Cal shoots ASU off the court in easy road win
Fardaws Aimaq puts up 20 and 14 in a comprehensive 81-66 win.
photo via @calmbball twitter
I used the words ‘Easy Road Win’ in the headline very deliberately: because those words are, by themselves, noteworthy.
In the six years prior to this season, Cal won exactly 8 true road games. Just two of them came by 10 points or more. One of those was a routine non-con win against an unremarkable Seattle team. The other was a bizarre, black swan event when Jordan Shepherd went nuclear in a 33 outburst to beat Oregon.
Arizona State is not a particularly good team. They might have the worst offense in the conference thanks to a lack of guys who can hit a jumper, and they regularly get dominated on the glass. But they’re not a disaster team either, and they have a pesky, high-energy defense that can force a bunch of turnovers and get teams out of their comfort zone.
And they’re plenty good enough to be dangerous at home. They entered this game 8-2 at home with wins against five teams ranked higher than Cal per Kenpom.
Cal walked in and handed them their worst home loss of the season.
Cal handed ASU a 15 point loss despite 13 turnovers against ASU’s various traps and pressure alignments. They did it without getting a stellar game from Jaylon Tyson, who shot just 5-14 from the field. And it was more comprehensive than the final margin showed, because ASU scored 12 points in their final five possessions in the final two minutes when the game was deep into garbage time and Cal was not playing with any kind of defensive intensity.
If this season is about consistent improvement, and looking for signs of progress, this game is a big step in the right direction, and a happy bounce back after a rare down note on Thursday against Arizona.
So how did Cal win so decisively? Three factors jumped out to me: Fardaws Aimaq, three point shooting, and aggressive but controlled defense.
Aimaq spent plenty of time going against ASU’s Alonzo Gaffney, who gave up 2 inches and 45 pounds to Aimaq. Cal’s center was able to get to his spots and finish, whether on iso post-ups or finishing on passes out of the pick and roll. He even threw in 5 assists to add to his MVP performance, four of which were kick-outs to open three point shooters, which leads right into factor #2.
Cal shot the nets off from deep, led by a 4-6 performance from Keonte Kennedy. But it was a team wide effort with five different players hitting at least one. Cal built the early lead they would never relinquish by hitting 5 of their first 6 threes in the opening 10 minutes of the game, and every time ASU threatened to make a run in the 2nd half Cal hit a three to push the lead back up.
Finally, we have Cal’s defensive performance. As noted above, a late flurry made the ASU performance look better than it was. The Sun Devils ended the game at .98 points/possession, but that number was .87 before their garbage time run. You can fairly accuse me of using selective endpoints here, but that .87 actually would have been Cal’s best defensive performance of the season, and ASU’s worst offensive performance in Pac-12 play.
Cal achieved that by denying ASU looks at the basket either in transition or out of the flow of their half court offense. Only 14 of ASU’s 70 shots were at the rim, and the only consistent source of rim shots were offensive rebounds, mostly from back-up big Shawn Phillips. Other than that, Cal spent the entire game forcing ASU into the kind of jumpers Cal would want them to take, and ASU obliged by bricking a bunch of tough shots. Throw in 4 Keonte Kennedy steals and you have the makings of maybe the best Cal defensive performance of the season, even taking into account ASU’s bad offense.
This win pushes Cal’s Pac-12 record to 5-6 with nine games remaining. For reasons that I can’t quite explain, I badly want Cal to finish at least .500 in conference play, as some kind of marker for how far Madsen and the Bears have come in just one off-season.
The good news is that there are very winnable games left on the schedule, including home games next weekend against the scuffling LA teams and a manageable homestand against Oregon and Oregon State.
The bad news is that there are more road games than home games left, and that includes a tough trip to Colorado and Utah, who are still both undefeated on their home floors.
Getting to .500 in conference play (or better) would likely require sweeping the remaining home games and stealing one or two on the road, likely against either the Washington schools or Stanford. Kenpom projects a final record of 8-12, while the Torvik system says 9-11. Either way the point is that getting to .500 ball will require Cal to continue getting better and perhaps to get a little lucky in a close game or two.
But the Bears have been getting better all year long, game by game.
Next week brings USC and UCLA, and I’m hoping for crowds on par with what Cal fans brought against Stanford last week. If the possibility of beating Bronny James and then ending Pac-12 play with a sweep over UCLA doesn’t get your Cal fan blood going, I’m not sure what would. I’ll be there next Saturday, and I hope you will be too.