Cal Men's Basketball Gets their First Pac-12 Win of the Year in a Shootout

The Bears best the Huskies in a very unexpected display of offensive firepower

If you were asked to pick two coaches in the Pac-12 most known for defense before offense, Mark Fox and Mike Hopkins very well might have been the picks. Mark Fox’s tenure at Georgia was largely defined by shaping teams full of 3 star recruits into rugged defensive teams trying to win low-scoring slugfests. Mike Hopkins is practically defined by the Syracuse zone that he has installed at UW. And, over the past two years, he’s also been defined by an inability to build any kind of offensive efficiency.

So what happened on Saturday? Washington put up 78 points in 67 possessions, for an excellent rate of 1.16 points/possession. In a season defined by an inability to score, it was by a wide margin their best offensive performance of the year. But it still resulted in a loss, because the Bears put up 1.25 points/possession, which was also a season high.

For Cal, the points came from everywhere and everyone. Ryan Betley and Makale Foreman both had good shooting games from deep, and Joel Brown and Jared Hyder combined for 8 assists and just 1 turnover. Probably the most fun was watching Grant Anticevich and Andre Kelly combined on the interior to break down the UW zone. Anticevich flashed some point-forward skills, picking up 5 assists primarily while moving the ball in and out of his spot stretching the zone at the free throw line, and Andre Kelly was the recipient, whether grabbing a passes from Grant or from a penetrating guard. Kelly finished the game 11-13 from the field and basically didn’t take a bad shot over the entire game.

Now, to be fair, Hopkin’s 2021 UW defense isn’t quite the same vintage as the last couple seasons, but it’s still the strength of the team. Cal should feel pretty good about the way they shredded the zone, with consistent scoring on the inside and the outside. Doing so without Matt Bradley just makes it all the more impressive. This game was a reminder that although Bradley is the focal point of the offense, Cal’s offense isn’t toothless without him.

Oddly, the last two games might make one suspect that Bradley might be more important defensively. I don’t want to dwell on this too much, because Cal’s first Pac-12 win should be savored, but Cal has now played 2.5 games of very concerning defense without Bradley on the floor. OSU, WSU, and UW are collectively the three worst offenses Cal will face in Pac-12 play, and all three of them scored at a very high rate with Bradley sitting. I’m not sure how much of this is actually correlated, but it’s certainly one more reason to hope that Matt’s ankle heals quickly.

After Cal’s loss to Oregon, I noted how Cal frequently loses the shot-volume contest, so it was nice to see the Bears narrowly get up more shots than Wazzu on Thursday, then win the shot volume battle against UW Saturday. Cal’s six extra shots were possibly the difference between winning and losing, and in both games this weekend turnover prevention was the main cause. For a team that has been plagued by turnovers most of the season, coughing up the ball just 7 times against Wazzu and 9 times against UW is a solid sign of progress.

Four stats worth pondering:

  • UW 3 point shooting on the season: 26.7%, 325th in the nation

  • UW 3 point shooting vs. Cal: 9-18, 50%

  • Cal 3 point defense, this year: 40.3%, 330th in the nation

  • Cal 3 point defense, last year: 36.3%, 310th in the nation

UW is one of the worst shooting teams in the country, but that didn’t stop them from blistering the Haas Pavilion nets. And it continues an odd trend that has lasted over 1.5 seasons now. I can’t say that I really see anything schematically that Cal is doing wrong that would make it easier for their opponents to nail 3 pointers at a higher rate, but the numbers are the numbers, and it’s absolutely holding the Cal defense back. It’s something I’m going to try to pay more attention to over the rest of the season, but I’m still inclined to say it’s random chance, or at least not something schematic - Mark Fox’s Georgia defenses were generally very good at 3 point defense.

I’m not going to read a ton into this win. UW is in a bad place right now, and beating them doesn’t foretell wins on the Mountain road trip that’s upcoming. But for a team coming off a critical injury and a demoralizing loss, getting that first conference win is a happy thing. While defense might be a season-long problem for the Bears, it’s clear that they have enough offensive talent to ambush the right team on the right night, particularly if Matt Bradley gets back on the court.

Cal will face Colorado on Thursday in what might be the toughest game on the rest of the calendar. The Buffs, meanwhile, will be coming in fresh after their game against Oregon State was cancelled following a COVID outbreak for the Beavers.