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Joel Brown powers Cal to upset win over Colorado
The Bears have won two of their last three - is this a random blip, or the sign of sustainable improvement?
Did any Cal fans watch this game? I’m going to be honest with you: I skipped out on most of the 1st half, instead focusing on the Michigan/TCU playoff semi-final. But as Cal built and then maintained a lead, I tuned in on my phone. What I saw was unfamiliar to me.
One team was playing solid defense. The other team looked like they didn’t have a plan on offense. One team had a point guard fearlessly attacking the bucket. Everything that happened prior to this game would not lead you to expect that it was Cal doing good things and Colorado looking inept.
Since you probably didn’t watch the game, you’re probably wondering how a 1-13 team built a 21 point lead and defeated a 9-5 team. I can think of four reasons, three of which are worth exploring in more detail:
Cal had a great shooting game
Joel Brown had the game of his life
Cal has legitimately improved on defense
Colorado is a wildly up-and-down team - they have already followed up a 9 point loss to Grambling State with a 12 point win over 11-2, top 10 Tennessee.
We’ll go ahead and stipulate that for Cal to build a 21 point lead, the Bears will need to play near their best and Colorado near their worst, and Colorado was at their worst. But we’re not here to talk about the Buffs, we’re here to talk about the Bears. So let’s take those first three items and talk about what they mean.
Cal had a great shooting game: 7-13 from three, 22-37 on two point shots. This was Cal’s best shooting game from 2 AND from 3, all in one game. A lot of this was Joel Brown’s 9-14 shooting performance, on which more below. The rest of it was a nice game inside from Lars Thiemann and ND Okafor, plus good 3 point shooting around the horn.
I want to say that this is a step forward, and if you want to invest in optimism about ND Okafor’s freshman year potential for growth I won’t stop you, but the overwhelming body of evidence says that this is a team that will struggle to shoot, who happened to have a hot night. You’ll happily take that hot night, but you shouldn’t watch future games expecting shooting at a 65% eFG% level.
Joel Brown had the game of his life: Cal’s senior point guard has always been a defense-first player. In his career has has scored more than 12 points exactly four times . . . but three of those four games have come in Cal’s last four games. Suddenly, for the first time in his career, Joel Brown has gotten his own.
Brown entered the season 113-256 (44.1%) on 2 point shots. That’s both a low volume (less than 3 attempts/game) and a low percentage. But at the same time, it seemed like Joel Brown could become a successful slasher - he’s one of the fastest players with the ball I’ve ever watched at Cal, with an explosive first step. But being able to beat a guy at the point of attack on the perimeter is a different thing from finishing at the bucket. Brown wouldn’t be the first short PG to take time to figure out how to finish over taller dudes (Jerome Randle sophomore: 45%, Jerome Randle, junior year: 53%), but it would be pretty wild if the switch suddenly flicked about a 3rd of the way through Brown’s 4th season.
Having a great slashing/finishing game against UT Arlington isn’t predictive of anything. Having a great slashing/finishing game against Colorado maybe does. I can’t say I’d expect this level of offensive production from Brown the rest of the way, but it was damned fun to watch against the Buffs and I’m rooting for more.
Cal has legitimately improved on defense: I’m going out on a limb with this one, admittedly. Cal’s awful start has largely been driven by an offense that can’t score, but that wasn’t exactly surprising: Mark Fox hasn’t coached a notably good offense in 15 years.
But Cal absolutely has the talent to be good on defense, and it’s ostensibly Fox’s coaching strength, so Cal’s failure to play even average Pac-12 defense was perplexing. The two things that didn’t make sense to me was Cal’s mediocre field goal defense and offensive rebounding. The Bears have way too much size and athleticism to let other teams shoot so well, and rebound so well.
In the last three games, Cal held UT Arlington to their 3rd worst offensive performance of the year, held Utah to their 5th worst offensive performance of the year, and held Colorado to what would have been their 5th worst offensive performance of the year before Colorado scored 20 points in the last two minutes of the game in what was one of the silliest futile garbage time runs I’ve ever seen.
So the defense has been better over the last few games. Some of that has been bad three point shooting, which may or may not be sustainable. A lot of it was much improved offensive rebounding - Cal held Utah and Colorado well below their season averages. That plus bad three point shooting was enough to beat Colorado, and should’ve been enough to at least be in a coin flip with Utah. Alas, Cal had their worst shooting performance of the season against the Utes, and couldn’t take advantage of Utah’s similarly cold night.
In short, over the last three games Cal has looked roughly about what most of us probably expected at the beginning of the season: good enough defensively to win games against mid-level Pac-12 teams when the Bears happen to have a good shooting night. The kind of team that might be expected to win a handful Pac-12 games. It’s not saying a lot, but it’s much better than what this team looked like during the 0-12 start.
Mental toughness by itself is not enough to win games. If it were, Cal might be undefeated.
The best part about the Colorado game was how much fun the Bears looked like they were having. The joy that emanated from the bench after every Joel Brown finish or splashed in three.
Early in the season, I feared that this team had quit on the season. Maybe, in some of their darker moments, the Bears did quit on individual games. That’s as good an explanation for 0-12 as any. And considering the challenges this roster has faced, I don’t know how much I’d even blame them if that did happen.
Regardless, this team has pulled themselves off the carpet, and they’re playing better basketball. That may or may not last long, but it takes more mental fortitude than most possess, and I’m glad they’re finding ways to stay focused and earning themselves some happiness.