Cal falls to USC: Entertaining in Defeat

Is a close, competitive loss to a top 25 team enough for you as a fan?

In the last four years, it has been very rare for the Bears to play a competitive game against a top 25 level team. I’ll go ahead and give you the list:

  • 2017-18: Cal holds a 2 point lead over Kenpom #21 Wichita St. in the first round of the Maui Invitational before the Shockers go on a 14-2 run to put the game away.

  • 2017-18: Cal stays right with a borderline top 25 Arizona in Tucson, before Arizona goes on a 13-0 run in the final 5 minutes to put the game away.

  • 2019-20: Cal is tied with Kenpom #17 Oregon at home with 7 minutes left before the Ducks go on a 17-2 run to put the game away.

  • 2020-21: Cal is within 2 of Kenpom #28 Oregon in Eugene with 6 minutes to play before the Ducks go on a 14-2 run to put the game away.

And now, this very weekend:

  • Cal holds a 1 point lead at home over Kenpom #25 UCLA but the Bruins hold on with a 7-2 run to end the game.

  • Cal is down 2 points at home to Kenpom #20 USC, with three minutes to play, but the Trojans outscore Cal 8-2 to end the game and win 76-68

You will probably notice a theme - in all of these games, Cal is within a possession in the final phase of the game, only to see the better team go on a run to win with relative comfort. Still, at least it’s an event that’s becoming more frequent, and with closer final scores in the end.

I bring this up in part because these last two Cal basketball games have been some of the most enjoyable Cal games I’ve watched over the last four years. This isn’t an attempt to damn with faint praise, it’s just my honest opinion. For two years under Wyking Jones the Bears were entirely uncompetitive with almost everybody on the schedule, let alone good teams. Things improved in year 1 under Mark Fox, but even then the Bears were playing a brand of offense and tempo that I personally hated to watch, even if it was probably the best way to compete last year.

Why did I enjoy this game? Because I wasn’t really expecting Cal to stay with USC, and because they did so playing a reasonably entertaining kind of basketball.

USC’s strength is their defense, anchored by Evan Mobley. Mobley is a 7’0’’ athletic monster universally regarded as a top 5 draft pick who is a mortal lock to win Pac-12 freshman of the year and probably should be the favorite for conference player of the year.

And yet, even with Mobley anchoring the paint, Cal went out and put up 1.05 points/possession, the 2nd best performance any other Pac-12 team has managed against the Trojans (Colorado managed 1.06, which may as well be a tie). The Bears didn’t do it by going nuts from 3 like they did against UCLA. They did it by limiting their turnovers, getting a few more offensive boards than normal, and holding their own in the paint against the best interior defender they will see all season long.

Cal finished the game 17-36 from 2. 47% may not seem spectacular, but USC has an elite interior defense that has held teams to 41% shooting inside the arc on the season. Grant Anticevich, Matt Bradley, Joel Brown, Andre Kelly - all of them were able to find their shots and hit them, even with one of the best shot blockers in the conference chasing after them.

A few weeks back I asked whether or not Cal could put together all of their offensive pieces into a coherent, effective whole. The Bears still aren’t there, in part because Matt Bradley has just returned from another injury layoff and needs time to shake off the rust and to get reintegrated back into the offense. But again, we’re starting to see flashes.

Mark Fox has given heavy minutes to a lineup with Andre Kelly at the 5 and Grant Anticevich at the 4, with any of Hyder/Brown/Betley/Foreman/Bradley at the guard and wing positions. What this essentially means is four shooters surrounding an effective post player, and the results have generally been very positive. There’s tons of spacing because defenders can’t easily help off shooters. It means Kelly has more room down low, and he’s been shooting an awesome 68% from the floor in conference play.

In short, Cal is playing entertaining offense that generally maximizes the talents of the players on the roster. And if the Bears can unlock Matt Bradley’s lead scoring potential without disrupting everybody else’s efficiency, they could seriously play average to above-average offense within this conference.

After three straight years with the worst offense in the conference, league average feels like stumbling upon an oasis in the desert.

To be clear, Cal lost both games this weekend. Most of what I wrote above doesn’t read like that. It says volumes about the depth of the program’s struggles that a home loss was legitimately one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences I’ve had over the last 3.5 seasons, but that’s where we are right now. Back to the game at hand:

Cal lost to USC because the Trojans had Evan Mobley and Cal didn’t.

Mobley drew roughly a kerjillion fouls, sending Andre Kelly and DJ Thorpe to the bench early with five fouls. Lars Thiemann picked up three fouls in just two minutes of game action. In short, Cal didn’t have anybody who could stop Mobley from scoring without fouling him, and Mobley went 12-15 from the line too.

It wasn’t 100% Mobley - USC shot 7-15 from three, as Cal is now back to getting torched from behind the arc. Cal also had trouble securing the offensive glass, which particularly hurt late in the game when Cal couldn’t end USC possessions to try for a late comeback. But Mobley was involved in nearly everything that went right for USC, and Cal simply didn’t have anybody in the same stratosphere.

It’s a grim reminder that while game planning, execution, and talent development are all important, the ability to bring in future NBA level talent onto the roster is the single most important thing a coach can do to win basketball games.

Right now, USC, UCLA, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford, and Oregon all have players that will get serious consideration as NBA draft picks. Not coincidentally, the Pac-12 is having one of its best seasons in recent years. Until Mark Fox manages to join that group, there’s going to be a pretty firm ceiling on the program.