Cal Men's Basketball Season In Review, Part 1: What went right?

A deeper dive into Matt Bradley's stellar sophomore season, Cal's defensive improvement, and good fortune in close games.

Photo credit: CalMBB twitter

Part 1 of how many? We don’t know yet!

Hey Cal fans! Have we all been enjoying our new lives in which we emulate Stanford fans by never attending sporting events? Hey, at least self-isolation doesn’t mean we can’t keep taking cheap shots.

Anyway, with the college basketball season cut short, we now have the full 2019-20 season to look back on, and (crosses fingers) the 2020-21 season to look forward to. We’re starting that process on an optimistic note - what went right this year? No, this article won’t entirely plagiarize my own comments on a recent episode of the Bearcast. Just mostly.

  1. Matt Bradley grew from a great complimentary piece into a great lead scorer.

In his freshman season, Matt Bradley immediately announced himself as a player you needed to follow. But while he set the nets on fire (50-106 from three!) he was just one of a group of players (Paris Austin, Justice Sueing, Darius McNeill, and later in the year Connor Vanover) who more or less shared a similar burden in terms of scoring and ball handling. Bradley was 4th on the team in minutes, third in usage percentage, and 4th in shots attempt.

That’s to be expected for a freshman, but it’s also true that their were question marks about how well rounded his offensive game could be. While his 3 point shooting was beyond doubt, he only shot 37% on his 2 pointers, didn’t get to the bucket a ton, and didn’t draw many fouls. How would the rest of his game develop?

Well, with significantly increased responsibility within the offense, all Matt Bradley did was get more efficient, despite a to-be-expected reversion in his 3 point shooting. If you’re looking for a succinct comparison of how Bradley got better, here’s what you need to know:

Matt Bradley, 2 point shots
18-19: 58-157, 36.9%
19-20: 115-227, 47.5%

When a player has fewer offensive options around him, is getting more defensive attention than the prior season, takes more shots and still improves his efficiency dramatically, that’s impressive.

Even better, Bradley lowered his turnover percentage and drew fouls at a higher rate. Essentially every aspect of his game got better, except his 3 point shooting percentage fell from 47% to 38%. But 47% isn’t a realistic number for anybody to repeat (even Steph Curry’s best college percentage was 44%), which means that Bradley got better at everything reasonable within his control.

And no, this isn’t a situation where Matt Bradley is good relative to the rest of Cal’s offense. He’s good, without qualification. There are only a handful of players who put up a more efficient offensive season while taking on a similar burden of their teams’ offense. And those players (guys like Payton Pritchard, Tres Tinkle, Zeke Nnaji etc.) were themselves candidates for conference POY. Matt Bradley would start for any team in the Pac-12.

If Bradley improves as much between his sophomore and junior years as he did between his freshman and sophomore years, he will be in the conversation for Pac-12 POY. That’s perhaps not a fair expectation, in part because you’ll often see the most growth between a player’s first and second seasons. But even if he’s the exact same player next year as this year, Bradley is still a player you can build your offense around.

  1. The defense went from ghastly to passable

We’re in a weird spot here. Cal’s defense, in isolation, wasn’t very good this year. The Bears ranked 130th in adjusted efficiency, and finished 10th place in Pac-12 play only. Just based on raw numbers, this defense was worse than any Cal defense between 2009 and 2017 (i.e., every defense under Mike Montgomery and Cuonzo Martin).

But it’s impossible and dishonest to talk about defense in isolation, because last year Cal played some of the very worst defense you will ever see a power conference team play. It’s rare to see power conference teams play defense that badly, because there’s usually a baseline of talent and athleticism. And hell, I’d argue that Cal HAD that baseline of talent and athleticism. Last year, Cal had a 4 star freshman, a 7’3’’ center, and a dude who transferred to Ohio St. after the season ended. The pieces to not play historically awful defense were there.

So in some sense, I think many of us expected a competent, defensively-oriented coach like Mark Fox to take the raw pieces he was given and mold them into a team that played passable defense. Still, the task had to be done, and god only knows what kind of awful fundamentals Fox had to chip away and teach correctly. For the last two years the team played a completely different style of defense, taught poorly.

There are a ton of little things Fox improved about Cal’s defense, but two big things are worth mentioning explicitly. First, the 18-19 Bears were a layup line, allowing teams to shoot a still-mind-boggling 56.7% from 2, 344th in the country. Fox immediately made 2 point shots much, much tougher to get. Second, Fox turned Cal from a bad defensive rebounding team into a significantly above average one.

There are still issues - Cal didn’t stop teams from shooting 3 pointers very well, and the Bears struggled to play solid defense without fouling too much, but you could very clearly see the basic plan and the basic discipline to make that plan work. I’d expect Cal to continue improving across the board in year 2.

  1. The Bears got lucky in close games

Cal finished 10-5 in games decided by single digits. Heck, even better, Cal finished 5-0 in games decided by 3 points or less or in overtime. In other words, I’d argue that Cal’s record of 14-18 (7-11) was probably about as good as they could have reasonably achieved against their schedule.

While I’m inclined to credit most (all?) of those close wins to friendly fortune, I certainly won’t look a gift horse in the mouth. We’re all feeling much better about a team that finished 14-18 (7-11) than we would about a team that finished, say, 11-21 (5-13).

When you’re recovering from the deepest depths seen in decades, you take every positive you can get. A comparatively shiny win/loss record is a great way to get fans to start paying attention again, and it gives Cal’s coaches a much more viable recruiting pitch. Mark Fox can credibly argue to recruits that he has this program moving in the right direction. Another season of single-digit win totals . . . well, could you blame high schoolers for not wanting to sign up for that?

Of course, having that recruiting pitch doesn’t guarantee you results, and I’m concerned at the lack of any particular buzz for Cal MBB recruiting at the moment. But the spring signing period doesn’t open until mid-April, and I’m not going to try to analyze recruiting until we get the results.