until a late garbage time surge, Texas put up .97 points per possession, and Cal was making them take the shots Cal wanted: long, tough threes, and contested floaters in the lane, because the Longhorns could not get all the way to the rim. This was a great sign. Holding middle of the conference teams to under a point per possession would be a miraculous turnaround for the Bears this season.
But the offense. Oh, man, the offense.
Let me put this as simply as possible: Cal could not find a way to score.
The Longhorns did not do anything particularly clever on defense. They got through screens when they could, switched when they couldn’t, hedged when appropriate...and generally were athletic enough to stay with all of Cal’s rudimentary action. With no openings available, no mismatches to take advantage of, and no particularly good place to get points, the Golden Bear offense sputtered. And sputtered. And sputtered.
Matt Bradley is strong enough to bully guys going downhill, and he did that throughout the game. His 22 points and 11 trips to the free throw line showed us again that he possesses the ability to score against higher level competition. But everywhere else on the floor Cal was outmatched, and that simply will not get it done against credible power conference competition.
Cal’s paltry .75 points per possession this afternoon added up to the third awful offensive showing in a row, and left them no chance to even think about winning this game in the 2nd half.
Final Score: Texas 62 - Cal 45
We’ve talked plenty about the floor this season, and thank goodness we have it. Now let’s talk a little bit about the ceiling.
When he was hired, skepticism around Mark Fox’s potential centered on his record at Georgia: for years his slow paced, unimaginative offenses lagged behind his tough, gritty defenses, and he could not recruit the talent needed to overwhelm people with the wing-iso and low-post centric schemes he loves to teach. For a few games it looked like his offense had become more dynamic -- but that is why we don’t put all our stock in early games against bad teams. Strip away early hot shooting variance, raise the level of competition, and it appears we’re in for more of the same Mark Fox that they got to know and love in Athens for a decade.
It is early days yet. It will take months, maybe years, to fully recover from Hurricane Wyking. It is far too early to draw conclusions on what the actual ceiling is on the Fox era. But after three abysmal offensive performances, it’s at least fair to wonder which Cal offense is the true Cal offense, and whether this team can score against strong competition. It’s also fair to wonder whether we simply need more offensive talent in our stable, and where that talent will come from in the long run.
The Golden Bears are 4-2, and are looking like what we might have anticipated: a defense-first squad that will struggle against power conference competition. They have four upcoming games against mediocre competition, then an interesting test hosting St. Mary’s, to see whether this picture changes.