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Toothless Cal offense stifled by Arizona defense

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The Bears have their worst offensive night of the season in another dispiriting defeat

NCAA Basketball: California at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

51 points in a 67 possession game. Cal’s .76 points/possession against Arizona in Tucson represents a new single game low for offensive efficiency this season.

For much of the season my analytical curiosity has drifted towards Cal’s historically pliant defense. That’s certainly still a part of the story, as Cal allowed a sputtering Arizona offense to score at a solid, if unremarkable clip. To be fair, much of that was generated in the closing minutes of the game, when Cal’s defense lost focus and intensity while trailing by an insurmountable deficit.

But we haven’t spent a ton of time talking about Cal’s lesser sin: an offense that would be a major complaint if it didn’t seem oddly encouraging in comparison to last year’s offense, or this year’s defense.

When conference play began, it looked like Cal was going to sport a roughly conference average offense. The Bears were good at avoiding turnovers, hitting lots of threes, and drawing plenty of fouls. Cal seemed to know what their strengths and weaknesses were and how to play into them. Paris Austin, initiating the offense and moving the ball around to a collection of players that could either shoot well, slash efficiently, or both.

But in Pac-12 play, that offensive mojo has evaporated. Here’s the Pac-12 rankings in offensive efficiency, for conference games only:

Pac-12 Offense
Kenpom.com

Cal isn’t just last. They’re last by a wide margin. The gap between 11th and 12th isn’t significantly smaller than the gap from 1st to 11th. And this is the unit that, at least in non-conference play, was Cal’s strength.

What happened? I suppose the simplest answer is that, against more athletic opposition, the Bears haven’t been able to beat their opponents to spots on the court. They haven’t been able to get around defenders to draw fouls, or pull defenders away to create space for shooters. Cal’s offensive rebounding and turnover rates are virtually unchanged when you compare non-conference to conference play. But shooting and foul drawing have taken sharp nose dives. More and more what I see reminds me of last year, except with Paris Austin in the Don Coleman role of trying to create something out of nothing when Cal’s sets don’t lead anywhere.

When you look at individual numbers from conference play, the differences become quite stark. Andre Kelly’s minutes and offensive efficiency have plunged. Every single shooter has seen his 3 point percentages decline in conference play. Slashers like JHD and McNeill haven’t been able to finish at the rim at nearly the same rate against Pac-12 opposition. Justice Sueing is the only player who has been able to maintain his non-conference production levels. Connor Vanover is the only player taking obvious developmental steps.

I’d be tempted to speculate that the coaching staff has spent so much practice time trying (with some success!) to fix Cal’s defense that Cal’s offensive execution has suffered as a consequence. I have no evidence to support that other than what I see on the court and the reasonable supposition that if you’re seeing historically bad defensive numbers you might start spending entire practice sessions trying to fix that issue.

Either way, Cal’s offensive devolution reached a crescendo against a good-not-great Arizona defense. Cal simply couldn’t hit shots, and too many possessions ended with an off-balance attempt with the shot clock in the single digits. When you combine this offense, vs. a solid, disciplined defense, on a night when Cal’s 3 pointers aren’t falling, you end up with a game where Cal needs garbage time against back-ups just to cross the 50 point threshold.

Cal actually held down Arizona defensively for a while. The now typical defensive strategy of a packed in zone that gives up decent 3 point looks in exchange for limited 2 point attempts ‘worked’ for 20 minutes in that Arizona took more than half their shots from behind the arc and missed more of them. Holding Arizona to 30 points was a solid reward, but with the Bears only scoring 20 themselves it didn’t much matter.

Arizona hit a couple of 3s to start the 2nd half to stretch out their lead and the Cal defense gradually lost focus en route to allowed 46 mostly academic 2nd half points. The reality is that Cal’s offense wasn’t ever going to dig out of that first half hole.

And so Cal has fallen to 0-14. Meanwhile, the one potential win on the schedule looks more and more daunting. Washington State has won three of their last four, virtually clinching Cal’s inevitable last place finish in the conference standings. 0-18 looms a roughly 50/50 chance according to the numbers, and I fear that narrow losses to Stanford and UCLA could be looked back on as the games where 0-18 could have been avoided.

The reality of Cal’s situation has been discussed to death. We all know the score. We have no choice but to wait until the season mercifully ends. I think that that the players have (the last two games notwithstanding) done their best to earn your continued attention with their on-court effort. But I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to largely tune out until the Pac-12 tournament ends.

Because the few remaining weeks in the season are going to be frustrating, even compared to what we’ve seen so far. Every new game is merely an excuse for those so inclined to make the same (accurate, but repetitive) calls for a coaching change, as if 0-14 is different from 0-13 is different from 1-13. As the numbers become more and more unprecedented, the program’s plight will more and more be fodder for jokes as national media notice how bleak things have gotten.

And it won’t go away until either Wyking Jones is fired, or until the season ends and Jim Knowlton announces that there will be no coaching change. So enjoy these next few weeks of limbo, and let’s all try to focus on rooting for this team to get a win, because that’s all we’ve got.