Cal locks down in the 2nd half to beat Santa Clara
The Bears take out the dangerous Broncos, 72-60, behind 18 points from Andre Kelly.
With 4:37 left in the first half, Santa Clara sank a free throw to go up 34-24. Up to that point, the Broncos had lived up to their offensive reputation, scoring those 34 points in 29 possessions (1.17 ppp).
And then, in the remaining 41 possessions of the game, Santa Clara scored 26 points (.63 ppp).
I start with defense because I can’t help but to assume that Cal’s chances of being competitive in the Pac-12 rest upon their ability to play excellent defense. And so early on I was curious to see how Cal’s defense would stack up against a meaningful test:
Early on, there were issues. Losing shooters on the outside, missing cutters to the inside, a few iffy moments of transition defense. But eventually the Bears stabilized and didn’t give up anything easy for rest of the game.
With the Cal defense holding down Santa Clara’s strength, it was just a matter of time until the Cal offense scored enough against the undermanned and undersized Broncos. Scoring flurries at the end of the first half (16 points in the last 5 minutes) and the second half (21 points in the last 6 minutes) did the job.
It’s worth noting that Santa Clara was missing two post players and shot an uncharacteristically cool 28% from three, so it looks like Cal got them on the right night. But I’m also inclined to give some credit to a disciplined Cal defense.
Meanwhile, the Cal offense got contributions from up and down the lineup, as eight different Bears scored. But of course it was again Andre Kelly who was the driving force with a typically efficient 8-11 performance. Jordan Shepherd made up for an iffy shooting night (5-15) with six assists, four of which went to Kelly as the Shepherd/Kelly pick and roll continues to be a major weapon.
Rotational depth can be a critical strength, or a reflection of weakness.
Sometimes, a coach plays 10+ guys because he’s searching for answers and mostly failing. Nobody stands out, nobody plays so well that they demand to be on the court. The team like that can struggle to develop on-court chemistry because you’re not spending much court time with a consistent group around you.
I was afraid that would be the case with Cal this year. Mark Fox has been giving 10 players pretty consistent playing time, and that doesn’t even include Monty Bowser or DJ Thorpe, who might get rotation minutes if healthy.
But instead, Cal’s depth is feeling more like a strength. Cal has established four players as go-to rotational guys; Andre Kelly, Jordan Shepherd, Joel Brown, and Grant Anticevich. But outside of that, everybody else has played their role well. Makale Foreman can provide instant offense off the bench. Sam Alajiki, Jalen Celestine, and Kuany Kuany are all solid 3-and-D guys, with lots of emphasis on the defense part of the equation.
And a particular note on Lars Thiemann, who is getting about 10 minutes/game spelling Andre Kelly. Boy is he making the most of those minutes. Lars has taken a big step forward really across the board, but his defensive improvement really stands out; the German forward has roughly doubled his block rate while simultaneously cutting down on his fouling. Big men can often take quite a bit of time to develop but boy is it fun watching the seven footer playing like a seven footer.
We will see how the rotation changes if/when Cal gets some of their injured guys back, or if some of the freshmen start demanding more playing time. Pac-12 play might lead to the go-to guys getting more minutes. But for now, it feels like a good balance, with players understanding and playing to their roles.
So this is cool: Cal allowed just one offensive rebound for the 2nd time this season:
That it would happen against Santa Clara (at team that doesn’t really try to crash the offensive boards and is also missing a couple post players) makes sense, but this isn’t a one-off anomaly. Cal is now 4th in the country in defensive rebound rate. They’ve dominated the defensive glass against some of the smaller teams on their schedule, but also did quite well against athletic, good offensive rebounding teams like Florida and Seton Hall.
And it’s been a team wide effort; while Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich pull down most defensive rebounds, Sam Alajiki and Joel Brown are rebounding at rates you wouldn’t necessarily expect for players of their size.
The top half of the Pac-12 is full of teams that hit the offensive glass hard, so this could be a critical attribute if the Bears want to be competitive with the higher end of the conference.
Santa Clara was the toughest game in this homestand to end non-conference play, and by getting the win Cal should be able to close it out with two more wins to push their record to 8-5. The season opening home loss to UCSD still stings, but other than that the Bears have largely taken care of business against the teams they were supposed to beat.
That’s not necessarily reason for wild optimism. One thing Mark Fox has largely improved on relative to Wyking Jones is better non-conference performances, but that hasn’t yet translated to greater success in conference play.
But this is almost certainly the best defense Cal has played since the Cuonzo Martin era, and so for the first time in a while I’m allowing just a little bit of optimism about Cal’s chances to compete seep into the back of my brain.
Why not? (Don’t answer that.)