Life for Cal Men's Basketball without Matt Bradley

The Bears lose to Washington State to fall to 0-6 against Pac-12 competition

Let’s tear off the band-aid and start with the uncomfortable truth: Without Matt Bradley, Cal is probably the worst team in the Pac-12.

As it is, with Matt Bradley, the Bears were likely going to compete alongside Washington, Washington St., and Oregon St.* in the bottom 3rd of the conference this year. But whatever hope Cal had for finishing 9th and challenging any of the teams in the top two thirds of the conference rested on the sturdy shoulders of Cal’s junior shooting guard.

Last year among rotation players Matt Bradley led Cal, by a wide margin, in both usage rating AND offensive rating. This is basically a Las Vegas neon sign screaming ‘BEST PLAYER ON THE TEAM.’ Mark Fox is no dummy and recognized that fact, and sensibly built his offense this year around his best player. And thus, in 2020-21, Matt Bradley is seventh in the nation in usage rating, and other than a probably-fluky rough start from behind the arc he’s basically just as efficient as last year. His turnovers have ticked up a touch, but he’s finishing better on his 2 point shots and getting the line more frequently.

What happens when you take away a guy that integral to everything you planned to do on offense?

You score .88 points/possession in the 2nd half against the worst defense in the conference (Oregon State) and then you score .88 points/possession at home against Washington State.

Now, Washington State is actually a pretty good defensive team, and Cal was beaten badly enough that I don’t think I can credibly argue that the Bears win this game with Matt Bradley healthy. But give Cal back their best player and I’d wager that this game would have at least been competitive.

You particularly felt Cal’s offensive struggles late in the game, when the obvious shot to look for was a three pointer from Ryan Betley or Makale Foreman. But Washington State knew what shot they needed to prevent, and without the danger of Matt Bradley on the court, it was pretty simple for them to extend their ball pressure out beyond the arc. Betley and Foreman accepted passes from 5 feet behind the arc with a Cougar already in their grill, and Cal’s comeback attempt felt dead before it even began.

It certainly didn’t help that Cal only shot 24% (5-21) from three, but I’d argue that’s a reflection of the quality of Cal’s looks that the Wazzu defense allowed. But again, that’s the consequence of no Matt Bradley. Every team in the conference is going to work to take away Cal’s best shot until he’s back.

What can Cal do? Let’s ask Mark Fox:

Without him, we're probably going to have to play a little but more like we played last year and make the game ugly and low possessions and try to be great defensively. And tonight we weren't great defensively.

In the first half, Cal played a ton of zone and tried to slow the game down and force turnovers with a token three quarter press. It worked well enough that I was both surprised and disappointed that Cal didn’t go back to the strategy in the 2nd half. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Here is where we get to an uncomfortable truth: Cal has been worse on defense this year than they were in year 1 under Mark Fox, and that’s concerning. Cal’s total defense has fallen from 130th in the nation last year to 150th this year, and they are currently allowing the highest points/possession in the Pac-12 in conference play only.

Washington State has a legitimately bad offense. In 10 games, only three times have they scored more than a point per possession on offense. Those games came against Prairie View A&M, Montana State . . . and Cal.

Some of this might be down to personnel. Whether it was a conscious choice or because he had struck out on so many recruiting options, Mark Fox brought in grad transfers more known for their offense (and specifically their shooting) than defense. Some of it might be down to lack of practice time. Some of it might be down to missing Anticevich and Bradley for so many games, as they are probably Cal’s two best defenders on top of their important offensive contributions.

Regardless of the precise reason, Cal is competing with Oregon State for the title of the Pac-12’s worst defensive team. For a coach who is nominally known for his defense, that’s a big problem. Without Bradley to keep Cal’s offense afloat, the problem is only magnified.

This and recent games haven’t been completely devoid of positive developmental signs. Grant Anticevich is back, and will almost certainly play better once he shakes off the rust. Joel Brown has started to figure out how to turn his pure speed and solid handles into actual buckets (53% on his 2 point shots!) on the drive. Lars Thiemann has been noticeably more physical and successful as a rebounder over the last few games and finally went up strong today for a massive slam dunk. But while small steps forward are certainly welcome, Cal needs big steps to start winning games.

You’ll note that at the top I noted that Cal was probably the worst team in the conference with Matt Bradley. On Saturday, Cal plays Washington, who are also without a conference win. I’d wager the Huskies will be slight favorites, but even without Bradley the Bears should be competitive. You’d really, really like to see the Bears grab this one, because the schedule gets very, very daunting after Saturday’s game ends.

*These four teams have a combined record vs. the rest of the Pac-12 of 0-10, and after so many down years I’m going to instead praise the top of the conference, which looks pretty good this year. Wins against any of the top 8 in the Pac-12 will be tough to come by.