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Lost weekend in LA: How concerned should fans be about Cal’s offense?

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Picking up the pieces after Cal scores just 40 points against UCLA

California v UCLA Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Is this offensive rock bottom?

The warning signs were there. 52 points against Santa Clara. 52 points against Stanford. 49 in regulation against UW. 56 against USC.

To score 40 points in a basketball game, you typically need a confluence of events. You need one team that’s bad at offense, one team that’s good at defense, the bad offensive team needs to have a bad shooting game even by their poor standards, and the game needs to be as slow as molasses.

In this particular case, we got three of those four ingredients:

  1. Cal is indeed a bad offense, not just by power conference standards but by national standards. After the UCLA game Cal’s Kenpom adjusted offensive efficiency fell to 231st (and 282nd unadjusted to strength of schedule). That’s better than the horrific numbers put up in the offensively bereft 2018 season . . . but only just.
  2. The game was indeed as slow as molasses. 56 possessions is just about as slow as a game can be under the current rules. Virginia, the slowest team in the nation, had a 55 possession game against fellow slowdown artists Maine earlier this year. I’d be willing to wager that Cal/UCLA will be the slowest game in the Pac-12 this year. And if Cal/UCLA isn’t the slowest game, it will likely be a different game that Cal is involved in, because the Bears are one of the slowest paced teams in the nation.
  3. Cal did indeed shoot poorly even by their own iffy standards. 36% on 2 pointers and 18% on 3 pointers obviously isn’t a formula for lots of scoring. More generally, Cal shot 10-20 at the rim . . . and 7-36 on every other shot.

The one ingredient missing? UCLA isn’t actually a very good defensive team. In fact, they’re in the conversation for worst defensive team in the Pac-12. True, they’re almost certainly playing better now than earlier in the year, when they gave up 1.25 points/possession to Hofstra or 1.14 to an awful Cal State Fullerton, but neither are they yet a lock down defensive team yet. That Cal only put up .71 points/possession against that defense is a disturbing data point even for this Cal offense.

Cal has now played five Pac-12 games. Three of those games have been ghastly offensive performances. One of those games was perhaps passable considering the opponent (Washington). And only one game (Washington State) saw reasonably efficient offense.

Cal’s first three games of the season were all strong offensive performances against credible mid-major competition - all of Pepperdine, UNLV, and Cal Baptist are solid teams that Cal pretty well shredded offensively. It looked like the Bears had a credible offensive focal point (Matt Bradley) a solid satellite of competent shooters (Grant Anticevich, Kareem South) and a crafty interior scorer (Andre Kelly) to go with a bunch of role players who would hopefully develop as offensive threats as the season continues. There was actual, brief optimism.

Unfortunately, pretty much everybody but Bradley has fallen off an efficiency cliff in Pac-12 play against higher end competition. Bradley and Paris Austin are basically the only two players on the roster who can create their own shot and get to the hole, and as a result they’re the only two players who have kept the offense afloat over the last five games. Meanwhile, Cal might be mired in a shooting slump, or maybe everybody else is shooting worse because they’re taking harder shots, out of rhythm, because more athletic defenders are taking things away.

The hard, unfun question to ponder, a question that we’ve asked about different facets of this program over past few seasons: Is this extreme level of offensive inefficiency inevitable based on the state of the roster, or could the coaching staff be producing better results with the talent on hand?

And, perhaps depending on how you answer the question above: Is there reasonable hope for meaningful improvement in the future, either short term or long term?

It’s true that this isn’t a roster full of players who can beat their man. It’s true that this isn’t a roster that has a ton of great shooters. It’s true that the Pac-12 is probably improved this year, and that the transition from playing non-conference games to conference games would potentially be rough. It’s true that this coaching staff has only had a bit more than half a season to make an imprint.

But it’s also true that Fox’s freshman class has collectively struggled to make an offensive impact, or even to get court minutes. It’s also true that the best team offensive performances came early in the year, and that the team doesn’t seem to be getting better with time. It’s also true that Mark Fox doesn’t have a great reputation as an offensive coach, and little that we have seen has indicated that he has changed his coaching strategy and style since his time in Georgia.

I don’t yet know the answer to either question. Cal’s freshmen have struggled for minutes and impact play to the point where I don’t feel comfortable projecting big jumps in future seasons. Cal’s incoming recruiting class doesn’t have any players that you would expect to make instant impact based on their scouting profiles. That kinda leaves you hoping for significant development from the guys already getting playing time, or maybe an instant impact grad transfer.

Where does it leave us? For the 3rd year in a row, trying to read tea leaves and palm lines, desperately hoping for some reason to believe that this program is making progress and returning to something resembling what it was prior to 2017-18.

I’ve been desperately looking for those signs, but I can’t say that I’ve seen any yet.