In the last several weeks, the California Golden Bears have been quietly making inroads into addressing the major weakness that has plagued them throughout the conference season. The primary item on their list was a complete lack of defensive aptitude, resulting in one of the worst defensive ratings in program history, driven by the lack of ability to stop interior penetration and defend at the rim. Coming into today, Cal had allowed a mind-bending 64% on 2p shots by opponents, and when they have managed to pack the paint, this has left them susceptible to open jumpers, as we saw on Wednesday night.
Enter the Oregon State Beavers.
Cal has been smartly trying to address their defensive issues by using a packed zone, combined with aggressive ball pressure to disrupt opponents’ attempts to enter the lane. The Beavers were a room service opponent for that strategy because (1) they attack via straight line drive dribbles to the basket, which the Bears could easily disrupt with their attacking zone; and (2) they are a poor shooting team from deep, minimizing the chances that an interior heavy zone would be punished by kick outs to open shooters.
For the most part, the strategy worked. In the 1st Half, although the Beavers shot an insane 9-11 on 2p shots, only 8 of those shots came in the half court offense, meaning the Bears were generally winning the battle of shot selection. The Bears also got 8 steals and caused 10 turnovers. The defensive disruption contributed to a Cal lead with 90 seconds left in the half, until a series of poor offensive choices led to some easy OSU buckets and a 6 point deficit going into the locker room.
And in the 2nd half it got better. The Bears allowed 10-18 2p shooting in the second half, with only 2 buckets uncontested in the half court. Okay, 55% 2p shooting allowed is not actually good, but it represents marked improvement from a team that had allowed 70%+ 2p shooting in its last three games.
Consider this stretch of defense at the end of the game:
- 4:46 remaining, OSU 66 - Cal 65: Tres Tinkle attacks from the high post and is met by Connor Vanover and Justice Sueing. Grant Anticevich drops to slide in front of a cutter. No shot is available, Tinkle forces one, and is blocked.
- 3:10 left, OSU 71 - Cal 68: OSU tries to penetrate once, twice, and three times, but the defense rotates properly each time. Finally Ethan Thompson is forced into a tough step back 13 foot fading jumper. He made it, but that’s a defensive win.
- 2:00 left, OSU 73 - Cal 68: OSU tries unsuccessfully twice to enter the post, and finally Tinkle is forced to drive baseline where he is met by two defenders. He’s forced into an impossible reverse, which he misses badly.
During the defensive possessions I didn’t list, when OSU extended their lead, we allowed transition buckets and a tough Tinkle three. We’re not perfect, or even good, on defense, and we’ve got a long way to go. But a month ago this team couldn’t get any stops. A week ago they allowed stanford to score inside on five straight possessions down the stretch of a close ball game. Seeing these Bears adjust, fight, and play at least some possessions of sound, fundamental basketball is a glimmer of the progress we’ve been hoping for all year.
55% 2p shooting in a tightly contested 2nd half against a team that averages 55% is, well, average. And for this team, average is major progress.
Unfortunately, the Bears just couldn’t make enough offensive plays down the stretch.
- Down 1 with 5:05 left, Justice Sueing drove into traffic and committed an offensive foul.
- Down 3 with 4:00 left, Juhwan Harris-Dyson, 0-18 in his career from deep, took a three and missed badly.
- Down 5 with 2:30 left, Paris Austin dribbled into 3 defenders and the ball kicked out of bounds. (Replay showed it was off an OSU player, but not much good was going to come with :05 on the shot clock and Paris surrounded by three defenders.)
- Down 4 with 1:20 left, Justice tried to enter a bounce pass to a cutting Vanover (?!?) and it kicked off his foot causing a scramble in the half court. Eventually the Bears recovered for a rushed three from Matt Bradley, which missed long.
Good, experienced teams find a way to find good shots on critical possessions. This team may be good some day, but they aren’t now, and they have had precious little experience with end of game situations.
At the end of the day, the victories were entirely moral.
Final score: Oregon State 79 - Cal 71.
- Connor Vanover is looking more and more like he will be surefire contributor during his Cal career. Tonight’s line: 30 minutes with 15 points on 6-9 shooting including 2-3 from deep, 4 boards, 4 blocks. He is rapidly improving in defensive positioning and verticality. He could end up being very, very good.
- The Bears’ aggressive defensive resulted in 22 fouls compared to just 10 for OSU. If this strategy is going to result in wins, they have to find a way to apply pressure without fouling.
- Cal is now 0-11 in conference, and has lost 18 in a row in the last two seasons combined. (19 in a row if you count the loss in the Pac-12 tournament.) The record for consecutive conference losses is 30, set by the 1937-40 UCLA Bruins. Cal’s ongoing 12 game losing streak overall is the longest in school history.
- Come out and watch Women’s Basketball take on #7 Oregon State at Haas at 1pm on Sunday. My personal prediction is it will be a compelling, competitive contest.