Cal Men's Basketball check in: Are the Bears better than last year?

Plus: a look at Matt Bradley's role within Cal's offense

Just eight days ago, I sounded a note of optimism after a second-straight close-ish loss to a Los Angeles school with NCAA tournament expectation. But after a positive run of games, the Bears came back to earth a bit with an ugly loss to ASU and a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Arizona.

This probably shouldn’t be a surprise—those games against UCLA and USC were towards the top end of Cal’s ability and nobody plays their best all the time. They were also at home and conversely, the desert is rarely kind to Cal basketball.

Still, the way that Cal got swept this past weekend was particularly demoralizing for a fan base desperate for crumbs of optimism. And with the conference schedule now more than halfway over, we can begin to assess the extent to which Cal has (or hasn’t) made progress in year two under Mark Fox.

Let’s start with some basics:

Pac-12 record, 2019–20: 7–11 (plus one Pac-12 tournament win)
Pac-12 record, 2020–21, current: 2–10
Pac-12 record, 2020–21, projected: 4–16

Kenpom ranking, 2019–20: 153
Kenpom ranking, 2020–21: 142

Torvik ranking, 2019–20: 143
Torvik ranking, 2020–21: 144

Why is it that Cal appears likely for a significant decline in Pac-12 wins—and yet ranks the same or better in the tempo-free metrics? I can give you two objective reasons and one subjective reason:

  1. Cal was lucky to win 8 games against Pac-12 teams last year. The Bears were 6–3 in games decided by single digits, including two wins in OT and two other wins by two points. Swing a couple of those coin flip games in the other direction and Cal’s conference records over the last two season are much more similar.

  2. The Pac-12 has probably gotten better this year. This is harder to state confidently due to a lack of non-conference games, but the Pac-12 ranks better in Kenpom’s conference metrics and brought in a number of strong recruiting classes. There are a larger than normal amount of Pac-12 players in current NBA mock drafts.

  3. Cal has performed about the same from an efficiency standpoint despite two key injuries to their two best players. It’s hard to say how much better the Bears would be if Matt Bradley and Grant Anticevich hadn’t missed games (and hadn’t played other games on iffy ankles/after losing weight following emergency surgery) but I think it’s safe to say the Bears would have been better. Juhwan Harris-Dyson was the only rotation member last season to miss games last year, as Cal was remarkably healthy.

Honestly though, we’re splitting hairs here. There’s very little to distinguish Cal this year from Cal last year. This year’s Bears are a little bit better offensively, largely because they’re a better shooting team. Last year’s Bears were a bit better defensively, largely because they defended two point shots better. Cal’s offensive improvement and defensive decline have largely cancelled each other out, and so if the team as a whole has improved, that improvement is slight.

Is that good enough? When the starting point for a rebuilding job is so extreme, how wiling are you to be patient with a very slow rate of improvement? And do you feel like the program is set up to continue improving, whether at a slow rate or a faster rate?

I’m not ready to answer these questions yet. I want to get through the rest of the season first before attempting to answer. However, there’s one dynamic that has gotten some attention that I think is worth taking through.

Maximizing Matt Bradley vs. maximizing the rest of the roster

Matt Bradley is Cal’s best player. Cal is 2–9 with Bradley, and 4–3 without him.

These two stats seem somewhat contradictory. But this reality has led to (subdued) rumbling that maybe Cal is better, or at least not worse, without Matt Bradley. It’s apparently enough of a thing that the problem was briefly referenced by the broadcast team when Cal was down big to Arizona.

It’s probably not just that Cal has played reasonably well when Bradley has been hurt. His style of play, with plenty of unassisted 3s and ball dominant drives to the basket, are explicitly individual plays, and so it’s not hard to wonder if there’s a better way to integrate Bradley’s obvious talents into the flow of the offense.

The problem here is that there’s some unfair timing going on. Bradley has missed 7 games. Two of those seven games were against by far the two worst D1 teams Cal has played this year. CSUN and Seattle are objectively bad teams that Cal should have beaten regardless of the injury situation, and the fact that Cal actually struggled to put away Seattle would be a point in favor of the idea that they need Bradley. Meanwhile, Cal lost to Washington State at home in a game that they otherwise would have been favored to win with Bradley healthy, and got blown out by Colorado as well. That would appear to be another two data points in favor of Cal needing their best player healthy and on the floor.

But what to make of a close loss to UCLA, plus wins over Utah and Washington? I suppose the simple answer is that Cal shot the ball really well in each game, particularly from three. 40% shooting from deep on a high volume was necessary to stay close to UCLA, and 42% shooting from deep at a high volume was necessary to beat UW. Are you comfortable saying that Bradley’s absence facilitated those good shooting nights? I’m not.

Interestingly, I almost wondered if Bradley was trying to be more of a facilitator on Saturday against Arizona. For the most part, Bradley was the only threat on offense, scoring 21 points on 10 attempted shots. But he also had 6 turnovers, and some of them from passes I’m not used to seeing him attempt.

To be clear: having a player on your team leading the conference in usage percentage while still putting up a 51/37/81 shooting percentage slash line while drawing a bunch of fouls - that’s really valuable. Would it be great if Bradley could add the ability to set up his teammates and/or turn the ball over less often? Sure, but complaining about the one thing a player doesn’t do when he DOES do everything else strikes me as . . . well, focusing on tiny problems at the expense of real problems.

In short - if there is in fact something wrong with how Cal has integrated Matt Bradley into the lineup . . . well, that’s a coaching problem, and not a Matt Bradley problem, and should be framed as such.

A Stanford double header

For whatever reason, Cal will play Stanford twice in a four day span, playing on Thursday night in Berkeley before the return trip to Palo Alto on Sunday night. Stanford has been up-and-down this season, with big wins over Alabama and UCLA, a season sweep over Arizona, but head scratching losses to ASU and Utah and blowout defeats to Indiana and Oregon.

This was perhaps to be Stanford’s year, adding a great recruiting class to a veteran core of returners. And while Oscar da Silva has put up a Pac-12 POY worthy season so far, freshman Ziaire Williams has struggled badly on offense. All in all, the Cardinal aren’t much different from the team that lost to Cal twice last year - excellent defensively, but handicapped by iffy shooting and major turnover issues on offense.

In short - while Cal will be underdogs in both games, Stanford isn’t good enough to expect to cruise to two wins. In short, I’m excited at the prospect of damaging Stanford’s NCAA tournament prospects for the 2nd year in a row.*

Probably the defining question of the weekend? How will Cal go about defending da Silva. As has often been the case against elite interior players this season, Cal is between a rock and a hard place. Andre Kelly gives up size and athleticism to da Silva, and Cal needs Andre to limit his fouls so that he can stay on the court offensively. On the other hand, Grant Anticevich and Lars Thiemann are probably a bit too slow to stay with da Silva. My guess is that Cal will throw anybody and everybody at him, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see DJ Thorpe get a shot as well.

Beating Stanford won’t salvage the season, but last year’s wins over Stanford kept me warm during a long, cold offseason and I’m more than happy to accept another dose this year.

*I don’t care that last year’s tournament was cancelled, I’m still going to claim that Cal’s two wins burst Stanford’s bubble and nothin anybody can say will stop me from doing so.