Elite Arizona too much for Cal Men's Basketball
The Bears (and, to be fair, everybody else) struggle with size, speed of Wildcats
There was a moment early in the game that demonstrated the near-impossible task Cal faced. A minute and a half into the game, Arizona missed a shot. Andre Kelly ID’d the missed shot and did a reasonable job boxing out. 7’1’’ center Christian Koloko jumped higher, reached over Kelly, plucked the ball out of the air, landed immediately went back up, and dropped the ball into the hoop. Andre Kelly did everything right, and Arizona still scored.
There was a moment late in the game, when Mike Montgomery, doing color commentary on the game for the Pac-12 network, apologized for spending the vast majority of the game raving about how good Arizona is*. Monty’s enough of a pro that he knows he’s supposed to be talking about both teams.
Except 1) he’s exactly right about how good Arizona is and 2) talking about that would be more fun than talking about the gap between Arizona and Cal.
Arizona is really, really good. They’re 1st in the NET rankings, 2nd on Kenpom, and 3rd in the AP poll. They have lost exactly one game, by 4 points on the road to top 25 Tennessee. Exactly two of their 14 wins have come by single digit margins. They’re top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
You get the point. The spread for this game was ‘only’ 13.5, and maybe Vegas was feeling generous because Arizona was playing without their best player, Azuolos Tubelis, a 6’11’' forward nightmare matchup shooting 65% on his twos. But even without him, Arizona had more than enough firepower.
So when the Wildcats opened the game with a 17-3 run, the writing was on the wall. Arizona kept pouring on the points all game long, only once going three straight possessions without scoring. Arizona would eventually finish with 96 points on 71 possessions for 1.35 points/possession, which is by far the most points/possession Cal has allowed all year, and nearly the most points/possession Arizona has scored all year (sorry North Dakota State).
Koloko dominated the game, going 9-13 from the field and chipping in 13 rebounds and three blocks. Poor Andre Kelly, giving up four inches of height and who knows how many inches of wingspan, didn’t have a ton of hope as a solo defender, and Cal couldn’t really afford to double Koloko much considering how equally deadly Arizona’s other players are.
It was a game that was never going to be a contest, and it played out exactly as badly as most probably predicted.
*Monty then said that Mark Fox is the perfect man for the Cal job, but I’ve bee around the block long enough to know that a former coach saying anything bad about a current coach is rarer than meaningful NCAA punishments for Arizona basketball.
For some reason, I think Mark Fox decided to get thrown out of the game.
At least, I’m not sure how else to interpret both the circumstances and the post-game quotes.
The circumstances? Fox’s first technical comes with about 4 minutes left in the first half, following a foul from Joel Brown that didn’t seem particularly noteworthy. 1:30 later, Sam Alajiki has just committed a very obvious foul, and Fox starts yelling at somebody, and ends up getting T’d.
There isn’t a clear triggering event for either technical, nor was the game particularly heated. Arizona was already up 20, so it’s not like the final result was in any double.
The quotes? Here’s what Jeff Faraudo transcribed:
“Well, my frustration wasn't just about tonight. OK, my frustration was (over) some things that have built up to it," Fox said in his post-game Zoom call with reporters. "The official decided, like in third grade, to instigate a starting contest. And like in third grade, I took the bait.
"Got my second technical and put our team in a tough spot. But I'm always going to fight for our players, I promise you that. Certainly frustrating day in that area."
I’m not sure what events building up to the Arizona game have been bothering Fox. The way Pac-12 refs call games? COVID challenges? His team’s practice intensity or recent game performances? It’s all very strange.
I suppose if there was a game to commit two technical fouls and get thrown out, this was the game to do it. Arizona got two points out of their technical free throws, inconsequential points within the larger context of the blowout.
You get the sense that this was some sort of motivational technique or teaching moment or something, it’s just not entirely clear what the goal was.
Cal actually had an OK game offensively, although 44 of Cal’s 71 points game in the 2nd half, and some of Arizona’s 2nd half defending was perhaps a bit more indifferent than they would normally show. Still, averaging one point/possession against probably the best defense in the conference is a pretty solid showing for the Bears. Interestingly, the Bears managed that despite not being able to hit their 2 pointers (18-54). But when you shoot well from three, minimize turnovers (only 5 in a high possession), pull down more offensive boards than usual, and get to the line, you can cobble together a solid offensive night despite getting shut down on your 2 point shots.
Alas, it came in a game where Cal’s opponents pushed towards triple digits. Figures that Cal would finally get a good three point shooting night against a team where it didn’t matter.
I do think it’s worth noting that Cal started the game with an extreme attempt to run clock. Five of Cal’s first six possessions took at least 20 seconds off the clock, and two of them ended with shots as the shot clock buzzer sounded. Cal scored all of one basket in this stretch, and Cal’s slow down tactics didn’t do anything to slow down Arizona on the other end.
Then, later in the game, Cal played a little faster. Maybe because the game was clearly over. Maybe because Mark Fox got ejected. Whatever the reason, the offense picked up both in terms of speed and success.
To be clear, I get the strategy behind being deliberate on offense. But if you take it to an extreme, as Cal has done at times and did early against Arizona, it’s a self-defeating strategy that just leads to horrible late clock shots, and I think Cal’s improved offensive performance later in the game demonstrates the difference.
It’s @UCLA and @USC up next, as Cal’s murderer’s row early Pac-12 schedule continues. I don’t think either team is quite as good as Arizona, but these games are on the road and Cal couldn’t quite compete with either LA rival in Berkeley, so my expectations are low. On the bright side, Cal won’t have a top 25 level team on the schedule until their regular season finale in Tucson in early March, so we can all enjoy a solid month of games that are winnable soon enough.