Cal Basketball Check In: Where do the Bears stand as Conference play beckons?
Cal's men and women have improved from 2020-21, but will that improvement stand up to the rigors of Pac-12 competition?
Technically speaking the non-conference season is not yet over for Cal basketball. On Tuesday, the Cal women host St. Mary’s, then take a 10 day break before travelling north to face the Washington schools over the weekend. On Wednesday, the Cal men* will host Pacific, then come back in the new year to play Stanford in Palo Alto.
*Also the Cal men have already played two Pac-12 games, just to add to the confusion. Man to I miss the days of the old home/road 18 game round robin.
But for our purposes (read: my purposes to get this done on the weekend before work and family commitments take over) now is a good time to assess where each team stands relative to their Pac-12 peers before conference play begins. Let’s start with the Cal women, who will start Pac-12 play earlier, on New Year’s Eve.
Cal WBB Pre-Pac-12 play Report
Best win: 70-41 over USF, in San Francisco
Worst Loss: 64-45 vs. Ole Miss at home
Pac-12 WBB Net Rankings:
Arizona State (52)
Washington State (64)
Oregon State (75)
Now that WBB is using the NET rankings, we actually have a reasonable facsimile of team strength transparently available. And what the NET rankings reveal is something that could have reasonable been assumed by looking at Cal’s schedule: The Bears haven’t had a particularly challenging slate of non-conference opponents.
The bad news is that Cal’s eight wins have all come against teams ranked 145th or worse in the net rankings. The good news is that Cal has taken care of business in those games, winning all eight by an average margin of 20 points. Only one of those games was particularly close, and following a year in which Cal was so depleted that they lost games to WCC, MWC, and WAC teams, nobody is going to take comprehensive wins for granted.
On the other side of the ledger, Cal lost both games against power conference teams, by 19 and 17 points respectively. Falling on the road to a top-25-quality Arkansas team isn’t concerning, but losing to Ole Miss by 19 at home was probably a sign that the Bears may need some time to adapt to playing higher level competition.
Cal’s final non-conference game against St. Mary’s is more in line with games against teams like Fresno State and USF than Ole Miss or Arkansas, so Cal will be solid favorites to head into Pac-12 play at 9-2.
Meanwhile, while the Pac-12 is still an excellent conference, early returns indicate that the Pac-12 is perhaps not quite as daunting as the last few years. True: Stanford, Arizona, and Oregon are all among the national elite and will expect to compete for the conference title and deep March runs. But Oregon State and UCLA have thus far performed well below their usual standards and nobody else has yet stepped forward to replace them with obviously great results. As a consequence, the middle of the conference may be more wide-open than usual.
A storyline to watch: Can freshman Jayda Curry continue her high-scoring ways when the competition stiffens? Curry is leading the conference in scoring at 20.3 points/game, thanks to good three point shooting (36% on 6.7 attempts/game) and a solid ability to slash to the bucket and either finish or draw free throws. I can’t help but think that the Bears will need secondary scorers like Cailyn Crocker and Jazlen Green to step up if Cal wants to make a little noise in conference play.
Cal MBB Pre-Pac-12 play Report
Best win: 65-57 over Fresno State at home
Worst Loss: 80-67 to UC San Diego at home
Pac-12 MBB Net Rankings:
Washington St. (48)
Arizona St. (139)
Oregon State (281) (lol OSU just extended Wayne Tinkle through 26-27)
With one notable exception, Cal MBB has largely played up to their pre-season expectations. And yet, thanks to the collapsing fortunes of many Pac-12 rivals, the Bears are no longer the consensus pick to finish last in the conference.
So let’s start with that notable exception. Cal started the season with a bad 13 point loss to UC San Diego. That game, and a road loss to Florida, stand out as Cal’s only two bad defensive performances of the season. Otherwise, Cal has spent the entire season holding teams to well below their usual offensive output, and it’s allowed Cal to post a winning record against an average schedule strength despite an offense that can be generously described as limited.
How has Cal tightened things up on defense? Some of it may be a bit of reversion to the mean, as Cal’s opponents are shooting just 31% from three after shooting 38% last year and 36% the year prior. But improvement has been across the board; Cal’s two point defense is better, the Bears almost never allow offensive rebounds, and they’re fouling less frequently as well.
Maybe those improvements have come thanks to improvements from returning players. Maybe Jordan Shepherd is a defensive upgrade from Matt Bradley*. Maybe freshman Sam Alijiki is making a huge impact in his still-limited minutes. Maybe it’s just the benefit of having a normal off-season of practice for a defensively minded coach like Mark Fox. Whatever the reason, the Bears are finally playing defense like a Mark Fox team is expected to play defense.
And in a conference full of flawed teams outside of Arizona, USC, and UCLA, that could be enough to make things interesting. Everybody outside of that triumvirate at the top have at least four losses already and at least one loss in conference play, and it very much looks like there could be a massive scrum of teams around 8-12 or so in conference play. A couple of close wins in swing games can push any one of those teams up high in the standings. Might Cal be able to pull that off?
It may well depend on how many jumpers the Bears can hit. Right now, about all Cal’s offense does that’s above average is avoiding turnovers and anything that Andre Kelly does (64% from the field). The rest of Cal’s offense is taking jumpers from all over the court. So far, the Bears have hit enough to go 7-3 against the mediocre/bad teams on the schedule - can they keep it up, or can they find a reliable way to get anybody other than Andre Kelly shots at the basket?
The Bears should be able to beat UOP on Wednesday, which would set up just one of those Pac-12 swing games: a very winnable game on the road against a Stanford team that should’ve lost to Dartmouth on Thursday and got blown out by Santa Clara back in November. Cal hasn’t failed to get a win over Stanford since the 2014-15 season, and it would be great to check that box off in early January.
*It’s worth noting that Matt Bradley is playing 76% of available minutes for a top 10 defensive team down in San Diego, so I don’t think it’s very credible to argue that he was/is a defensive problem.