A Tale of Two styles: Cal Men's Basketball evolves to start the season

It's a take on analysis... or is it an analysis of a take?

The biggest worry of mine heading into the season was if our offense could adjust to the personnel and adapt to the modern game. Could we modernize or would we be stuck in the 90s style of basketball we so desperately tried to emulate last season with our less than effective post-up bigs? Last season, after all the talk from Mark Fox about how he had learned from his year off from coaching, it seemed that there was no real change from his years at Georgia. It was a painfully slow offense, forcing the ball into the post to work an inside-out game that was not effective, also underutilizing our efficient but depth-less perimeter scoring. 

Mark Fox made sure I had some humble pie this thanksgiving.

My worry was for naught!

The Bears’ offense has changed pretty drastically from Fox’s first season in Berkeley. 

Take a guess at our percentage of 3s taken in regards to our total field goals attempted last year. Most would probably say around 30%? That would sound about right. It was actually 28.4% which was 339th in the country. We were one of the lowest 3PT attempting teams in the country despite shooting 33.5% from 3PT land as a team. 

Now look to this season, through five games what do you think would be our rate of 3PT attempts in regards to total field goal attempts? It’s 48.6%!!! CLOSE TO 50% OF OUR TOTAL SHOTS TAKEN IN 5 GAMES HAVE BEEN FROM 3. That’s a 20% uptick from last season! We’re the 26th highest 3PT attempting team, in terms of rate, in the country and 23rd in overall 3PT attempts.

Now before we dive into the numbers breakdown and my thoughts on them, I have to wonder. Can a team shooting that high a percentage of 3s despite an adjusted tempo of 68.7 good for 334th in the country maintain its efficiency to keep itself in games.

In other words: Has there ever been a team in all of basketball that shoots this amount of 3s with this slow of a tempo?

Our point distribution last season was 54.2% from 2 and 23.7% from 3. The rest coming from the charity stripe. This season? The Bears are scoring just 45.6% of their points from 2 and a whopping 39.8% from beyond the arc. Now that is some change. A 16% uptick in long range scoring with some decent perimeter shooters to help add to that range. Newcomers Ryan Betley and Makale Foreman have been exclusively 3 point shooters from off of screens, catch-and-shoot, weak side corners 3s and even a few dribble pull-ups. And they’ve actually have been pretty efficient with their chances, with Betley shooting 32.1% from 3 on 28 attempts and Foreman with 39.3% on 28 attempts. The other plus 3PT shooter is Matt Bradley, who for all statistical purposes looks to be in a dire shooting slump. He currently, for lack of a better basketball term, is trying to shoot his way out of it. He has been an abysmal 6-24 from outside, just 25%, but has been outstanding at getting to the line with 23 makes on 27 attempts. Our top 3 scorers, are the 3 guys mentioned above and all of then have a true shooting percentage above 51%. I’m not sure what goes on in the practices and huddles but as Nick said in our livestream, “It’s clear these guys are being told, in a sense, if you’re open shoot them ball.” And that’s really what they’re doing. 

Matt’s shooting last season felt like Samwise Gamgee carrying Frodo up the side of Mount Doom in Mordor.

““I can’t carry the program for you Mr. Fox, but I can carry the game!” - Samwise Gamgee” - Matt Bradley.

The weight of his teammates and the program on his scoring shoulders. Every jumper and step feeling that much more difficult in his quest to put this program back into relevance. And instead of being allowed the hope of restoration after beating Jerod Haase’s stallions of Nazgul in the first round of the conference tournament, a exploding rock of the pandemic blocked off the path into the heart of Mount doom. Screen fades to black. Lights turn on. End of movie. 

Back to the basketball.

The Bears have actually found an offensive philosophy that works for this roster composition. They’re not flip-flopping styles every game, nor are they forcing it inside with no back-to-the-basket-plus post scorer. They’re averaging a similar number of 3s taken per game. They’re running some good action on the wings to get a drive-and-kick opportunity or the cross-court 3. They’re running the high pick-and-roll to get players going downhill at the basket. They’re running Hi-Lo action to get the back door cuts. They’re doing all the right things, but just not making enough shots. They’re creating the shots they want and taking them, but they just haven’t gone down. Fox has done a decent job of rotating guys, trying to get a spark on offense, but the margin for error is so razor-thin with a slow-paced offense centered around 3PT shooting late in the shot clock.

Remember that adjusted tempo we talked about earlier? If you slow the game down, that lowers the total number of possessions you will have in a game, which makes every basket even more important. If you’re missing 3s on such a limited number of possessions, turning the ball over on around 25% of your total possessions and allowing the opposing team to get out and run in transition and make 2s at about a 50% clip, that’s an easy way to get caught in a bad deficit and tough to come back from.

That’s exactly what happened against UCLA. (To be fair, UCLA supernova’d WAY early in the game.) They shot basically 70% from the field and 75% from beyond the arc in the first half, jumping to an 18 point lead. They reverted slightly in the second half, but it wasn’t enough leading to the Bears giving up 15 Turnovers, 9 points off turnovers, and 32 points in the paint by the end of the game.

The most head-scratching thing from the UCLA game was that the Bears were down 16 with 11:49 left in the game. Matt Bradley exited the game, for what we assumed was a breather. He never came back into the game despite the Bears shrinking the lead down to 12 for a few minutes, and UCLA in a scoring drought. Mark Fox essentially said, “We started crawling back in it and he wasn’t having one of his better nights. I felt like those guys were battling until we really got in it. I thought we should give those guys a chance.”

The ASU game was a different chapter in the same book. The Sun Devils had a horrible shooting night, but the Bears turned the ball over 20 times, giving up 19 points off of turnovers, and 32 points in the paint. The Bears provided ASU with just enough opportunities through self-inflicted wounds to pull out the win.

So where do we go now? How do we set our expectations? What’s sustainable? What’s not?

Well, we first have to hope Matt Bradley gets himself out of the shooting slump and starts to become the 50/30/85 player we saw last year, or at least something close to it. That in itself alleviates the burden for all of the other perimeter guys to be near perfect, but if they are then this offense has a route to flourish. Defensively, there’s still a lot to work on. There is still no clear shot blocker and were out of sync on any rotation forced by a breakdown of a defender or collapsing of the zone. The one thing we do know Fox knows how to coach is defense, and he takes pride in it, so I fully expect that side to pick it up to a certain degree. We can’t expect this team to turn a corner on dime, or continue to have our role players shoot this efficiently from beyond the arc by exclusively shooting from beyond the arc. We also can’t continue to turn the ball over at this rate if we want to grind games to a halt. That’s where we need to go.

As for the expectation? I truly feel we have some opportunities here with our shooting and the little hope the first few games have shown. That doesn't mean we win the conference or end in the top 4, but we may be able to finish a bit higher and compete in games that everyone wrote us off in. So I guess in a simpler form, the expectation on the season has risen a bit, and now its time for the coaching and players to grow with those expectations.

California Rising.