At the end of a winter when the rain seemingly never stopped, in the midst of the worst stretch of basketball in the history of the program, riding a record 16 game losing streak, the California Golden Bears entered a homestand against the two schools from Washington with just three more chances to avoid an ignominious 0-18 season. Hoping somehow, some way, that they would get the one win to break the seal, and provide a ray of sunshine at the end of the storm.
The sun came out this week.
On the heels of an upset win as an 11 point underdog over regular season conference champion Washington, California entered Saturday afternoon’s contest at Haas Pavilion in the rare position of being a betting favorite. The line in Las Vegas: Cal -1, the first time in 2019 that Cal was laying points. And for good reason. On the strength of an evolving, cohesive zone defense, Cal has been playing improving basketball in the second half of conference play. Meanwhile, after playing a strong stretch of basketball in early February, the Cougars entered March short handed, missing three rotation players. They were also badly in need of a heart transplant, showing no cohesion or focus in a 48 point loss at Maples on Thursday night.
The game played out exactly as expected. Cal drove relentlessly to the basket against a defense that had no rim protection and no interest in staying in front of their man. The Bears shot 13-20 (65%) on 2p FGs in the first half, well above their abysmal 47% season average, mostly on drives straight to the rim. Meanwhile, the Cal zone disrupted a Washington State offense that is already on spring break. The Cougars turned the ball over 7 times in the first 10 minutes of the game, en route to 20 turnovers in the contest, giving Cal a +9 edge.
The Bears led by 12 at halftime, and no amount of late game jitters (there were quite a few) were going to be enough to blow a lead against a WSU squad that was bound and determined to Coug it until the bitter end.
Final Score: Cal 76 - WSU 69
Areas of Improvement
At the end of what will be yet another historically poor season in the win column, we look for signs, any signs, that the team is improving and there is hope for next year. The first of those signs is on defense. Five weeks ago I wrote about Cal’s biggest weakness: the worst defense in program history. I posted this chart.
That was the 2pFG% allowed to opponents in an abysmal stretch to start the season. Let’s revisit that statistic.
Cal’s interior defense has improved dramatically in the last several weeks. The coaching staff has committed exclusively to a zone defense that has figured out how to cut off driving lanes, communicates better on interior passes, and is finding good situations to trap aggressively, forcing turnovers. The increased playing time and inside presence of Connor Vanover provides a semblance of rim protection, or at least a dude who is tough to shoot over. And the Bears have begun to consistently stop the worst form of opponent scoring -- layups at the rim.
The offense is still a work in progress, and a one and a half game sample is not nearly enough to conclude that real improvement is taking place. Toward the end of today’s game we saw familiar patterns emerge...holding too long without purposefully getting guards downhill, resulting in some poor shot selection. Ultimately, after a strong start, the Bears ended up at 1.0 point per possession against a terrible WSU defense. That’s not very good.
But credit where it’s due: the worst of the problems -- the defense-- has been addressed with a clear, coherent, well-coached strategy. It’s working.
In addition, this is getting cliche but it must be acknowledged: it is to the credit of everyone associated with the program that the team continues to play hard and buy in. 0-15, on the heels of 2-16 the year prior. Losing 16 straight. There was every reason to give up. I was hearing whispers that this was indeed happening, although none of my film study indicated this was the case.
I think we know from these two games that this is emphatically not the case. Say what you want about the results of the last two seasons, these players continue to bring it. That fact alone is reason for at least some optimism going forward.
I don’t have a crystal ball, or any particular insight that I can share on what may or may not happen to this program heading into the offseason, and next year. Folks have amused themselves with the possibility of a postseason run triggered by this sweep, but let’s be real. In all probability, this season will end as last year’s did: a historically bad overall performance that marks this 2-year stretch as the nadir of Cal basketball since the sport was first played here in 1907.
How the reckoning will come for that is not up to me, but it does seem like a reckoning is in order. What I hope for, at the very least, is that the players continue to take heart in what they do and the school they represent. And that we, as a fanbase, have brighter days ahead -- soon -- to share with each other. If you’re still here after all this, you care. As I do. As we all do together. About this university, this basketball team. We share a common belief in the possibility of what we could be. I hope those possibilities find us.
This is my last regular season MBB piece of the season, and it has become customary for me to thank you, the community, for making this a place of joy for me. That’s been hard the last few years, but at bottom I still feel the same way. We do this for each other, through the good and the bad, come what may. Please join me and Nick for what will hopefully be a memorable and thrilling postseason run for WBB.
Thank you, Cal fam. Go Bears.