Men's Basketball: Cal's Upset Bid Fades Late in Eugene Against the Ducks

What happens when you manage to perfectly execute an underdog strategy, but only for the first 85% of the game?

When you’re a team expected to finish in the bottom half of the conference and you’re going to go play a game on the home court of an opponent expected to compete for the conference title, it’s a good idea to come up with some kind of underdog strategy. That goes double when you’re still playing without a key rotation member. With Grant Anticevich still on the mend after surgery to remove a ruptured appendix, the Bears were shorthanded.

The result? Cal played the majority of the game in a 2-3 zone and mostly dared Oregon to attempt 3 point shots. It was a sensible move - the Ducks are really good getting the ball to the hoop but only so-so from deep. And for about 34 minutes it worked like a charm.

With 6:30 left in the game, the Bears were right in it, trailing just 62-60. to that point Oregon was a mediocre 6-21 from deep, and the Ducks were shooting 3s at a much higher rate than they would ordinarily prefer. The Cal defensive strategy was working as well as Mark Fox could have hoped for.

Meanwhile, the other obvious ingredient in most underdog strategies is good 3 point shooting of your own, and the Cal offense was doing just that. Over the first 34 minutes of the game the Bears were 10-20 from deep themselves, thanks largely to Matt Bradley finally getting hot. Cal didn’t get a whole lot else going on that end, but the 3 point shot is still the great equalier.

And then Oregon stopped missing threes and Cal stopped making them. I mean that quite literally, as the Ducks attempted five more 3s over the rest of the game and made all of them, part of a 20-6 run that turned a close game into what appeared to be the Oregon easy win that had been anticipated prior to tip off. Meanwhile, Cal missed the last five 3s they attempted over those final six minutes of the game. Final score? 82-69.

Of course, this game is about much more than just when the shots went into the basket and when they didn’t. Why is it that one team can be badly outshot for 34 minutes of a game, and yet still be winning? Why is it that Cal was able to execute their pre-game strategy with a pretty high degree of success, and yet still trail by a couple points late in the game? Why is it that Cal had no answer when the Ducks finally started hitting their 3s?

Those questions all have the same answer, and that answer is the same reason that Cal was attempting to play an underdog strategy in the first place. Oregon is significantly more talented/athletic than the Bears.

Talented and athletic enough to play 40 minutes of ball pressure defense and full and 3/4 court press, to help harass the Bears into 17 turnovers.

Talented and athletic enough to control the glass and double Cal up in offensive rebounds.

Talented and athletic enough to still manage to go 17-35 on their 2 point shots despite Cal generally playing a zone defense with two post players, a defense specifically designed to discourage Oregon from getting the ball into the paint.

Add that all up and what do you get? You get this:

Cal field goals: 21-47
Oregon field goals: 28-61

Oregon earned themselves fourteen more shots thanks to a decisive turnover and rebounding advantage, and that allowed them to stay on top even when getting clearly outshot.

To be fair, this isn’t an unusual situation for this version of the Bears. The offense is inherently turnover prone, and the Bears don’t really try to either force turnovers or get offensive rebounds. Of course, those are strategic choices made in part because Cal probably doesn’t really have the right personnel to do these things. Oregon decisively does, and Dana Altman uses that personnel decisively. Oregon was able to exploit Cal’s weaknesses (propensity for turnovers) as much as they could exploit Cal’s strengths (the Bears do a good job securing defensive rebounds, but Oregon was going to grab their fair share of offensive boards).

The good news is that Cal has enough talent on the roster that in the right circumstances they can bite better teams. Cal’s going to beat a tournament quality team at some point this season when Bradley and/or Betley and/or Foreman and/or Anticevich get hot from deep. But Oregon on the road probably isn’t a great spot to get one of those good shooting nights because as the Ducks amply demonstrated, they’re good enough to win anyway.

And so we have a game that was equal parts encouraging and discouraging. This was the kind of game that Cal would have lost decisively each of the last three years, without even the glimmer of possibility of victory. Hanging with the Ducks on the road down just a possession with 6 minutes to play, based on the solid execution of a reasonable plan is an undeniable step forward for this program.

And losing by a pretty clear margin, for pretty obvious reasons, despite successfully executing that reasonable plan is a bummer. Mark Fox has raised the floor of this team, from Death Valley rock bottom to something akin to sea level. This team isn’t going to get embarrassed any more, or at least not embarrassed in the way they were before.

It’s the ceiling that is more of an open question, and will need a lot more time. The ceiling of having a good chance to beat a Pac-12 favorite on the road is still a long ways away.