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Stanford defeats Cal as Bears fall to 0-9 in Pac-12 play, so let’s talk about the future

NCAA Basketball: Stanford at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

First, we have to talk about the game.

Cal did a lot of things right in this game. As Wyking Jones noted in his post-game comments, the #1 thing he wanted to see from his team was 40 minutes of effort, and he got it. The Bears forced 18 turnovers (10 of them steals) as they focused their defensive effort on maximizing their best defensive attribute. Meanwhile, the Bears had their best offensive effort in a month, fueled by good shooting from all over the floor and a consistent attacking intent. Four Bears reached double figures and Cal got positive offensive contributions from up and down the lineup.

It wasn’t enough.

It’s very, very tempting to point to an overturned and-1 block call that was changed into a charge. Matt Bradley hit a runner that, if it counted, would have tied the game with 13 seconds left and a free throw coming. In fact, that’s what the refs initially called! But evidently they initially thought that the Stanford defender was inside the restricted zone, and replay review revealed that he was not. Playing defense by attempting to undercut an attacking player rather than contesting a shot remains the most cowardly form of defense that refs will continue to reward until coaches fix a broken rule book. #bancharges, now and forever. Instead Cal was left with a final, disjointed possession trailing by three, and Paris Austen’s deep 3 missed as time ran out.

It’s also true that Cal allowed Stanford to shoot 70% (!!!) on 2 point shots while also committing a ton of interior fouls in a desperate attempt to stem the tide of easy two pointers. Those fouls gave Stanford 30 free throws. If the refs were righteous and just, Stanford still would have had a final opportunity to score with the game tied or trailing by 1. Stanford scored 10 points over their previous 5 possessions, I think you’d like their odds to score again if they had needed to.

Stanford’s offensive box score is kinda amazing. When you turn the ball over on roughly a quarter of your possessions, and don’t shoot threes with high frequency or accuracy, it’s really really hard to have an above average day of scoring. But Stanford had their 5th best offensive game of the season (2nd best in Pac-12 play) thanks to their absurd domination of the paint. The entire 2nd half was basically KZ Okpala driving at the basket over and over, and Cal couldn’t do anything about it.

And so Cal is roughly the same team they have been all season long. They happened to get close to a win in this game because they a) maximized their strengths and b) were playing an otherwise mediocre team at home, but lost because their weaknesses are just too extreme to overcome even in close to best-case scenarios.

So let’s talk macro.

Statistically, Cal has the worst power conference defense in at least 22 years. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to say that they probably have the worst power conference defense in modern basketball history.

How can I say that with any confidence? Take a look at this screen grab from Kenpom:

Cal is 347th in the country in raw defensive efficiency, which measures points/possession allowed. ***Out of 353 teams.*** When you used the superior adjusted defensive efficiency, which corrects for schedule strength (because Cal is playing Pac-12 teams and not Big Sky teams) Cal only rises to 340th.

This is utterly unprecedented.

To illustrate exactly how unprecedented Cal’s defense is, here is a list of every power conference team (Big 10, Big 12, ACC, Big East, SEC, and Pac-12) with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 110 or worse since 1998:

In 22 years, only seven teams have had an adjusted defensive rating of 110 or worse. Three of those teams were coached by Ernie Kent. Again, one of those teams was Baylor post-awful-coaching-scandal.

Cal has the worst adjusted number out of all of them. By a pretty sizable amount. Again, we’re talking about stuff that’s basically unprecedented in modern college basketball.

If you’ve been reading this website’s basketball content, this isn’t exactly new information. But it’s something that is worth exploring in more detail in part because of how unusual it is, and because of what it tells you about the current trajectory of the Cal basketball program.

In what little writing I’ve done about this team, I’ve danced around the topic of Wyking Jones’ job status. I hate talking about whether or not somebody should be fired, even in situations when I think it’s deserved. But the genie is off of this particular bottle:

Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton said he fully expects men’s basketball head coach Wyking Jones to keep his job at least through the rest of the season, despite winning just 25 percent of his games during his first 1½ seasons and being currently mired in a nine-game skid.

Knowlton left himself an out by saying he’s consistently evaluating all 30 of the school’s sports teams, but the general takeaway from a wide-ranging interview with The Chronicle on Thursday was that increasing frustration among fans about the basketball team’s futility won’t force a coaching change.

“Anybody who tells you that finances don’t play into decisions is probably at Ohio State, where there’s a $200 million budget,” Knowlton said. “Finances play into everything, if I’m doing my job.”

In 2017-18, Cal had perhaps the worst team offense in program history. This year, Cal has the worst team defense in program history. In tandem, Cal is set to produce the worst two years stretch since at least WW2, maybe ever.

Wyking Jones has exhibited strengths as a coach. He appears to be a pretty excellent motivator, coaxing impressive efforts from his players despite leading teams mired in extremely challenging circumstances. He’s also been a pretty solid recruiter. He pulled in a mid-tier Pac-12 class after last year’s 2-16 Pac-12 regular season, and has another mid-tier class signed for next year.

But those strengths have come nowhere close to producing on-court results over nearly two seasons, and Cal fans have been given zero concrete reasons to believe that Jones is capable of coaching a team to even middling performances on offense or defense. In two seasons Cal has had one side of the ball in the bottom 10% of power teams for the season, and another side of the ball in the bottom 1% of power teams in the last two decades.

Reasonable people can debate exactly how much any coach could have reasonably done with a completely overhauled roster. Nobody walked into the last two seasons expecting post-season contention. But while Cal’s roster situation has been challenging, I don’t think that it’s a fully satisfying explanation for Cal’s concurrent on-court struggles.

Jim Knowlton may or may not decide to make a change come the end of the season. I wouldn’t take his close-to-the-vest, boiler plate comments to indicate anything other than that a mid-season change isn’t happening. Which is fine. The season is only 5 more weeks, may as well play out the string.

But if Wyking Jones is still Cal’s coach for the 2019-20 season, that would be a strong indication to me that Knowlton has determined that Cal cannot afford to pay a buy-out for a program that probably isn’t a huge money maker even in good times. Because I don’t think it is possible to make a credible argument for the status quo in terms of wins and losses, program trajectory, or ticket sales and attendance numbers. Every objective fact suggests that a change is necessary, except perhaps for the possible fact that the Cal athletic department may not be able to afford a change.

I’m not a betting man, but if forced I’d guess that a different head coach is on the sidelines next year. If not, we’re going to have little choice but to hope and root for pretty massive improvement despite having been given zero reasons to think that meaningful improvement is on the way.

Cal just lost a close home game to the worst Stanford team in ~25 years, and that kinda feels like progress. And I suppose that says quite enough, doesn’t it?