December 30, 2017. On that date two seasons ago, the California Golden Bears men’s basketball team put together an improbable (and let’s face it, lucky) 18-4 run in the final 3:29 at Maples Pavilion to beat stanford in their Pac-12 opener. That was the last time Cal Men’s Basketball was over .500 in the Conference of Champions. That team would go on to lose their next 9 contests, and finish with 2 conference wins that year. They would top that with a whopping 3 wins in 2019.
742 days, and 38 Pac-12 games later, with 8 seconds left in a tied overtime game against the Washington Huskies, Matt Bradley had the ball isolated at the top of the key. Unlike the last shot in regulation, he did not give the ball up. Instead, he took a couple dribbles to his right, pulled up, and banked in a three pointer to give Cal the victory. The Bears now sit at 2-1 in the conference. It is January 11. Two seasons ago Cal got its second win on February 3. Last year their second win came on February 28.
We’ve talked a lot about floors and ceilings around here. About offensive style and efficiency, defensive effort, poor rebounding, recruiting concerns. All of that goes into the complex task of evaluating a basketball program, and in this case trying to project that program’s trajectory in a rebuilding year. But as we sit and savor Matt Bradley’s game winner, and a sweep in Haas Pavilion this week, let’s be clear about one thing.
The worst is behind us.
We witnessed the two poorest seasons in Cal history. We watched 63 games of something that can hardly be called basketball. We’re still digging out of that, and we’re still not even close to a top 100 program. There may be a limit to how far we can go. But let’s repeat: the worst is over. We’re no longer coached by an unqualified imposter, and our current, honest-to-goodness basketball coach makes sensible decisions that put a floor on our level of play.
Today, that floor gave us our second conference win of the season. Let’s look at how:
- Washington plays an aggressive zone that causes turnovers on 20% of possessions. The Cal offense had coughed up 35 turnovers in its first two Pac-12 contests. In preparation for this game, the Bears drilled repeatedly against the unusual zone concepts Mike Hopkins teaches, took care of the ball, and gave up only 10 turnovers in 68 possessions (14%). They committed just 4 turnovers in the first half, and many of their second half turnovers occurred when UW switched to man to man. Good ball security kept the Huskies’ superior athletes out of transition, a critical factor in a game with razor thin margins. Sound, sensible coaching.
- Washington was playing their second game without point guard Quade Green, who is top 40 in the nation in assist rate. Without Green, they have a bunch of highly recruited athletes, and not much of a way to get them the ball in good scoring spots. Isaiah Stewart is a possible NBA lottery pick who is a tough, tough matchup one on one on the block against any Cal defender. The Bears and Mark Fox did not let him work one on one. All night long: doubles, fronts, quick help, recovery. Stewart, the best player on the court, got only 7 FG attempts and 3 trips to the line. That’s it. The game plan kept it out of his hands. Sound, sensible coaching.
- The rest of Washington’s lineup is athletic, bouncy...and unable to run an offense. They are able to go one on one in a pickup game, but this wasn’t a pickup game. This was against Mark Fox’s defense, and finally we are starting to see, especially during this homestand, the strengths that made his teams tough to play at Georgia. You can’t go one on one off the dribble against a Mark Fox coached squad. He’s too good at teaching sound man to man fundamentals. Those skills did not develop immediately this season, but they were in abundant evidence this week. Jaden McDaniels, Nahziah Carter, Jamal Bey, Hameir Wright...they kept trying to beat their man off the dribble. Nope. Not gonna happen. The Bears held Washington to .85 points per possession, on 30% shooting, because they came in prepared to guard the man in front of them. They knew it was coming, and they were ready for it. Sound, sensible coaching.
It’s nice to see growth on the defensive end. It’s nice to see a team that’s prepared. It’s nice to see a game plan tailored toward an opponent’s weaknesses. Does that mean we’re out of the woods? Far from it. There’s also a ceiling on Mark Fox, also highlighted in today’s matchup.
- The California offense produced .90 points per possession. That is not good. Far from it. The Bears especially struggled, as they have all year, when the Huskies switched to man to man. In OT, the Bears needed a poorly chosen 18 foot jumper from Paris Austin and the banked in Bradley three to barely eke out a win. The Mark Fox offense is still uninspiring.
- Despite out-scheming and out-executing Washington for most of the game, we still required overtime to win. That’s because, even with a 5 star player sitting, Washington had two 5 star and three 4 star recruits on the floor today. Cal had one 4 star in Matt Bradley. With a couple of 3 stars signed for 2020, this state of affairs does not appear to be changing any time soon. And until it does, there is a hard ceiling on how far Mark Fox can go in Berkeley.
So here we are, at 2-1, no longer watching the worst team to ever wear Blue and Gold. As of this writing, tied for 2nd in the Pac-12. Wrapping up a home sweep because, warts and all, Mark Fox knows how to win a rock fight. It’s not pretty, it may not be sustainable, but it could be a lot, lot worse. Today, we enjoy what we’ve got.
Cal 61 - Washington 58