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One half of Matt Bradley isn’t enough to best Arizona State

First half foul trouble fells Cal’s biggest threat as the Bears fall to a home sweep

NCAA Basketball: Arizona State at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not accurate to say that Cal 100% goes as Matt Bradley goes. In the first half against Arizona State, Matt Bradley barely played, and Cal entered halftime trailing by a point. In the second half, Bradley torched Arizona State’s defense, but ASU added four points to that halftime lead for a five point win.

But it is true that Matt Bradley is Cal’s best player, and that his play more than anybody else can be the difference between a competitive game and a game that Cal loses without really having a chance to win. Arizona State scored 48 2nd half points, which isn’t the kind of scoring this Cal team can typically allow without getting blown out. But Bradley’s 20 second half points kept Cal within touching distance.

So, what to make of Matt Bradley’s foul trouble? 18 seconds into the game, an ASU player tripped over Bradley. It was a clear foul, but an unlucky, unintentional foul. A minute later, Bradley attempted to draw a charge but was instead called for a block. Two fouls after 1:15 of game time for Cal’s best player.

Bradley then sat for six minutes, came back into the game for 1:19 and one offensive possession, sat for 2:34, reentered the game for 3:22, then sat for the last 5:19 of the half.

Is that the right strategy? in the post-game press conference, Mark Fox explained that he wanted to give Bradley just enough time to stay in the flow of the game, but not enough to risk a 3rd foul. Certainly, if Bradley picks up a 3rd foul, Cal is in deep trouble, and I’m sure that Fox wants and expects his players to be able to play tough defense, which is damned difficult if another whistle can ruin your night before it starts.

But it’s also true that Matt Bradley isn’t a particularly foul prone player. He averages 3.3 fouls committed per 40 minutes, and didn’t commit another foul until he committed three intentional fouls in the final minute of the game. Amusingly, this was the first time Bradley had fouled out all season long.

And so Cal practically played half a game without far and away their best offensive player. True, Cal didn’t fall behind as a consequence. But the Bears also didn’t take a lead, which very well might have happened had Bradley been on the court. More generally, I would posit that against decent teams like ASU, Cal can’t afford to lose 10-15 minutes of Bradley court time and expect to win. Conventional wisdom would suggest that playing Bradley with deep foul trouble is an unacceptable gamble. I would argue that it’s an even bigger gamble to voluntarily sit your best player in a game that you’re favored to lose, and hope that it won’t come back to bite you.

In any case, Bradley set ASU’s defense on fire . . . but he was matched score-for-score by ASU’s Remy Martin, who hit some crazy shots to score 15 points in the final 11 minutes to hold Cal at arm’s length. After the game, Fox talked about how he felt that Cal played pretty well, but that ASU was that much better, and I have trouble arguing with him.

A simple measure of progress . . .

In 12 Pac-12 games, Cal’s average margin has been -7.6 points. That’s worst in the conference by a decent margin, but still a meaningful improvement from the -10.1 margin that Cal put up last year. Getting incrementally better despite losing three rotation players and despite the conference significantly improving is an obvious indication of the value of the competent coaching Mark Fox has brought to Berkeley.

. . . but an indication of how far there is yet still to go

And yet - Cal only has four narrow conference victories, and it’s hard to look ahead on the schedule and pick out many wins. Four of Cal’s remaining six are on the road, where the Bears still haven’t won a game, and one of Cal’s two home games is against a legit contender for the conference title. Only a home game against Utah (senior night!) appears clearly winnable right now.

If the Bears are ever going to get a road win, their best opportunity comes this week. Washington State is probably the 2nd worst team in the conference and has lost 5 of 7. Washington is 2-11 in conference, is either the worst team in the conference or the unluckiest team in the nation (maybe both!) and possibly actively giving up on their season.

I’m confident that projection systems and Vegas will tell you that a 5-13 conference record is the most likely regular season result for the Bears. As impatient, win-starved fans, five wins doesn’t feel like a ton of progress. But in comparison to where the Bears were in each of the past two years, it very much is.

The question we’re going to start asking more often and in more detail soon: Are the Bears likely to stay on this same arc of improvement?