- Win over WSU 77-58
- Loss to Stanford 72-54
Currently: 19-11 (9-9, T-6th in Pac-12); RPI = 40
Upcoming: NCAA tournament selection show, Monday
Note: We’ll put together a 2nd WBB Bracketology post that wil go up later this week.
We get to play a second day in the Pac-12 tournament, and that is an unequivocal good in our lives as basketball fans. However, with the last soft team we will face this year behind us, I found myself analytically ambivalent after last night’s game.
We won by 19, comfortable enough in the 4Q to get our bench in and get at least some nominal “rest” for tonight’s game. But we led by only 2 at the half and 7 after the 3Q.
The defensive efficiency was better than Sunday (.88 improved from .94), but that was mostly on the strength of WSU completely losing heart and focus in the 4Q. At the half we were allowing better than 1.0ppp, due to our usual glaring weakness: the inability to defend the PnR or focus agains a multiple pass, multiple motion offensive scheme.
The offense was still quite good at 1.17, but our shooters seemed to have problems finding a rhythm early, and finding their range in the unusual MGM atmosphere. Maybe that took care of itself at the end -- we did finish 6-18 (33%). Kristine was not nearly as good as on Sunday, needing 28 shooting possessions to score 27 points.
All of this is to say that the same effort won’t be nearly good enough against stanford. We beat them by 1 at Haas with one of our best offensive efforts of the year, then turned right around and lost by 25 at Maples. They are rested, highly skilled, and you know they will be well prepared. The task feels daunting just thinking about it.
On the other hand, I’m in Las Vegas. There’s a March to Victory at the team hotel this afternoon, followed by a pregame rally at the MGM. Then we play our rivals, with a chance to make magic, and I’ll be in the house to experience it. When you get right down to it--this is why I’m a basketball fan. To experience days like this. And maybe, just maybe, to be a witness to history.
For the first time this season, I’m not going to have a computer when I watch the game. Stats be damned, analysis be damned, this one is to appreciate the moment. This may be the last time I see Mo, Recee, Asha, and Kristine play basketball in person.
And then again...what if it’s not?
The Bears have tended to play over their heads a bit in the Pac-12 tournament of late . . . but come up a bit short. Last year Cal lost by just 3 to #9 UCLA. Three years ago they upset ASU before losing a heartbreaker to UCLA. Four years ago it was a gut wrenching 1 point loss to Stanford. In all of those games Cal was a pretty significant underdog but fought hard to turn each game into a coin flip or close to it down the stretch.
Of course, that probably doesn’t mean much of anything tonight. Stanford is so well rounded, so fundamentally solid, that it almost feels simple: If you’re Cal, you need to put forth a 90th percentile type performance and you’ll have an excellent shot to win, and anything less is going to mean a flight back home to wait for the selection show.
At least we know that this team is capable of doing exactly that.
It might take me a little while to talk through that one.
One of the discouraging narratives of the last two years has been the inability to beat the good teams. Last year, 1 win over stanford. This year, 1 win over stanford and 1 over ASU, the former requiring a buzzer beater and the latter a remarkable 2H comeback. Everywhere else in the schedule, bagels.
What does that get you? A team just outside of the teams that are truly good in WBB, a middling RPI, a spot on the 7/8 line in the NCAA tournament, and a trip to the home of one of college basketball’s truly elite. Ultimately what it gets us is disappointment.
Measured against that familiar storyline, last night was no different. After handling their 2H business against underdog WSU, the Golden Bears had a chance to flip the script against stanford. An opportunity: get a breakthrough win in March, jump off the 7/8 line and into territory where a second weekend NCAA run is realistic, and extend the careers of a special senior class. Stop being the little engine that couldn’t...quite, and transform into the team that can knock out the powerhouses.
Well, if you just saw the score, stanford 72 - Cal 54, you’d think same old same old. And in a way you’d be right. The Bears failed to advance in the Pac-12 tournament, lost the opportunity for a signature win, and will probably be relegated to somewhere around a 7/8 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But that doesn’t do justice to what I experienced at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. For 35 minutes, we were not only in this game--we were playing at an extremely high level. Pound for pound, blow for blow, we were on the court at a neutral venue, hanging with an elite squad.
And, miracle of miracles, we were doing it with defense. For 35 minutes, Cal’s defense, primarily the man to man variety that has been so fundamentally unsound and porous for much of the season, held a top 20 stanford offense to 55 points in 63 possessions, by talking, switching, moving, allowing only 3 back cut layups to stanford’s Princeton motion...and by, above and beyond everything else, just locking in and getting it done. It was the effort we’ve given up on seeing in this space -- and it was the effort the entire team brought when they really needed to. Except.
Except...basketball is cruel, man. The elite offense that has been so dazzling for a month and a half, and that was going to be our ticket to a March run, completely deserted us. Not for a failure of execution and focus (or at least not more so than usual), not because of a particularly outstanding stanford defensive effort. It was because our three point shots -- good, open, well chosen three point shots -- simply would not go in the basket. 7-30 (23%) on the night, and finally during the critical stretch right before the stanford run to pull away...three heart breakers: a miss by Kianna, then a miss by Recee, then a miss by Asha. All good looks, all shots they’ve been making during this offensive renaissance, all buckets that would have tied the game, and thus changed the entire complexion of the closing stretch. All not quite there. You could see the energy and the spirit drain from the team on the floor, and you could see stanford getting their own fuel from their good fortune. My soul melted away a little, sitting in the stands watching it.
“Variance” is a term that has become a bit of a hot issue around these parts, because the human instinct is to try to attribute meaning to all outcomes. If we won we must have done something well. If we lost we must have played poorly. And certainly over the long run, a team’s talent and level of play is ultimately reflected in its season record. But in the short run -- game to game -- variance has a powerful part to play in outcomes. There are certain things you simply cannot control in the short run, no matter how much precision and focus and effort and will you bring out on the floor. You can’t control referees whistles. You can’t control injuries. And (I know many of our readers hate to hear this), you can’t control whether the shots go in.
You can control what shots you get (and Cal did not take many bad ones in the 2H last night), and over time those shots will go in at a rate commensurate with your shooting ability. But night to night? Good luck. We saw it on the men’s side Thursday night at Maples: if the cardinal had shot their season average they would have won by double digits, but instead it was their night to shoot 14%. We saw it in the game right after ours in Las Vegas, when the 31% team shot 42%, and the 39% team shot 28%, and suddenly Washington had a “shocking” upset over OSU.
One of the reasons that March always produces high drama is because the NCAA plays one and done tournaments, and because short term luck happens. It’s an inevitable part of sports. We were hoping that good shooting variance would be our ticket to a March run. Instead, the fates were cruel. Our sturdy Golden Bears, on a night when they finally summoned defensive fire from somewhere down in their hearts, were deserted by the 40%+ 3p shooting that had been the hallmark of one of the best offensive stretches we have ever seen.
And they never could quite get over that hump. It’s hard to win when you don’t score. We didn’t do either.
I have a few other things to share about my experience in Las Vegas, but I have rambled on enough. How are you feeling, the day after?
This was a hard one to take. As soon as the game ended my wife and I immediately left the house and walked in the general direction of restaurants because we weren’t going to cook anything but i hadn’t the vaguest idea of what I wanted to eat. I just needed to get away from the house and not think about basketball, because I had convinced myself during the game that Cal was going to win . . . and then suddenly, out of nowhere, Stanford was up by an 18 points that was completely undeserved and didn’t reflect the effort Cal put into that game.
I have seen Cal lose many times to Stanford, and while it often makes me feel miserable, it rarely feels unfair. TVDV is a legend and usually there’s a certain cold comfort to losing to the machine she’s built. But falling by 18 points when my eyes told me that Cal was at least Stanford’s equal for 90% of the game is the cruelest of insults added to injuries. This is maybe the first loss of the season where I felt like Cal didn’t deserve to lose for various reasons. What do you even do when a career 37% three point shooter goes 1-10? Our shooters brick open looks all night long, and Shannon-friggin-Coffee hits the back breaker?! That’s just messed up.
One of my last thoughts before drowning my sorrows in greasy pizza was a bitter joke about having to go to Waco. That might not come true, but it’s one of two or three very likely scenarios, and none of them are going to be particularly comforting. Knowing that our path is likely to end with a happy Kim Mulkey or a smarmy Jeff Walz pre-emptively boils my blood, but that’s the path that Cal has earned for itself based on season long performance.
I guess the hope is that all of those shots that bounced off the rim against Stanford sail through the nets in whichever spot 2,000+ miles away Cal is sent to. I’m fatalistic right now because I know how often 7/8/9/10 seeds beat 1/2 seeds on their home courts. But the thrill of March is that you’re given the chance, and Cal has the profile of a team that, on the right night, can completely ruin somebody’s season in March.
Here’s to hoping.
I was planning on doing a full blown trip report, but the irony of taking time off to go to Vegas to watch basketball is it puts me behind at work and gives me less time to write about basketball. But I do want to close this week’s conversation with one personal reflection.
One of the reasons doing in person trips is worthwhile is you get to see and experience things live that you don’t get any inkling of on TV. One such moment was when I hung out at the team hotel and got to watch the team’s March to Victory onto the team bus on the way to the game. (You will possibly see pictures posted later this week in this space if I can find the time.) It was especially fun seeing the pregame stroll.
However, the memory I want to share came moments before. 10 minutes prior to the team’s dance, Kristine Anigwe came out, and walked quietly, alone, without fanfare, onto the team bus. I have no idea what her normal routine is, and whether she normally takes part in the stroll, or likes to be by herself before the game or what. I’m not here to play armchair psychologist. But in that moment, the thought just hit me: she looks so alone. And then I imagined for a moment, what it must be like. In the conversation for greatest player to ever put on a Cal uniform, and heck, maybe even greatest big to ever play in the Pac-12. A singular talent we may never see again in our lifetimes. Yet never, in 4 years, finding the team success she so desperately wants to accompany her individual greatness. What is it like, I wondered, to carry that weight?
I thought about the story Coach Gottlieb told on senior day, about Kristine texting her during the offseason that “You better win.” And then I thought about that image again during the game, when she played what I thought was a tour de force of winning basketball. That’s going to sound like a strange observation following a 4-15 performance, but being in the arena, you could *feel* how much she wanted to will her team to victory. And then you could see how, after she ran into a brick wall called Tara Vanderveer in the 1H, she adjusted. She started working the ball inside out. She led (as much as it’s possible to lead from the low block) the team’s shift to getting good perimeter looks. She deferred her offensive game, set screens, kicked the ball to shooters, and fought for offensive boards. And on the defensive end -- I was close to speechless. After a tough night on Thursday, on Friday she moved and battled and was in all the places at once, single-handedly shutting down the paint for long stretches...erasing teammate’s mistakes and keeping us in the ballgame.
There was a moment in the 2H when she grabbed a board, scored the bucket, then turned up the court with a primal scream and a fist pump. I thought the whole arena would explode from her sheer desire to will her team to victory. And I thought again: she’s carrying so much weight. She wants this so much.
I’ve been critical, at times, of Kristine Anigwe--of her decision making, how her presence warps our offensive flow and distribution--and of the fact that her individual success has not led to team success. Why this has been the case is probably a question that we should wait until after the season to address. Hopefully as we’re analyzing a Final Four run that erased all the years of frustration. But I hoped, as I saw her board the bus in that moment, and I thought about all that she’s carried on her shoulders for almost 4 full seasons, that I’ve been fair in my writing. And if I haven’t, I hope this in some measure makes up for it.
One thing I know, and that was affirmed to me in that arena in Las Vegas last Friday: nobody who has put on a Cal uniform wants to win more than Kristine Anigwe. She will give whatever she can, to the depth of her soul, to get her team there. That, above all else, is the highest compliment I can pay to a Cal player. If I never get to see her play again, it was an honor and a privilege to bear witness that night, as it has been for so many other nights during her great career. She is not, in the end, alone. She fights for all of us. Thank you, Kristine.