Cal blows out CSUN: Can this team put the pieces together?

The Bears score at will despite missing their two best offensive players, as Jarred Hyder makes his long-awaited Cal debut.

Let’s get the relevant caveats out of the way first: Cal State Northridge is almost certainly a bad team, and definitely a bad defensive team. The Matadors had the worst defense in the not-very-good Big West last year and probably the worst defense Cal will face this season. This year CSUN has played five D1 teams, and three of those five teams have put up their best offensive game of the year against them.

So while Cal has been offensively challenged to start the season, this was a game where you should expect the Bears to score with relative ease. Or at least, that was the expectation before we found out that Matt Bradley (ankle injury suffered against USF) and Grant Anticevich (appendectomy) were both out for the game.

Their absences didn’t phase the Bears, who raced out to a 15-6 lead after just 6 minutes and never stopped scoring until Mark Fox emptied the bench and played some weird lineups over the last five minutes of the game. The Bears shot 65% on their 2s, 53% on their 3s, and didn’t turn the ball over until the end when the game got weird. It was smooth and easy.

How? Makale Foreman and Ryan Betley woke up, scoring 23 and 19 points respectively, both easily their highest-scoring games as Bears. Most of that came from deep where they collectively went 9-14. Meanwhile, they were supported by Joel Brown’s best game as a point guard. Brown chipped in 10 points on a perfect 5-5 from the field and dished out 8 assists against CSUN’s pliant defense.

Ultimately, boat-racing CSUN doesn’t mean much long term. What this game really accomplished was making Cal fans wonder what a Cal offense with everybody on the same page might look like.

Just consider - Ryan Betley and Makale Foreman, bombing away from 3 point land but with juuuust enough dribble-drive game to keep defenses honest. Grant Anticevich as the ideal stretch 4, capable of hitting a jumper and mixing it up inside. Jarred Hyder (more on him below) and Joel Brown, finally giving Cal depth and flexibility at point guard. Andre Kelly as a competent low-post presence who picks his spots wisely and doesn’t turn the ball over. And all of that surrounding Matt Bradley, a legit all-conference first-teamer because he can score efficiently despite having one of the highest usage ratings in the nation.

This is, of course, in concept. Jarred Hyder is barely back on the floor. Joel Brown hasn’t proven himself as a consistent offensive threat. Foreman and Betley both struggle to contribute offensively if their 3s aren’t falling. Matt Bradley has struggled at times this year stepping into his role as the clear go-to scorer.

In short, will the 2020 Cal offense be more or less than the sum of their collective abilities? We’ve seen what each player individually can bring to the floor when they’re comfortable. We’ve also seen this team struggle to score against defenses that they shouldn’t have much trouble against.

The key very well may come down to turnovers. The Bears clearly have enough shooting, and even with a few players getting off to cold starts relative to their career averages, Cal has still put up solid shooting numbers as a team - by far their best since Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown were on the roster in 2016! No, the issue has been getting shots up in the first place. Maybe Jarred Hyder’s eligibility is the key that unlocks things. Maybe it’s just a matter of floor minutes shared by Cal’s returning players and Cal’s grad transfers. Maybe it never comes together and Cal remains a turnover prone team all year long.

On Tuesday Cal will play Seattle, another pretty bad team that has already been blown out twice against Pac-12 competition. After that the non-conference season is over and it’s Pac-12 play the rest of the way. There’s not really more time for Cal’s pieces to learn how to play together before the games that really matter begin.

Game Notes

  • Jarred Hyder played just 17 minutes in his first game, and the broadcast noted that he missed practice time with some sort of injury. Considering how quickly the game got out of hand, I’m guessing he was on some sort of minutes limit to build back up from injury. Meanwhile, his court time was mostly low impact, as Hyder only took 7 shots and dished out 3 assists. He had a couple nice moments of late shot clock execution but seemed content to let his hot-hand teammates do most of the work.

  • Meanwhile, Joel Brown had maybe his best overall game as a Bear, and his disruptive defense continues to impress. His 2020 steal rate of 4.8% is triple his rate from last year and among national leaders. Doing that from a Mark Fox defensive structure that doesn’t really emphasize forcing turnovers really tells you something about his speed and defensive instincts. I’m not convinced his offensive showing against CSUN says much about what he’s likely to do against Pac-12 competition, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that he’s the best perimeter defender on the team and he should garner all Pac-12 defense consideration.

  • Clearly my attention waivered in the 2nd half as the blowout got kind of silly - Kuany Kuany tallied 4 fouls and 4 assists in 15 minutes? And DJ Thorpe fouled out in seven minutes?!

  • While CSUN is a bad defensive team, their offense is Big West competent, and the Bears shut them down anyway, in pretty much every category. Some of that may have had to do with how unprepared the Matadors seemed, but Cal dominated despite CSUN hitting their 3s.

  • Based on what Monty and Roxy said on the broadcast, it sounds like Bradley’s injury is minor and I’d guess he’s all but guaranteed to play against Oregon in a week if he doesn’t hurt himself again. I have less of a sense of when Grant might get back on the court - get well soon!

  • Congrats to Jalen Celestine (and Jarred Hyder) for getting his first points as a Golden Bear!