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Bears blown out by Trojans in demoralizing step backwards

USC rains threes over a Cal defense chasing shadows in a rough loss on the road

NCAA Basketball: California at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Less than a week ago, the Bears enjoyed an unexpected home sweep thanks mostly to improved defensive performances. Cal held both Washington schools under a point/possession, which is the kind of defense the Bears need to have a chance to win games with an offense that still struggles badly to consistently score. So, with a much tougher game next up on the road against USC, I kept my expectations low:

Alas, a strong defensive effort this was not. Honestly, adjusted for opponent quality, you could make an argument that this was Cal’s worst defensive performance of the year. Only Duke and St. Mary’s scored more efficiently than USC on Cal’s defense, but those first two teams have elite, top 15 offenses. USC’s offense probably isn’t even in the top half of the Pac-12. There’s no way around it: This game was a massive step backwards from an encouraging week.

Granted, USC did shoot 14-23 from three, which is a crazy good shooting night for anybody. But that good shooting explains at best half of the 32 points that separated the Bears and the Trojans.

Nothing worked for Cal on defense. The Bears came out in man to man, and promptly committed three fouls in three possessions as USC was able to get the ball inside and to the rim at will. Cal came in with a strategy to send double teams at USC’s interior players, similar to how the Bears tried to defend Washington. But USC knew how to exploit those double teams, and Cal’s doubles were either too late or USC passed to a plethora of open shooters.

Mark Fox sensibly switched to a zone, but that didn’t stem the tide of USC interior penetration that led either to an interior shot or a kick out to a wide open shooter. USC isn’t great at actually finishing inside, either today (41% on 2 point shots and 6-14 at the rim) or generally for the season but they made up for it by drawing a ton of contact and getting to the line all game long. The Trojans scored enough points from 3 pointers (42) and free throws (22) that they could’ve won the game without hitting any of their shots inside the arc.

Meanwhile, Cal’s offense again struggled to break 50 points in regulation, mostly thanks to an offense that was reduced almost entirely to jump shots. In the first half Cal attempted 27 shots, and only three of them were at the rim. I suppose it’s to Cal’s credit that, faced with a tough USC defense that shuts down interior scoring, they didn’t hesitate to shoot from 3. But the Bears weren’t rewarded, shooting just 25% on an unusually high volume of deep shots. And because the offense that wasn’t really creating anything else, that poor shooting night was an offensive death sentence.

Other Notes

  • Thanks in part to more early foul trouble for Cal’s interior defenders, and thanks in part to how quickly this game got out of hand, Mark Fox was able to give more minutes than usual to freshmen DJ Thorpe, Kuany Kuany, and Dimitrios Klonaras, who scored his first points as a Bear. Thorpe and Kuany mixed some interesting flashes with some very raw freshmen type plays.
  • Lars Thiemann had another rough game, with two turnovers and five fouls in just 12 minutes. In an admittedly small sample size of just four conference games, Thiemann has committed a foul every 4 minutes on the court, and his turnover rate on post ups continually makes me wonder why Mark Fox is putting him in that position.
  • USC hilariously picked up a very justified flop warning on Cal’s first offensive possession, then hilariously picked up a completely deserved actual flop technical just a few minutes later. This was the high point of the game.
  • Jonah Mathews dropped 19, which annoyingly made me think about how Jordan Mathews’ decision to grad transfer was a low key turning point for Cal’s dissolution as a Pac-12 basketball power.

This game was never likely to be a win - there are only a handful of games left on Cal’s schedule that are meaningfully tougher. Is this just a temporary set back in a season with an arc of improvement, or was last week a random, unsustainable blip of positivity? Cal’s next game may well be illuminating, because it’s a rare reasonable shot at a road conference win.

UCLA is terrible this year, probably the worst Bruin basketball team in your lifetime. After a shock win over Washington, UCLA has lost three straight by increasingly embarrassing margins. A Cal win would go a long way towards ensuring that somebody else occupies the basement of the Pac-12 standings this year, and boy wouldn’t it be wonderful if that team happened to be UCLA? Let’s go make that happen.