Cal outlasts Southern Utah in Double OT win
Andre Kelly pours in 29 points and wills the Bears to victory
Andre Kelly ticks lots of boxes on my personal list of cult favorite attributes.
Role player who grows into lead player? Check.
Undersized post player who is effective anyway? Check.
Understated personality, but clearly gives many damns? Check.
I like lots of little things about his game. I like the way he uses his body and his positioning to hold off an opponent for a rebound, and catches the ball at his side with one hand rather than going up for it. I like that he’s always been a low turnover guy. I like the sudden growth in his ability to pass the ball back out of the paint in a way that’s productive rather than just about avoiding a turnover or recycling possession.
In my season preview, I talked about how it’s tough to find things to cling to as a fan when a season isn’t likely to go well. Andre Kelly is a dude, and he’s a reason to tune in to a Cal basketball game.
And against Southern Utah, when Cal’s offense was largely dysfunctional, Andre Kelly dragged the Bears to victory.
I suppose that’s an obvious statement when one dude scores 29 points out of 75. But Andre Kelly was basically the only guy capable of scoring inside the arc. Take away Andre’s 10-14 shooting on 2 point shots, and the rest of the Bears only went 9-28 from inside the arc. Against a Big Sky team known much more for their offense than their defense, Cal simply couldn’t get to the bucket and spent most of the game settling for jumpers from all over the court . . . except for Andre Kelly.
He was explicitly involved in everything right that happened, even when things went wrong. When Cal bricked another crummy 2 point fallaway, there was Andre with the rebound and the put back. When Southern Utah grabbed one of their 15 offensive boards, there was Andre Kelly to poke the ball away for a steal. When Cal ran 28 seconds of ugly offense, there was Andre Kelly to nail a deep, desperation 3.
Because this is a random game against a low major two days before Big Game, nobody will remember this game as ‘the Andre Kelly game.’ I hope and anticipate that we get another game like this later in the year, against a Pac-12 opponent, because he’s earned it.
Southern Utah is expected to compete with Weber St. and Eastern Washington for the Big Sky title this year, and that’s largely on the strength of a solid offense. It’s still a Big Sky offense we’re talking about, but it’s an offense that might be better than, say, Washington or Stanford (or, cough, Cal’s) offense, so it’s not an awful test for the Cal defense.
And I’m happy to report that it was mostly a pretty solid showing. There were occasional lapses, and I’m sure that Cal benefitted from a few more missed 3s than usual (Utah State went 5-28) but by and large Cal held back a solid offensive team across 50 minutes.
The star on the defensive end was freshman Sam Alajiki, who was deployed for major minutes through the 2nd half and overtime largely as a John Knight III stopper. Southern Utah’s go-to-guy had scored 21 points over the first 26 minutes of the game. Over the final 24 minutes of the game, Alajiki would play 21 minutes
So what happened the rest of the way, with Alajiki largely guarding him? Knight went 3-11 from the field with zero assists and two turnovers. Alajiki blocked Knight three separate times. With their best player taken off his game, the Thunderbirds scored 24 points in 36 possessions the rest of the way, a paltry .67 points/possession.
That’s a true freshman in his 4th career game getting the toughest, most important defensive assignment in a tight, double OT game, and winning that match-up decisively.
I have no idea what, if anything Sam Alajiki might add on the offensive end, this year or in future years. Knowing, immediately, that he’s a valuable defender is a hell of a start.
If Cal had gotten any offensive contributions from anybody not named Andre Kelly, this game would not have been close. Unfortunately the Bears didn’t, and so the game went 50 minutes long.
I don’t want to dwell on this in light of the positives to take away from this game, but the offensive performance was concerning even when grading on a curve of recent Cal basketball. Consider:
Andre Kelly: 11-16 from the field, zero turnovers.
Everybody else: 16-52, 15 turnovers.
When 90% of your rotation has nearly as many turnovers as made baskets, you’ve got a problem. And it starts with shot selection - or, to be more precise, an inability to create decent shots.
To take one segment of the game: Cal attempted 13 total shots in both overtime periods. Five of those shots were 3 pointers, which I will never complain about, though it’s worth noting that two of them were late shot clock desperation heaves from Andre Kelly (he made one!).
The rest were all long 2 point jumpers. In the 10 most critical minutes of a tight game, Cal couldn’t create a single shot at the rim against a mediocre Big Sky defense!
Hell, I’m not sure how much I trust the classification system in the play-by-play, but if you remove Andre Kelly, Cal as a team went 1-6 on shots classified as a layup in a 50 minute game, and did not create one dunk. Late in the game it felt like Cal had more or less given up on trying to get to the basket and just started looking for open jumpers early in the shot clock.
I don’t know what the solution is, or even if there is a solution. But Andre Kelly isn’t going to drop 29 every game, so Cal’s going to have to figure out some way to get guys shots closer to the basket. Either that or just start bombing away from behind the arc.
And solutions on the offensive end are needed soon, because next up is a trip to Fort Myers Florida for a game against the top 25 Florida Gators and a 2nd game against either Seton Hall or Ohio State. All three teams are borderline top 25 quality squads who expect to make the NCAA tournament this year, so the challenge is obvious.
Makale Foreman left the game with 7:15 remaining in the 2nd half with what looked like a badly twisted ankle, but ended up returning in OT to pull down a couple defensive boards and hit a few free throws, so hopefully it turns out to be minor.
A rough game for Jordan Shepherd, who fouled out in 19 minutes and had four turnovers. Never really felt like he got even close to the flow of the game due to foul issues, and couldn’t find the same balance he had on Monday between calling his own number on a drive or passing it out when he gets cut off.
Looks like we’re pretty committed to playing smaller, as Cal never played with Lars Thiemann and Andre Kelly on the floor at the same time.
Still no sign of DJ Thorpe, Monty Bowser, or Marsalis Roberson, who presumably are all still injured.