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The Pac-12 halfway mark: A mountain sweep and a freshman class check up

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Cal falls at altitude, and a look at how the 5 man freshman class has performed so far this season.

NCAA Basketball: California at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I feel like I write the same thing about these Bears every week, but to be fair that’s because the Bears pretty quickly established what kind of team they were going to be in Pac-12 play, and darned if they haven’t been consistent. But just to further illustrate where Cal is right now, a few quick stats:

Cal Kenpom defensive efficiency:

2019: 110.3 Pac-12 (11 of 12), 111.3 overall (286th nationally)
2020: 100.6 Pac-12 (7 of 12), 100.2 overall (131st nationally)

In a stirring homage to Justin Wilcox, Mark Fox took a badly broken defense and immediately restored it to what is precisely Pac-12 average. And this past week (and indeed, the entire Pac-12 schedule so far) we can see the value and the limitations of that improvement.

The value? A team that is defensively average can, on occasion, hold down a high end team and give themselves a puncher’s chance at an upset against a high end team. We saw that against Oregon, and we saw it to some extent against Colorado, when the Bears took advantage of a hot shooting night from 3 (and a cold one for the Buffs) to stay within touching distance at altitude before the Buffs finally found their shot in the final 5 minutes.

The downside? Games where the defense does its job, but the offense is nowhere to be found. No better example of that than Saturday’s game against Utah.

Cal held Utah to 60 points in 64 possessions, and that’s often a defensive effort good enough to win a game. The Utes are 3-8 on the season when they score a point/possession or less. But when your offense isn’t very functional, sometimes even strong defensive performances aren’t enough to allow for a competitive game. The Bears couldn’t shoot (33% on 2 point shots, 28% on 3 point shots) and turned it over constantly facing a defense that hasn’t really caused many turnovers all year long, and only a late flurry of free throws allowed Cal to crest 40 points.

Of course, the Mountain road trip is typically challenging this year, and getting swept was always the expected result. The disappointment comes in failing to really push Utah, a team that on the right night Cal should be able to compete with. In terms of wins and losses, it’s unfortunate that the Bears brought a better effort against a team like Colorado, who is good enough to beat the Bears even if they bring their A game.

And with an expected result on the road, we’re not left with much new to talk about. The Bears have, since Pac-12 play began, been remarkably consistent. They control pace, slowing down every game to a crawl. They play good-not-great defense* that usually allows them to stay in contact. And if the offense is hitting some shots (typically jumpers, because this isn’t a team full of guys that can get to the rim) then the Bears stand a fighting chance to steal a win. And to their credit, they’ve pulled off that formula 4 times.

*It’s worth noting that there is one area where Cal has shown consistent growth as the season moved along - defensive rebounding. Pre-season, the fear was that an undersized Cal team would allow lots of 2nd chances, and there were games early in the year that made that fear appear justified. But as a team the Bears have dominated the defensive glass in Pac-12 play.

So which games left on the schedule are likely games to fit that winning formula? I suppose we can’t discount Cal’s chances in any home game left on the schedule, since the Bears are 4-1 with only a narrow loss to Oregon. But Arizona State and Utah seem like more likely targets than Arizona or Colorado, who will both be fighting tooth-and-nail for the regular season conference title.

But if the goal this season is to improve both generally and more specifically in the conference standings, then Cal’s season fate may well rest on the road trip up to Washington in two weeks. Earn a season sweep over the reeling Huskies and the Bears will almost certainly avoid a 3rd straight 12th place conference finish, and a game in Pullman is winnable as well.

Checking in on Cal’s freshmen

Ultimately, this season isn’t really about wins and losses, or conference standings. This season is about development, about building the program back up, about identifying guys who can be contributors the next time Cal can challenge for an NCAA tournament spot. Towards that end, Cal’s 5 man freshman class will likely be a critical group. What can we say about this so far?

Well, it’s tough to say much about three of them. DJ Thorpe, Kuany Kuany and Dimitrios Klonaras have combined to play just 278 total minutes, largely in short bursts with limited opportunities to make a major impact.

We can say something about both Joel Brown and Lars Thiemann, who have been consistent parts of Cal’s rotation all season long. And mostly what we can say is that both players individually mirror Cal’s team profile - promising flashes of defense, major concerns on offense.

Joel Brown has looked like a plus perimeter defender all season long. He’s not particularly flashy, but he’s been fundamentally solid, has cut down on his fouling, and has made occasional heady plays, like his late ball stopping play to snuff out Oregon State’s final possession last week. But offensively . . . well, it’s really hard to be a plus player offensively if you can’t shoot the ball. Brown’s shooting splits of 35/35/28(!) are on a relatively small number of shots for the minutes he plays, but are concerning for a point guard. And while it’s not unusual for a freshman point guard to be turnover prone, it can be a problem if that player isn’t also hitting shots.

It’s a similar story for Lars Thiemann. At times, Cal’s 7’0’’ center looks like a player who can make a difference with his height, by altering shots inside and shutting off 2nd chance opportunities as a rebounder. But his defense has one fatal flaw common for freshman post players - he can’t avoid fouling. Lars has been called for 33 fouls in 157 minutes of conference play, or more than a foul every 5 minutes of court time. And on the offensive end, his turnover rate has been sky high.

Now, I’ve consistently argued that his turnover rate is in part due to misuse of his skills within the offense - posting up a raw freshman surrounded by Pac-12 level defenders isn’t likely to end well, and to Lars’ credit he’s finishing at a reasonable rate when he can get his shots off.

So, with 8 games and the Pac-12 tournament left on the schedule, that’s the state of Cal’s critical freshman class - three incompletes and two players with significant offensive question marks. This will be a critical off-season for all five, as the transition from freshman to sophomore seasons is typically when you see the most growth in a player. Two years ago Grant Anticevich looked thoroughly overwhelmed as a freshman, then surprised the fan base to emerge as a useful rotation player as a sophomore, and is now a mainstay of the rotation as a junior. The book isn’t written on any of these guys yet.

But for a program that needs a bunch of mostly overlooked recruits to be positive surprises, nobody in Cal’s freshman class has really taken the bull by the horns yet. Here’s to hoping for some breakout performances over the last few weeks of the season.