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WBB Conversations: Swept at Home and a Critical Trip to LA

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In the final third of the season, the Bears needs Ws.

Photo Credit: @KLCfotos @CalWBBall

Snapshot

  • Lost to Oregon 105 - 82
  • Lost to Oregon State 82 - 74

Currently: 14-9 (5-7, T-7th in Pac-12); RPI = 35

Upcoming:

  • at USC, 8pm Friday, February 15, TV = Pac-12 Networks
  • at UCLA, 4pm Sunday, February 17, TV = Pac-12 Networks

Reef, Friday Oregon Pregame

Random things that scare me about Oregon every time I watch them:

-- Their players are ridiculously good. Ionescu is Ionescu, but Hebard (inside) and Sabally (all over the damn court) are legit stars in their own right. All-Pac-12 (and possibly All-American) level players. On top of that, Cazorla is probably as good a facilitator as we have on our own roster, and a better shooter. Boley, almost an afterthought is their best 3p shooter. The whole lineup is filled with people who scare me individually, and all of them play well together.

-- Speaking of shooting, Oregon has four (count’em, FOUR) players who shoot better than 40% from behind the arc. I don’t even know how to process that, and I certainly don’t know how we’re going to defend them. When I see Hebard get loose inside, I think about what Kristine would have been able to do with her career if she had anything resembling that kind of shooting on the floor. Instead, we don’t have a shooter better than 35%.

-- By the way, OSU has FIVE players who shoot better than 40% on threes. Not relevant to the current topic, but yikes.

-- Our defense didn’t have much of an answer for stanford’s offense last week, and if you haven’t already gotten the picture from the points I’ve made: Oregon’s offense is better. Much better. Possibly the best in the nation. How are we going to even put a speed bump in their way?

I’m not really hyped about this game yet. It may be because the mountain looks so high. The last time I saw us on the court it was in a blowout under miserable Maples conditions. I hope when I get there tonight, the atmosphere will draw me in. Because all I really feel right now is dread.

Nick, Saturday

I suppose it would be burying the lead if we didn’t start with the fact that Oregon scored 105 points in a 73 possession game, which is flabbergasting to consider even for maybe the best offense in the nation. That’s something that Cal was just never going to be able to match.

That there was a brief window late in the first quarter through most of the 2nd quarter when it looked like Cal might score right alongside the Ducks was exhilarating but ultimately short lived. That run corresponded with the absence of Ruthy Hebard due to foul trouble, and Oregon finally went to some 3/4 court pressure that did a good job of taking away Cal’s offensive rhythm. That allowed Oregon to stretch out the lead a bit before halftime, and their offense simply never let up the rest of the game.

It’s a shame, in some ways, that Cal played a great offensive game and got blown out anyway. That was a level of offensive production that would’ve earned a win over most any other team on the schedule. Recee Caldwell played perhaps her best offensive game of the year, Kianna Smith knew when to take her own shot, and Kristine was Kristine was Kristine. It hurts to get blown out at home despite hitting 13 three pointers. That’s just cruel and unusual.

It’s easy and tempting to talk about everything Oregon does offensively, because that’s the story of this individual game. But that also makes me feel sick, so nuts to that. Kelly Graves is a fully established high end coach, so Oregon isn’t going anywhere, but hopefully Ionescu goes pro and the Ducks fall back to being merely very good rather than nationally elite. It would also mean that I don’t have to see a small army of Miramonte ‘Oregon’ fans at Haas when the Ducks come to town. I really don’t want to see them in the Pac-12 tournament unless it’s in the championship game or something.

So, Oregon State. In a painfully slow game, Stanford throttled them with defense in a way that nobody else has come even close to duplicating, so I don’t really think that gives us anything to look for against our Bears. OSU’s defense is comparatively the weaker unit, so Cal’s hopes probably rest upon an offense that has looked increasingly dangerous over the last three weeks as their shooters have gotten hot. The Beavers categorically do not force turnovers, and they’re a little bit vulnerable to offensive rebounding, so hopefully Kristine can get some 2nd chance opportunities. But as always against a Rueck team, good looks will be few and far between.

Nick, Monday

In two games this weekend, Cal produced their 5th and 6th most efficient offensive games of the season. That’s not nothing either - Cal is currently 30th in the nation in unadjusted offensive efficiency, so when the Bears have above average games, they can really score. And they did it against top 10 teams with high end defenses! Neat!

Of course, Cal lost one of those games by 23 and the other by 8.

Sadly, the Cal defense has been getting torched. Oregon’s offensive display was on another level, perhaps a historic anomaly. OSU also has a top 10 offense, so it’s hardly a surprise and not necessarily any particular embarrassment for them to put up 82 points in 67 possessions. But it’s also true that in 9 of 12 conference games, Cal has allowed their opponent to score more than a point/possession. Cal’s defense just isn’t all that good.

What I’m struggling to answer is precisely how not good. As we’ve noted before, a reliable, schedule-strength-adjusted ratings system doesn’t really exist in WBB, and that might be relevant for this particular season. Right now might be an historic high point for offense in the Pac-12. Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, and Utah are all coached by brilliant offensive schemers, and all of them have a ton of shooting. ASU and UCLA don’t have the same type of shooting, but sport top 50 offenses thanks to other strengths that their coaches play into pretty well. Even the ‘lesser’ schools have elite volume scorers (McDonald, Hristova, Melgoza) that they can lean on.

Even still - Cal has a high level interior rim protector and elite defensive rebounder in Kristine Anigwe . . . and yet even at Cal’s best they can only coax passable defensive games at their best. I try not to focus on this because I’ve had the ‘it is what it is’ attitude for a while, but after this past weekend it’s an unavoidable elephant in the room.

Reef, Monday

Okay fine. I’ve been avoiding both post-mortems, but I suppose I’m obligated to gather myself and face my pain.

Oregon

You didn’t want to dwell too much on Oregon’s offense, but I do feel obligated to note: that was the most impressive offense I’ve ever seen in a WBB game. Yes, some of it was they were on fire on Friday, but the bulk of the credit for their 105 points goes to the sheer individual brilliance of everyone they put on the floor. As pessimistic as my pregame terror was, it was even more stunning to see it in person. Ionescu gets a lot of attention, as she should, but Sabally was *more* frightening to me, if you can believe that. She is the scariest physical specimen I’ve seen in WBB. A legit 6-4 with the full compliment of All-American wing skills on the drive + posting up, AND elite range out to the arc. I don’t know how it’s possible to guard a player like her, and we saw that firsthand on Friday.

I was listening to Zach Lowe’s podcast this weekend, and he was describing the Milwaukee Bucks by saying: “The pieces fit. You just know when you watch a team and everybody understands what is going on. When everyone understands what the team’s identity is, what their place within it is, how to play with freedom within it but not break out of it. Milwaukee has found it.

That really resonated with me as the nature of excellent offense in its simplest form. I thought of Oregon when he said that, of course, but I also actually thought of us. Adjusting for opponent, three of the last four games were the best offensive performances this year, and good enough to compete with anyone on the national stage. We are starting to find it. The balance between Kristine and our emerging perimeter. When the guards need to pull up and find their own shot. When they need to run a set so someone can drop a J off a pin down. When to enter it down on the block. When to throw up a heat check. When to push in transition. Who gets a shot when, where, and why.

Oregon State

Which bring us to Sunday. The loss stings, but again, we were damn near elite offensively. In the heat of the game I blamed the loss in part on coach using a non-shooting lineup with Jaelyn, Kristine, CJ in the frontcourt, but I looked at the tape and that lineup was only -2. Whatever offensive problems we had just came from random droughts, but ultimately the 1.15 we put up was the best performance ALL SEASON against OSU by a team not from South Bend, Indiana. That’s not near-elite. That’s elite. In fact, the 1.14 on Friday was also the second best offensive performance against Oregon this year.

If this is a true measure of where we are, then let’s just say it: our offense is good.

So what to say about the defense?

We just haven’t been effective individually as defenders. We’ve played a healthy dose of zone this year, but Lindsay made the choice to stick with man against the two best shooting teams we’ll face this season (and 2 of the top 3 in the country). And straight up -- we just couldn’t guard them. On Friday, they put us in pick and roll and got literally whatever they wanted. Every single player on Oregon with the ball in their hands got whatever they wanted. On Sunday, against a less capable one-on-one team, same thing. High ball screen after high ball screen, and sometimes even just direct isolation. Kianna, Asha, Recee, Kenzie...nobody could stay in front of the player they were guarding. And we couldn’t commit help because did I mention these were the best shooting teams in the country, and also, while we’re at it, the best at rolling to the rim against an imbalanced defense and getting a layup for a teammate.

So say what you want about Kristine’s interior defense--if the perimeter defenders just can’t guard their player straight-up, we’re going to get crushed. Maybe now we know why we’ve seen so much zone throughout the season. And why we’ll need to see it again. If there’s a solace, we’re done with the best of the best offenses, and we’ll probably see our old familiar mediocre defensive performances the rest of the conference season.

Which brings us right back to the formula we continue to discuss. If the offense really has become elite, mediocre defense will probably be enough against the rest of the schedule. It’s going to have to be enough. 2-2 in the recent gauntlet would have been outstanding, but 1-3 barely made a dent. Right now, at a 36 RPI, we are looking squarely at the 8 or 9 seed of death. What does digging out toward the 6 or 7 seed look like? To me it’s 5-1 the rest of the way. If we consistently play the offense we showed last weekend, we’ll do at least 5-1.

But can we actually make this a reality in LA?

Nick, Wednesday

I’m not sure what to make of USC - they looked like maybe the worst team in the conference during the first half of conference play, then pulled a surprise upset of Utah in Salt Lake City, then gave Colorado their first conference win of the season. I suppose it’s best to treat the win over Utah as a weird one-off. It’s still a team that Cal should beat comfortably, particularly if Cal’s recent offensive surge continues. USC’s offense has struggled badly through most of the Pac-12 season and if we’re scoring against USC even close to what we showed against the Oregon schools that would be a comfortable win.

UCLA, however . . . the Bruins are 0-3 vs. Oregon, OSU, and Stanford, and 8-1 vs. everybody else, which includes road wins over Cal, ASU, and Utah. UCLA’s remaining schedule is brutal, but they can make a legitimate claim as 4th best team in this conference right now and will likely be looking at Cal as a must win game, particularly if they fall to Stanford on Friday night. Cal’s early season loss to UCLA was typical in that nobody particularly stepped up to help Kristine, and Cal was done in thanks to turnovers and UCLA rebounding. Flipping the script on the road will not be easy, but it’s a big opportunity to pick up a road top 50 RPI win.