Cal Men’s Basketball Falls in the Palouse
And Joel Brown flew 800 miles to watch!
There’s the kinda boring on-court story, and the goofy but less relevant off-court story.
On court, Washington State beat Cal at home, 65-57. It was close for most of the game, before Washington State pulled away in the last three minutes. The Cougars were just a little bit better all the way around, and Cal wasn’t able to make enough shots or get enough stops to pull the road upset.
Off the court, Cal had to deal with point guard Joel Brown’s absence on Thursday as he was in COVID quarantine in Berkeley. As reported by the Pac-12 announcers, Brown was cleared from COVID protocols at some point on Saturday, and we were told he was racing to fly to Pullman to help his teammates! He might arrive in time to suit up for the 2nd half!
And sure enough, Joel Brown trotted out of the locker room for 2nd half warm ups. With 17:01 left in the game, he subbed in for Jared Hyder. With 15:33 left in the game, he subbed out for Makale Foreman.
And that was Joel Brown’s night. Evidently healthy enough to play 1:28, but not healthy enough to play more. Health enough to rush him up to Pullman, not healthy enough to play meaningful minutes.
I have so many questions! Certainly Cal would not have chartered a flight (RIGHT?!), so I’m assuming Joel flew commercial? Why did Cal bother? Was he supposed to arrive in time, but the flight got delayed? Maybe the original hope was that he would arrive in time for a normal warm-up, but by the time he fought through Pullman traffic (is that a thing? Probably not a thing?) the game was half over and he wasn’t in a condition to contribute? Was the 1:28 of playing time done just to justify the cost of sending him out to the most remote outpost in the Pac-12?
It’s honestly one of the weirder things I can recall, and it had virtually no impact on the actual game.
OK, let’s talk about the actual game. The Cougars won with shot volume; three extra shots and seven extra free throws more or less accounted for the 8 point margin of victory when both teams shot the ball similarly well.
How did Wazzu get those extra shots? Two fewer turnovers, five extra offensive rebounds. Nothing all that complicated. The former is unsurprising because Cal’s defense just doesn’t force turnovers. The latter was maybe the single biggest matchup going into the game, and it’s where Wazzu won the game.
We’ve talked earlier this year about Cal’s incredibly good defensive rebounding. The Bears are still sitting at 11th in the nation in defensive rebound rate. But I openly wondered if Cal would be able to lock down the glass against tougher competition, against some really excellent offensive rebounding teams.
USC rebounded 10 of their 28 misses. Washington (actually a bad rebounding team) rebounded 12 of their 31 misses. And today, Washington State rebounded 14 of their 37 misses and had 16 2nd chance points.
In short, one of the strengths that drove Cal’s better-than-anticipated non-conference showing has played a big part in three conference losses. Maybe it’s just a blip, but Cal’s margin for error is slim enough that a handful of extra possessions for their opponent can be the difference between a game that goes down to the wire and a game that is a comfortable 2-3 possession win for Cal’s opponent.
Avi had another note on something that’s changed in Pac-12 play for the Bears:
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that tougher competition in Pac-12 play is the cause of Cal’s decreased 3 point shooting percentage. Sometimes these things are random, and other than perhaps a few more late shot clock desperation heaves, I can’t say I’ve seen anything from Cal’s shot profile to suggest that this shift is anything other than statistical noise.
But it’s still really damaging statistical noise, because Cal is such a jump shot dependent team. When you can’t regularly create shots at the basket and/or free throws, the vicissitudes of your three point shooting are all the more impactful, and Cal’s suffering without those shots going down in conference play.
For the 4th game in a row, Cal was reasonably competitive. If you squint, you can imagine a few breaks going Cal’s way resulting in a win . . . or at least a game that goes down to the final possession. Maybe if the refs didn’t take away Andre Kelly’s and-1 bucket for a phantom shot clock violation, the game is closer down the stretch.
But ultimately it’s hard to look at an eight point loss without saying that Wazzu was better on the day. And as a result, Cal is staring down the barrel of a 7 game losing streak, because the next three games are vs. Arizona, at UCLA, and at USC. And honestly, a road game vs. Stanford afterwards doesn’t sound super enticing right now either.
We might be bumping up against the ceiling of what this team is capable of achieving. Competent, reasonably competitive, but ultimately unable to really make noise in the Pac-12. This is probably the best Cal team in five years, but that’s still no guarantee of even a .500 finish in conference play.