Painful Road Trips: Cal Men and Women's Basketball Swept Away from Haas
There are few positives to take away from a lost hoops weekend
If you’re one of the few remaining hoops obsessed Cal fans, and you didn’t have anything to do over the weekend, the best I can say is that you got to watch just about every kind of way to lose.
Did you want to watch your team build a lead, only to squander that lead before falling in overtime? Look no further than Cal MBB at Washington, where Cal led by 11 points with 10 minutes left and 6 points with less than 3 minutes to play. What about a tight, back-and-forth game where the bottom falls off unexpectedly in the 4th quarter? That was Cal WBB at UCLA, where the Bears held the ball trailing by just a point with less than 7:00 minutes to play and somehow ended up losing by 17 points.
What if you prefer to just not show up, to have the game all but decided after a quarter? That was Cal WBB vs. USC, where the Bears let USC jump out to a 13-0 lead and trailed 31-8 at one point. Or maybe you like a game where your team unexpectedly holds tight for a half, but then gets blitzed after halftime? That was Cal MBB’s loss at Wazzu.
Much has been made of Cal football’s 13 year run of failing to go above .500 in Pac-12 play. Sadly, Cal’s basketball programs have fallen into the same pattern, as the men have gone six straight seasons under .500 in Pac-12 play while the women have done so three years in a row. That the men would go under .500 in conference play for the sixth straight season was something we all assumed even before the Bears started the season 0-12, and if anything MBB’s performance in conference play has been mildly positive relative to expectations.
But there were perhaps reasons to hope that the Cal women were ready to turn a corner. Superficially, the Bears seemed far away after last year’s 1-11 conference record. But SEVEN of those eleven losses came by single digits (two in OT), and so it was reasonable to hope that the Bears would be significantly more competitive knowing that their roster was going to be one year older, and fortified with a variety of transfers.
And after two weeks of conference play, that optimism was arguably borne out with an easy win over Arizona State and two very narrow defeats to Stanford and Arizona, two surefire NCAA tournament teams. The Bears felt so close to a breakthrough performance, so close to the level of consistency necessary to compete in the Pac-12.
Which is why a 20 point loss to USC and a 17 point loss to UCLA is such a frustrating set back. Against the Trojans, Cal’s offense was completely throttled by USC’s ball pressure, and the Bears were frankly bullied all over the court. Two days later, the Bears jumped out to an unexpected lead in the 1st quarter over the Bruins, but UCLA erased most of that lead in the 2nd quarter, took the lead in the 3rd, and then laid down the hammer in the 4th quarter. After four straight strong defensive efforts, it was a return to the type of defense that prevented Cal from winning close games last year.
It’s fair to point out that the Pac-12 is so unrelentingly tough. There’s no shame in losing to Stanford or Arizona or UCLA, particularly on the road. And while Cal will get to enjoy a four game homestand, those four games include three ranked teams. That’s just the reality of trying to win in this conference, where 9 out of 12 teams are in NCAA tournament contention and only Arizona State seems to be actually bad (or, more specifically, injured).
As for the men, well, it was probably just a matter of time before Cal’s three point shooting returned to earth, and with it Cal’s offense. CAl shot 5-9 from three in the first half against Wazzu, and the game was back-and-forth. But finally, after a prolonged stretch of frankly insane shooting, Cal finally regressed to 0-11 in the 2nd half and Wazzu ran away with the game.
Against Washington, Cal’s offense was good-not-great, but against a bad offense like Washington’s, it should have been enough. Had Cal, typically a strong free throw shooting team, not wilted from the line in the 2nd half, the game wouldn’t have even made it to overtime. But the Bears allowed UW to score on nine of their final 15 possessions of regulation and five of their first seven possessions of overtime before having to play the fouling game - when crunch time arrived, Mark Fox’s defense couldn’t earn stops.
In a weird way, you could walk away from the MBB road sweep with some long term optimism. After all, this year is mostly about looking for intriguing talent for the next Cal coach in building a winning team. Grant Newell’s 21 point, 10 rebound, 3 steal, 1 turnover in 33 minute performance against UW is an early sign that he’s going to be a plus Pac-12 player for Cal, and if he keeps up the level of play he’s shown over the last couple weeks he’ll garner all freshman consideration.
Cal’s early conference schedule has been pretty soft, and that will continue with a homestand against Oregon and Oregon State. The Ducks have been very up and down and only have one true road win this year, while Oregon State is, believe it or not, currently ranked below Cal in the advanced metrics AND the conference standings. The Bears will be favorites to win this Sunday!