On Saturday afternoon, in a shiny new arena that’s hosting some of the worst basketball in the NBA this season, two really poor offensive basketball teams staged a rock fight to introduce college basketball to thousands of empty seats. The 6-5 California Golden Bears faced the 7-5 Boston College Eagles, in a battle of two programs in the process of digging their way out of some of the worst seasons in recent college basketball history.
As much as I wanted to travel to Chase Center to see if it still has the new car smell, I made a different choice this afternoon, using my season tickets to check out the women’s basketball team battle down to the last possession with #14 Kentucky at Haas Pavilion. So I had a little bit of a weird experience with the men’s game. I watched the first half on my computer. In that first half, the Bears came out strong defensively against an awful BC offense, and generated just enough competent offense of their own to build a double digit lead. The 1.17 points per possessions the Bears managed at the zenith of the first half was built on some strong interior passing, and Matt Bradley’s ability to get to the hole.
That competence would not last, because it never lasts, and as the Bears offense stagnated to a discouraging .97 by halftime, Boston College threw enough balls into the ocean to close the rock fight to 29-26 at the break.
That’s when the women’s game started. I didn’t watch the second half of the men’s game. Here’s what I know, more or less. The Golden Bears built a big lead, squandered it, and lost. So, for the sake of trying something new (I’m writing about a 6-6, bottom tier Pac-12 team here...I gotta entertain myself somehow)...let’s watch the game together.
Why don’t we start at the 10:15 mark of the 2H. Score: Bears 50 - Eagles 39. At this point, the Cal win probability was upward of 85%. The Bears were a HUGE favorite, and it would take a lot to lose the game. Let’s see what “a lot” looks like. (This is kind of fun, because as I start writing this, I have no idea what’s going to be on this tape. Although I can probably guess.)
- 6-8 Steffon Mitchell isolated on 6-8 Andre Kelly at the top of the circle. Nothing complicated...basically a clear out as Mitchell receives the ball beyond the 3p line. He drives right, Andre cuts him off, Mitchell spins back over his right shoulder at the charge circle. Matt Bradley is there to help but just stares. Andre attempts to contest across Mitchell’s body, but Mitchell protects the ball by shooting with his left hand. Bucket and 1. Poor team defense resulting in a critical 4th foul for Kelly. After the FT, Cal’s lead is 50-42.
- BC picks up in a full court man. Derryck Thornton called on a hand check on Joel Brown at mid court, and that’s Thornton’s 4th. A little ticky-tack, big call for the Bears. But Joel misses the front end and it’s still 50-42.
- BC comes down spread pretty wide, running a version of Flex. JHD is called on a hand check, and that’s his 4th foul. On the subsequent Baseline Out of Bounds, nobody guards Julian Rishwain at the top of the arc. Two Bears point to him, nobody actually guards him. He is a 36% 3p shooter. It’s inbounded directly to Rishwain, he’s uncontested, splash, three points. Lead is 50-45.
- Two high PnRs with Austin and Grant go nowhere, so Austin passes to Matt on the wing, who pump fakes, gets his defender in the air, and blows right by him to the hoop. Easy bucket. 52-45.
- Rishwain sets a cross screen for Jairus Hamilton...Jacobi Gordon and Kareem South both go with Hamilton. Nobody guards Rishwain, who pops to the 3p line for another wide open three. Defensive miscommunication leads to three more points for BC. 52-48.
- Another high ball screen by Grant for Austin goes nowhere, another pass to Matt on the right wing. He gets by his guy again, but this time there’s help. Jay Heath does a good job cutting off the driving angle, and Rishwain does a good job dropping to guard Grant under the rim. Matt tries to force the pass anyway but it’s way too hard and sails off Grant’s hands to BC. Turnover.
- On the secondary break, early in the shot clock, Heath pump fakes Matt like he isn’t even there, and blows right by him. Straight to the bucket, and no help from South, who’s just standing on the right block watching, nor from Gordon, who’s enjoying the view from the left baseline. Layup. 52-50. That’s both poor point of attack defense and poor help.
- Paris walks the ball upcourt and twirls his hand in a circular motion, like he wants them to run something. I’m not sure what, because he then drives into the lane as his teammates stand and watch, discards his defender with his left hand, and is called for the offensive foul. Turnover.
- Rishwain runs an Iverson cut past two screens, sets a down screen, then receives a down screen from Hamilton to pop to the top, wide open from 17 feet. Not a super high value shot, but it is lightly guarded. South had trouble getting through all the screening action (hey, that’s what an offensive set looks like!). Splash. 52-52.
- Cal looks to post Grant on the right block, it’s fronted, so Grant turns to down screen for Kareem, while JHD is lost with the ball at the FT line. Throws it to a BC defender, who deflects it out of bounds. On the out of bounds play, Matt receives, gets a high ball screen from Grant, throws up a floater over two defenders, and it misses. Held ball on the rebound, Cal ball. On the subsequent inbounds, Grant receives on the left block, good cross court pass to Matt, who is standing out of bounds. Turnover.
- BC goes spread and runs several attempts at high PnR. Goes nowhere, as Cal’s defense is strong at the point of attack. Joel Brown forces a miss from Heath on a tough drive.
- Cal attempts a delayed break, with Brown in the lane for a tough floater from 5 feet. Misses a shot that I’m not sure I’ve seen him make this season.
- Same play as started this run, Mitchell iso’d on Kelly who is back in with 4 fouls. This time he drives left from the top of the key, after faking a DHO to Rishwain, and Kelly does not want to challenge aggressively. This time there’s no help because BC has the floor spread. Kelly attempts to stay vertical, but Mitchell make the layup over him. All of Cal’s 11 point lead is gone, and now it’s 54-52 in favor of the Eagles. And I’m tired of this.
It’s unfair to take the worst stretch of basketball that Cal played in the game and claim that it’s emblematic of everything Cal is doing as it struggles to find itself. I mostly did it because it’s the holidays, and I didn’t really want to watch the game, take notes, and THEN write an article. But I do think there were several consistent breakdowns in this stretch that are representative of larger trends we’ve seen.
First, Cal’s defensive technique and focus is inconsistent. It’s better than last year, and there have been some flashes of brilliance this season, but there’s also too much carelessness and just plain ol’ bad play. This has to change.
Second, in this stretch Cal didn’t run anything besides some ball screens, a few post-ups, and a couple down screens. In the 6 Cal offensive possessions while BC made their run, the Bears got one good look, a trip to the FT line, and a bunch of low value possessions. You keep adding up the low value possessions, you’re going to end up with low efficiency games.
You’ve heard me talk about this stuff before, because here’s the reality: you gotta walk before you can run. This team is learning to walk. They’re not very good at it. They fall down a lot. If you’re an optimist, you’re happy that at least what they’re doing actually resembles walking this year. If you’re a pessimist, or just have low tolerance for mediocre basketball, you’ll probably be checking in next year, when they’ve had a lot more reps.
But this is the sausage. We’re watching it get made. Or the floor. We’re watching someone build a floor. I don’t know which metaphor to use. There have been three in the last two paragraphs.
TL;DR Cal is still a lower tier Pac-12 program, and that’s not going to change overnight. We know this because they just lost to a lower tier ACC team on a semi-neutral floor.
Final Score: BC 64 - Cal 60
The Golden Bears drop to 6-6 on the season, and have one more non-conference game against a solid Harvard squad on December 29 at Haas, before opening the Pac-12 season at stanford on January 2. Come watch them spill sausage on the floor.