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Sequencing, variance, and evaluating Cal men’s basketball

What exactly do you make of a team that follows up an 0-15 start to Pac-12 play with a sudden 3 game win streak?

NCAA Basketball: California at Stanford Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, so all season long we’ve had people openly speculating about whether or not this particular Cal basketball team would be historic. Sadly, any history making wasn’t ever going to be for a positive achievement. But as it turns out, this team has done at least one thing that is unprecedented:

Which gets at the heart of trying to evaluate this season. Over the last 18 games, Cal men’s basketball first had to play through an 0-15 stretch that led to a tide of derision, then went on an improbable 3 game winning streak that maybe has changed some minds?

Or at least, that appears to be the case for 16% of Cal fans, according to this Bear Insider poll. In total, 27% of Cal fans think that Wyking Jones deserves another season, and 25% are willing to withhold judgment based upon potential future events, on-court or off.

Firstly, the necessary caveats: An internet poll with (as of Sunday night) a hair over 300 respondents is hardly scientific and may or may not reflect the prevailing opinion of Cal fans.

But were I to guess, I’d say that the poll is probably a reasonable facsimile of fan opinion. Something near to a majority, and certainly a plurality are fully out on the current coaching staff, and nothing is going to change their mind. But there are a not-insignificant contingent that either believes that Wyking Jones deserves another year, or is looking for a reason to believe that he deserves another year.

And while internet polls don’t have to mean anything, this one is attempting to answer a question that’s wildly important for the Cal athletics department decision making process. Maybe ‘damage to the brand’ and ‘season ticket renewals’ shouldn’t be at the top of the list of factors that inform their decision, but those measurements are somewhere on the list.

So, a question: Does the sequencing of Cal’s wins matter to you? And if so, how much? Why I’m asking this question is obvious. Consider three completely different scenarios that end in the same win/loss record:

  • Cal basketball starts Pac-12 play 3-0, then loses 15 in a row to finish 3-15.
  • Cal basketball starts Pac-12 play 0-15, then wins 3 in a row to finish 3-15.
  • Cal basketball scatters three wins at random intervals in a 3-15 season.

In Scenario 1, fans might say that the coach lost the team or failed to continue improving in-season, or couldn’t adapt after their conference rivals figured out Cal’s style or strategy.

In Scenario 2, fans might argue that the team turned a corner, that the coaches and players kept faith and were rewarded.

And in Scenario 3, you can’t really build a narrative and so it’s just a garden variety bad team without much of anything interesting to say.

Here we are, living scenario 2, and we have to decide what it means. Which isn’t exactly fun, but it’s so much better than grappling with the meaning of an 0-18 season. It’s really, really tempting to buy into the positive narratives that can be built around a seemingly out-of-nowhere three game winning streak. It’s also important that we’re clear eyed about the circumstances of each win.

Cal’s win over Washington was easily, objectively, Cal’s best performance of the season. It was also a narrow 3 point win in a game where the Bears shot 53% on their 3 pointers, so it’s probably fair to say that the Bears were a touch on the lucky side of variance, but it was still an objectively excellent performance.

Cal’s win over Washington State was always supposed to be Cal’s best chance to get a win, which was only aided when the Cougars came into the game with an injury ravaged rotation. Cal played solidly, but to my eyes it was a performance that wasn’t far out of the range of Cal performances seen during the entirety of the Pac-12 schedule.

Cal’s 5 point win over Stanford, the 3rd worst team in the conference, was significantly aided by an absurdly extreme 4-28 three-point-shooting performance by the Cardinal. Honestly, the fact that Cal shot 44% from three while Stanford shot 14% on a high volume, and Cal only won by 5 is kinda incredible.

Random sequencing and shooting variance can lead to inaccurate narratives. Cal was somewhat unfairly lambasted as the worst power conference team of all time mostly because they lost a coin flip game with Stanford at home (#bancharges) and couldn’t pull out a win before falling in OT to UCLA. If Cal wins either of those games then nobody nationally pays all that much attention to Cal’s plight, and this three game winning streak isn’t nearly as remarkable. Cal would just another bad team, in the way that every season has bad teams.

Which is why only those paying attention were able to notice that Cal was getting marginally better, closer to earning Pac-12 wins, as the season wore on. 6 of Cal’s 15 Pac-12 losses came by single digits. That kind of ratio is a marker of a bad team, but not an 0-18 bad team. Cal was competitive enough that a win (or 2 or 3) was more likely than the 0-18 goose egg that many convinced themselves was coming.

But now, after three straight wins, if you so desire you can build a narrative that a corner has been turned, and that this group has collectively figured out something that hadn’t been discovered as recently as two weeks ago.

This is a long winded way of saying that these three wins, as fun as they have been, shouldn’t carry undue weight when you look back at the entirety of Cal’s season. They are three solid-to-above average performances, and should be included in the ledger as such. But they shouldn’t count more than any other game.

Maybe you are of the opinion that, considering inexperience and lack of continuity, an 8-22 (3-15) season is an understandable outcome and that Wyking Jones deserves another year. Maybe you’re of the opinion that those factors cannot possible excuse a combined 5-32 record against Pac-12 opposition and two Kenpom 240+ seasons.

I personally side with the latter argument, but I can understand the former. The roster situation this coaching staff was dealt two years ago was extreme. There’s a debate to be had.

But I really want to address the ~16% of fans who voted that this three game win streak changed their perspective, and that they now believe Wyking Jones deserves another year.

If you believed two weeks ago that a change needed to be made, two variance-fueled wins over Washington and Stanford (to make up for some variance fueled losses earlier in the season) and a home win over a depleted Ernie-Kent-led Washington State team shouldn’t meaningfully change what you think of the full 2018-19 results. These three wins juiced Cal’s Kenpom ranking from 283 up to 247 . . . which was the same 247 ranking Cal held before losing at home to Washington in mid-January. Teams go through fluctuations as seasons so along, which is why it’s generally a really bad idea to value recent results heavily over past results unless you have a really good reason.

Cal got their bad variance early in the Pac-12 season and their good variance late. Resist the urge to read more into that than there is. Heed the XKCD warning.

On Wednesday, Cal will play Colorado in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, and the Bears will probably lose. But an upset win over Colorado wouldn’t be that weird. Taken individually, an upset win over 4 seed Oregon State wouldn’t be that weird either. Cal has already played both the Buffs and Beavers reasonably tough, and weird things happen in small samples all the time.

But Cal won’t be winning the conference tournament. Which means that 95% of the 2018-19 season has already been written. Don’t let the last 5% count for any more than 5%.