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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love basketball played without, um, baskets

NCAA Basketball: California at UCLA Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

I would like to present two facts.

First, a simple fact that you already know: Cal men’s basketball is, improbably, 3-3 in Pac-12 basketball.

Second, a fact in chart form. Here is the offensive efficiency (i.e., points/possession) of every single Pac-12 team, taken from Pac-12 games only:

Pac-12 offensive efficiency, 2020

Some context might help. You can see that Cal is far behind the rest of the conference. For example, 9th place UCLA is closer to 1st place Colorado than 12th place Cal. But let’s take this context outside of just 2020 and compare Cal’s 2020 offensive efficiency to the entire history of Pac-12 basketball in the Kenpom era.

Worst offensive efficiency in Pac-12 play, 2002-2020

2018 Cal, 90.8
2006 WSU, 90.7
2015 Oregon St., 90.4
2008 Oregon St., 87.4
2012 Utah, 86.1
2020 Cal, 84.0
2012 USC, 82.1

This is of course unfair - the 2020 Bears have only played 6/18th of conference season, while all of these other teams played a full schedule. These Bears are unlikely to continue to shoot 25% from three over the rest of their schedule, for just one example. It’s probably more likely than not that Cal’s offensive performances revert to the mean, improve, and the 2020 Bears will turn out to be a bad Pac-12 offense, but not an historically bad Pac-12 offense.

But the point? Cal is on something of an historic offensive drought. So far, the Bears have been meaningfully worse on offense than the season-long performance of the 2018 Bears that went 2-16 in conference play. Consider Cal’s points/possession so far:

at Stanford: .76
vs. Wazzu: 1.06
vs. UW: .90
at USC: .75
at UCLA: .71
vs. Stanford: .85

I’ve probably belabored the point. But I think it’s important to fully understand what has happened on offense over the past six games to appreciate the incredible other fact we started with: Cal is, somehow, 3-3 in conference play!

There’s an element of luck at play here. In those three wins, Cal has an average margin of victory of 4, including one overtime game. In those three losses, Cal has an average margin of defeat of 19. The Bears earned their way into those three close games, but they are perhaps fortunate to have won all three when either could have swung the other way.

But let’s now focus on the good, the reason that Cal has been able to compete: Defense. Let’s look at the same Kenpom chart, but this time looking at team defensive efficiency:

Pac-12 defensive efficiency

The Bears are ‘only’ 6th in Pac-12 defensive efficiency (again, conference games only) but the Bears are a rounding error away from 4th place and a good game or two away from 2nd place. In other words, over the last six games Cal has playing defense right along side the best teams in the conference.

Again, caveats apply. Cal hasn’t played any of the better offenses in the conference yet, and so perhaps these numbers will decline when teams like Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona come calling. But even with that caveat, this is still a remarkable turnaround from Cal’s awful 2018-19 defense.

The Bears are doing what Mark Fox teams do on defense. They’re playing tough, man-to-man defense, securing defensive rebounds, and finding ways to take away what the opponent wants to do. Two weeks ago, Reef talked about how Cal game planned against an iffy Washington offense Today, against an iffy Stanford offense the Bears did two things. They took away Stanford’s 3 point shot - Stanford only got off 12 attempts, and their best shooters (Terry, Jones, and Davis) only got 5 attempts. And Cal limited Oscar da Silva’s opportunities. Sure, he was efficient with his limited shots, but Cal held him well below his usual usage rate and his usual number of 2 point shot attempts. Mark Fox knows how to game plan on defense to take away what the other team wants to do.

With 12 minutes left in the game, it didn’t look like a solid defensive effort was going to be enough. Stanford led, 39-28, mostly because Cal went five minutes without scoring. It looked like the Bears were going to struggle to put up 40+ points for the 2nd game in a row. But suddenly the Cal offense found another gear, going on a extended 17-2 run that turned the final five minutes in a back and forth thriller.

What did the Bears do during that run? Simple - they attacked the basket. Using a series of high screens designed to clear out space for Paris Austin and Matt Bradley, 12 of Cal’s 17 points on that run came in the paint, either from shots or fouls on drives. And 15 of the 17 points were scored by the two players who have been the only players who have been able to consistently create shots for themselves in Pac-12 play. Is it the foundation for an efficient offense? By itself, no. But considering what Cal has to turn to, it’s going to have to be enough.

Against Stanford, barely, it was.

Turning the game into a back-and-forth thriller in the final minutes allowed Stanford’s offensive flaws to shine brightly. With the game tied at 50 and Stanford inbounding the ball with 44 seconds remaining, Stanford had a clear opportunity to go 2-for-1. Instead, Stanford bungled their in bounds play, bundled their 2-for-1 opportunity, and turned the ball over. After Stanford bailed out a broken looking Cal offensive possession by clearly tripping Paris Austin for what turned out to be the game winning free throws, Stanford then screwed up again by failing to get a shot off in time, even though the attempt to tie the game went through the bucket. This time, Cal wouldn’t need overtime to win this week’s #RaceTo50.

Basketball happiness has been limited over the last three seasons. While the 19-20 Bears are certainly a better team than the prior two seasons, they still have an average margin of -7.7 points/game in six Pac-12 games, with the bulk of the schedule left against tougher teams. Joy, at least as defined by wins, will still probably be rare for remainder of the season. So these are the embers of happiness you cling to.

In 2018, Cal went on an absurd 16-3 run to erase an 11 point deficit in the final four minutes. That loss was the difference between Stanford getting a 1st round bye in the Pac-12 tournament and was a big help in relegating the Cardinal to the NIT.

In 2019, Cal jumped out to a big lead, maintained it for most of the game, then held on for the win to punctuate a rough 1-4 stretch to end Stanford’s disappointing regular season.

And in 2020, the Bears just handed Stanford their 2nd Pac-12 loss. If the Cardinal had won like they were supposed to, they would be 5-1 and 1st place in conference play, preparing to host conference favorite Oregon at home in a game that could swing the conference race one way or the other. It’s entirely possible that Cal 1) just swung the conference title race in favor of not-Stanford and 2) materially hurt Stanford’s NCAA tournament chances (The Cardinal were an 8 seed on Bracket Matrix as of Sunday night).

When your program is going through a historic rebuilding process, that level of success and schadenfreude against your rival is a precious, joyful thing.