As we have discussed ad nauseam this year, the story of Cal’s season has been an inability to stop teams from making buckets or drawing fouls in the paint. As sure enough, Oregon shot an absurd 75% on their 2 point shots against the Bears.
But for a rare change of pace, I don’t think Cal’s interior defense was to blame for the 73-62 loss to Oregon.
Box score descriptions can be misleading, but the play-by-play lists only 9 made Oregon baskets as shots other than jumpers. Meanwhile, the Ducks only attempted 5 free throws, two of which came on an intentional foul in the final minute of the game. That’s not very much interior offense generated in a normal game of basketball, let alone against a team that is struggling at an historic level.
No, Oregon’s offense came from hitting a ton of jump shots. 9 two point jumpers (many foul line elbow jumpers in the soft spot of the zone) and 11 three pointers. Oregon shot a combined 20-40 on their various jumpers, and that was enough offense to hold off much colder shooting Bears.
On a different night, Cal might’ve been able to steal a road win. The Bears were active defensively en route to forcing 15 turnovers, while only turning the ball over 9 times themselves. Neither team was hugely successful on the offensive glass. And because Oregon shot so many jumpers while the Cal offense was reasonably active and aggressive, Cal had a massive free throw advantage, going 16-19 compared to Oregon’s 4-5. If you really squinted you could make an argument that Cal was the better team on the night, or at least on equal footing with the Ducks.
Except you’ve gotta make shots. When one team shoots an eFG% of 65% while you’re busy shooting 45% it’s going to be near impossible for the other phases of the game to make up that kind of gap.
FWIW, Oregon isn’t some kind of brilliant shooting team. They’re a roughly nationally average 3 point shooting team. They had a hot night against the Bears, which is the kind thing that tends to happen to teams that are riding an 18 game losing streak to conference opposition. Losing 18 in a row requires some bad luck to mix in with the other talent/coaching disadvantages, and Oregon’s hot shooting probably turned what might’ve been a coin toss into an 11 point lead.
There were bright spots. Cal looked better executing what has been their defensive strategy over the last few games, which is essentially to pack the paint in an attempt to clog interior passing lanes. Cal’s guards were also pretty sharp about contesting bad perimeter passes and the Bears got a few run outs on steals as a consequence. Oregon’s lack of a dominant offensive scorer/rebounder and nominally average jump shooting played into that strategy working . . . in part.
Meanwhile, Cal got nice offensive games from Justice Sueing, Connor Vanover, and Paris Austin. Austin did a solid job of finding lanes against a tough Oregon zone, Sueing was a physical presence that Oregon couldn’t handle without fouling, and Vanover did a good job of finding space down low and making himself available to cutting guards. Cal over-performed pre-game offensive expectations despite a mediocre shooting night from 3.
If you’re a cynic you’re probably wondering exactly how low my expectations are, offering up a bunch of praise for an 11 point loss. And I guess you’d have a point. But we all know where this team is, and we all know that there’s only so much improvement that can reasonably happen between now and the end of the season. I’ve spent enough time hashing out what’s wrong. The reality is that an 11 point road loss against a team that shot abnormally well on their jumpers is a form of progress for this team. As Reef noted on twitter, if Cal brings many of the same elements they brought against Oregon to the rest of their games, they won’t finish this season without a conference win.
That kinda makes sense, right? When you have a team full of underclassmen that at least have baseline Pac-12 recruiting pedigree, they should improve with time and experience, right? All we can do is cross our fingers and hope that their improvement, no matter how marginal, is rewarded at some point down the line, this season or next.