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WBB Conversations: Swept at Home in a ROUGH Opening Week in the Pac-12

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Losses to Washington and Washington State

Reef, Saturday Morning

I guess we should get right to it. I’ve got a lot to say, and I’m sure you do to, but I wanna start with a game report.

The Bears lost 67-64 to Washington at Haas to open Pac-12 play. The Huskies owned the first half, led by 12 at the midway point, the Bears fought back to take a brief lead (by as much as 3), but ultimately couldn’t make enough plays on either end down the stretch.

  • In what was the first conference action for many of the players (remember, only 2 players in the rotation got meaningful minutes last year), the team was quite unsettled to start. This was most exemplified by 7 first quarter turnovers against Washington ball pressure that was decent, but nothing close to the level of we’re likely to face down the road. Some of those came on some really poor interior passes. Some from just getting our dribbles picked. It was also exemplified by a general lack of attention and focus and energy overall. In particular our trademark defensive energy was missing.
  • We also just...missed a lot of shots. 9-36 (25%) in the first half, 20-62 (32%) for the game. Particularly tough was the 4-22 shooting in the second quarter, including 1-9 from deep. Overall, when we weren’t handing the ball to the Huskies, we were getting the looks we wanted: shots at the rim or open 3p looks. We just...missed. A lot. I theorized this may have had something to do with managing the emotions of the first Pac-12 game, with a lot of adrenaline and the game feeling sped up. But I have no real way of knowing what was going on in the players’ heads. What I do know is when you get good looks and shoot 32% (24% from deep), you don’t have a very good chance to win.
  • We did come roaring back in the second half. We settled into a place where *we* were dictating the tone, as we’re accustomed to doing at home. There weren’t a ton of schematic adjustments...a little bit of zone and a few wrinkles on O...but where I credit Charmin and the coaching staff is they somehow managed to get the team in a better emotional place, to my eye, and that enabled us to play Cal basketball instead of Washington basketball.
  • The refereeing was not great, and not in our favor. In particular, two calls on Jaelyn Brown really hurt. Her second foul in the second quarter on Amber Melgoza was...not a foul. It was textbook position and verticality. It gave Washington two points, changed the defensive tone on Melgoza, and took Jaelyn out of the game as we dug ourselves a deep hole. But the really egregious call was the technical foul on Jaelyn with just under 3:00 left in a one point game. Jaelyn thought she got fouled in the post (it was borderline), she complained to the ref by motioning to her arm, then as she was turning back up court to go play defense she got T’d up and Washington made both free throws. Two free points in a one possession game in the last 3 minutes represents about a 30% swing in win probability. Here’s what I know: 1) On the broadcast, Kate Scott identified the referee as Chuck Gonzalez. I’ve attempted to research this, but WBB referee information is hard to find. But that’s what they said on Pac-12 Network. 2) A player with experience with him in another conference has told me that he’s a ref who’s looking to T people up. I have no stats to support this and my source is going to have to remain anonymous for this one, but he certainly looked like a ref with an ego in this particular instance. 3) You can’t call a T in that spot. You just can’t. In a close hard fought game, as a player is running AWAY from you and back down the court, you simply cannot inject yourself into the outcome of the contest under those circumstances. Period. I am used to poor refereeing in women’s college basketball. Overall, the quality of refereeing last night was poor in an objective sense, but pretty average for a Pac-12 game. I’m prepared to live with that, because I have to be as a WBB fan. But that technical foul call. It was outside the bounds of what’s acceptable. It had an outsized impact on the result. Players deserve better.
  • The execution down the stretch was decent but not great. On the Huskies’ go ahead bucket, Evelien did a poor job getting around a screen set for Melgoza (although to be fair, she had done a great job on Melgoza in several possessions prior). It was a bad time for a defensive breakdown. On the subsequent ATO, an elevator play to get Jazzy a look from three was executed nicely, but something about the belated contest on her right hand disrupted the shot into an airball. At the time I thought she should have passed on the shot because it wasn’t clean, but on the tape, it was open enough. I wish I had a different angle to see why it airballed. And on the last ATO to try to tie, we ran a nice play you see in the NBA...a crosscourt inbound pass gets the defense to turn its head, and a simple pass to Jazzy up top (didn’t even need much of a screen) got her a nice look at it. That one was well executed.

Those were some of the key points in the game for me. I have a lot more thoughts on the implications for this team in this conference, but first let’s hear what you thought. Have you recovered yet?

Nick, Saturday Afternoon

It was a bit of a gut punch. Partly because after 20 minutes of basketball, it just felt like it wasn’t our night. Like you said, Melgoza was getting whatever she wanted and our shots weren’t falling, and I started mentally preparing for defeat. Then the Bears gradually worked their way back in the 2nd half, and when they got up 3 with a bit more than a minute left I thought we had the game. All around rough.

On the bright side, this game was another nice demonstration of how far a team can get with effort and sound defense (Melgoza issues aside). Rebounding 43% of your missed shots will keep you in lots of games. But yeah, just tough to have an efficient offense with 17 turnovers and 37% eFG from the field. Cal had fewer turnovers against UW than they did against Kentucky, but I oddly felt that Cal dealt with ball pressure better against the Wildcats, who brought a level of energy and athleticism that is unique and beyond what Washington offered Friday night. To some extent there’s no way around it when you’re playing to many freshmen ball handlers, so I’ll be interested to see how much Cal can improve ball security in-season.

Funny, on the TV broadcast we didn’t even see what Jaelyn ‘did’ to get T’d up, and so I assume that Charmin picked up her first technical as a head coach and was about ready to joke about the milestone on twitter. Boy would it have been nice if Cal was in position to hold for the last shot in a tied game rather than trying to scheme down 2.

If there’s a single individual player who jumped out at me last night, it was Evelien, who is flashing plus Pac-12 athleticism. She’s got post player size at 6’2’’ with a great combination of instinct and motor that helps her get a ton of rebounds on both ends, but with the speed and mobility to guard just about anybody. Obviously there will be a learning curve with defensive scheme and instincts, but she already brings useful skills onto the court with the obvious ability to add more with development.

As always, time for the quick turnaround. Washington State, unsurprisingly, was pretty easily squished by Stanford. The Cougars are thankfully not nearly as much a turnover forcing team as Washington, and they already lost to that same Husky team at home by nine, which I suppose is the start of a basis of comparison. Anything specific you’ll be hoping to see against Wazzu, other than more shots falling through our net?

Reef, Saturday Night

Yeah. I want to see a win.

Okay, that sounds a little flippant, but that is kind of the bottom line at this point. Let’s dig into that a little more. At the Grand Canyon game you started talking about what it would take to get on the NCAA bubble. That was a bit startling, because I’d been looking at this season as a window into next year...as a test of the foundation Charmin Smith would build for this program in the long term. And frankly, with the amount of talent we lost and the consensus predictions (mine included) that we’d be near the bottom of the conference, the thought hadn’t occurred to me. But after a better than expected preseason (including an 11 point loss at Storrs, a win over Arkansas, and a one possession loss to Kentucky)...and just an overall higher quality of play than I think anyone was expecting, the question started to make sense to me.

So let’s set the lower bound. I think we agreed on an 8-10 Pac-12 record as the minimum we’d need to even be in the discussion, correct?

Let’s play out that math. Oregon, Oregon State, and stanford are all possible/likely #1 seeds. We play 6 games against that group. Add the UCLA game (currently projected as a 2 seed by Charlie Creme), and we’re looking at 7 games that will be very hard to win. The gap between 1 seeds and even tournament-level teams in women’s basketball is vast and wide. I love our squad, but I’m also a realist: let’s be generous and give us 1-6 in those 7 games.

Arizona, ASU, Colorado and Utah are the middle of the conference. They are, if we’re being optimistic, our level of team. We play 6 games against that group (home/home with the mountains, and in the desert for our only 2 games with the Arizonas). Let’s assume 3-3 for those games. Now we’re at 4-9.

That leaves the rest. The bottom of the conference. The teams we should beat, if we’re a tournament bubble team. Washington, WSU, USC. We play 5 games against those squads (home/home with the Washingtons, and USC visits Haas). The math on getting to 8 wins? 4-1 against those teams.

You, of course, see the problem. We just lost the first of those games. At home. That leaves very little margin for error, in this theoretical universe. I’ll throw in the usual caveats: we don’t play in a theoretical universe, we still don’t know fully what how good our team is--and they’ve shown the capacity to overachieve, and, I know, I know, weird stuff happens over the course of a long conference season. Still. Imagine starting 0-2 at home against the Washingtons, then getting ready to face stanford twice, OSU, then Oregon. I would, frankly, completely give up on any hope of the tournament under those circumstances.

The team and the coaches should not be thinking about any of this. It’s way too early -- and of course they should not be conceding defeat against any squad, no matter how strong. But I’m not a player or a coach, I’m a basketball writer, and when I look at the big picture, the conclusion is inescapable. Sunday is a must win. It’s also a test of this team’s resilience and where we are in the early days of the Charmin Smith era.

In 24 hours, I hope to be writing about a bounce back victory, in whatever way we can get it.

Nick, Wednesday Night

Well, whatever slim hopes of NCAA tournament contention, real or imagined, are gone. That’s perhaps just as well, as I suspect it was my own pipe dream to begin with. That was never likely to be the narrative of this season, and wasn’t a fair benchmark with which to measure these Bears.

It’s funny how basketball works. I’ve been closely following Cal women’s basketball for more than a decade now, and in that time the Bears have consistently faced elite competition. The Pac-12 has been chocked full of spectacular, Final Four level teams, and we’ve seen UConn more times than I’d prefer. And yet I couldn’t recall watching Cal get as thoroughly dominated as they were in the first 16:04 against Washington State. 50-14 is an insane, unbelievable score for any game that isn’t a match-up between, say, Baylor and Grambling State.

Those not paying attention may note the final score (96-75) and assume that the Bears had a rough game and move on, not knowing the bizarre way the game actually played out. Cal ended up erasing (at one point, at least) 23 points of that 36 point deficit, and they did it with remarkable speed, going on a crazy 27-4 run of their own across just 7 minutes of game action. For the briefest of moments it indeed felt like Cal could set the all time NCAA record for greatest comeback, regardless of gender. Alas, the Bears were gassed and WSU wasn’t going to keep missing shots. The Cougars settled down, pushed the lead back into the 20s, and cruised the rest of the way.

I can’t say what precisely caused Cal to fall behind 50-14. I can note, as a matter of cold fact, that WSU shot 22-26 from the field from that stretch while Cal shot 6-23. I can intellectually say that WSU pretty much entirely got the shots they wanted while Cal mostly took bad shots and/or rushed shots. But the why here, why now nature of such an extreme outlier game, in this particular case and in the world of sports generally, is a mystery. Maybe everybody on the team had a Saturday midterm?

I think we’re in agreement that this weekend laid bare Cal’s strengths and weaknesses. The Bears are fighters, whether that’s a successful-until-it’s-not comeback from down 13 at the half against Washington, or having the audacity to even try to surmount a 36 point gap against the Cougs. But the Bears are still young. Even their veterans are in new roles both on-court and in terms of program leadership. They were punished harshly for not coming out with focused intensity twice, and now they face a four game stretch where they could bring their A game four times and still find themselves 0-6 in the conference in two weeks. But they didn’t do anything to shake my conviction that they’re moving in the right direction.

Reef, Friday Morning

Whelp.

This feels a lot different from my last entry. I guess the only purpose my NCAA analysis served is prove that we’re probably not going to make the tournament after starting 0-2. I suppose a part of me wanted to keep hope alive as long as possible, because I don’t want the seniors, Chen, Sara, CJ, and Jaelyn to be playing only for the nebulous idea of improvement and long term program building. Maybe they’re still not...but the cold, hard reality doesn’t look good, in light of the math I laid out above.

Unless a miracle happens (and a part of me still believes), the focus for the remainder of the season is on the frame you just articulated. Are we moving in the right direction?

When I try to analyze this question, for both our men’s and women’s rebuilding basketball programs, I try to look at the data across longer term arcs, and not get too caught up in individual games. In that light, the first 11 (non-conference) women’s games were almost entirely promising: high energy, improved defense, strong late-game execution, creative offense. Individual player development across the entire roster. Maximization of talent.

So what to do with a two game Pac-12 sample, one of which was a C+ and the other a D? (I watched the tape of the WSU game, and the 1Q — outlier shooting or not — was a horribly executed quarter of basketball, the worst of the year. Even with a strong few minutes in the middle of the game, and the unconquerable heart shown by the team throughout, it was still a 21 point loss at home to a bad basketball team.)

Do we chalk it up to inexperience, and opening conference jitters? Regression to the mean? The inevitable ups and downs that any rebuild encounters?

My answer: I don’t know. That first weekend caught me off guard, to be honest, because the 440 minutes of basketball that led up to it was not at all predictive of what we got against the Washingtons.

So I guess we wait, we see, we continue to observe what develops. We’re about to play 4 games against elite competition. We may not win, but will we max out our talent, or will we get buried as we did last weekend? I suspect at least one of these upcoming games will be closer than expected. Either way, I’ll be there to watch.

Friday, January 10, 7pm at Stanford (Pac-12 Networks)

Sunday, January 12, 5pm vs Stanford at Haas Pavilion (Pac-12 Networks)