Cal Men's Basketball Defense Unable to Slow Down Arizona
Now is as good a time as any to dive into Cal's 2023 defensive collapse.
Photo credit: Calbears.com/Kelley L Cox
Arizona has a nationally elite offense, and they showed off why on Thursday night. The Wildcats shot 56% on their 2 pointers, 42% on their 3s, rebounded 37.5% of their own missed shots, and kept their turnovers down. The put up a robust 1.2 points/possession, and it would’ve been closer to 1.3 if Arizona hadn’t shot an uncharacteristically miserable 6/17 from the free throw line.
Cal actually had a really fun stretch of basketball spanning halftime where they got hot, actually ran a little in transition, and scored 27 points in 17 possessions. It cut the Arizona lead from 19 to 9 and for the briefest moment it looked like Cal might give the top 10 Wildcats a game. But Cal’s offense just isn’t talented enough to sustain that level of production, and a 10 minute stretch where Cal scored only 5 points ended any potential drama. Arizona cruised to an 85-62 win.
Allowing Arizona to score that much is hardly some kind of unforgiveable black mark. Arizona has had similarly blistering offensive performances against solid defensive teams like Cincinnati, Oregon, and Indiana. Still, watching Arizona pick Cal’s defense apart with relative ease underscored a grim reality: Cal has the worst defense in the Pac-12, and it isn’t particularly close.
This is the single most baffling aspect of Cal’s 22-23 season. Whatever you think of Mark Fox, he has a consistently above average record building solid defenses. And sure enough, in his prior three years in Berkeley, Cal’s Kenpom adjusted defensive efficiency improved each season. Starting with Wyking Jones’ final season, Cal’s defensive efficiency went from 286th, to 130th, to 115th, to 84th. In my pre-season preview column, I expressed tentative excitement about what Cal’s defense could become this year!
There are EIGHT players on the roster who are 6’7’’ or taller, and there is the possibility that this team can be legitimately interesting on the defensive end.
And yet, despite a roster that is filled with tall, rangy, reasonably athletic defenders, against all reason, Cal’s defensive efficiency has plunged to 210th in the country. It is, by a wide margin, the worst defense Mark Fox has ever fielded as a head coach.
And frankly, I just don’t understand why. Like, I can look at the numbers and see that Cal cannot stop teams from making their two point shots (teams shoot 52.5% inside the arc against Cal, 285th in the nation) or that Cal cannot translate their size and length into either turnovers (301st in forced turnover rate) or defensive rebounds (243rd).
But, like, Cal is occasionally rolling out with an on-court line-up containing four dudes who are 6’7’’ or taller! How is it possible that this team struggles to defensive rebound?! How it is possible that this team cannot defend the rim?!
Possible explanation #1: Grant Anticevich was quietly an excellent defensive player. He played a ton of minutes, had an excellent defensive rebounding rate, and rarely fouled despite drawing tough defensive assignments. Still, it’s hard to imagine that losing one player would make such a drastic difference.
Possible explanation #2: Cal’s lack of healthy guards means that they lack the quicker players who can stay in front of opponent guards. But I don’t really buy this because Cal’s defense has been consistently bad regardless of which guards are in or out of the lineup, and because I don’t think Cal’s wings are lacking in speed/athleticism.
Regardless of the exact explanation, the results are clear. The roster and attributes on this team, even with Jalen Celestine and Devin Askew out injured, were designed to play Mark Fox defense, but Mark Fox has not been able to find a way to get good defensive results. And poor defensive play has just as much to do with Cal’s 3-21 record as struggles on offense.
A couple thoughts on our defense;
1. Lars is not a defensive presence on the interior. He is fine in man-to-man, but he does not control the paint as much as a 7 footer could. We lose the rebounding wars, and he is slow to react when he should provide secondary help on driving/cutting action.
2. Fox wants to slow the game down. He does not pressure the ball handler or apply a press, even as a change of pace. Teams are never made uncomfortable, so they can run their offense almost in practice fashion.
3. We are slow as a team to react to switches and high screening action. Arizona made us look silly a couple times, but its been a trend all year.
Have to think the talent exodus is a factor. Our players are athletic but not skilled. With Bradley and Kelly the last two years we could at least practice against someone with skill and get a little bit of an understanding of a modern Pac-12 offense.
Right now we're basically practicing against Pac-12 quality bench players, meaning they're not getting requisite preparation to deal with Pac-12 starter talent.
And yeah I don't think Fox is doing anything beyond basics in a clear dead man walking year.