The gap between possibility and reality
The young Bears showed exciting flashes, but the distance between Cal and the top of the conference is still significant in a 97-74 loss to Stanford
In one moment, Jayda Curry initiates the offense, throws a pass to Evelien Lutje Shipholt, then immediately sprints toward the bucket to accept an immediate pass back from Shipholt before laying it in.
In another moment, Fran Belibi is proving one Cal defender after another than the Bears don’t have anybody in the roster who can guard her one on one.
In one moment, Leilani McIntosh nails an open 3, then harasses a Stanford ball handler into a turnover and races the other way to draw a foul through sheer force of will.
In another moment, Stanford pounds the ball inside, Cal collapses, and Stanford swings it out to a deadeye three point shooter who makes no mistake.
In one moment, Jayda Curry fearlessly attacks the paint, draws contact, and throws up a circus shot that nobody has any business attempting, but she hits it anway:
In too many moments, Cal struggles with Stanford’s length all over the floor, turning the ball over in the face of withering ball pressure with minimal easy options to pass.
Ultimately, the moments that showed how far away Cal is outnumbered the tantalizing displays of what this team could eventually grow into. Hence the final score.
In the first quarter, the Bears struggled to find decent shots, and Stanford ended the first quarter up 10. And while the Cardinal kept right on scoring, the Bears more than matched them in a frenetic, beautiful 2nd quarter. The Bears exploded for 32 points and shockingly entered halftime tied with the #2 team in the country.
Stanford, unsurprisingly, locked down on defense. They came into the 3rd quarter with a plan to be aggressive and physical, and the result was seven forced turnovers, nine fouls committed, and 12 free throws surrendered. It was ugly basketball, but effective. Cal’s offensive rhythm was thrown off, Stanford kept right on scoring, and the game was effectively over.
You all know by now that I’m a tempo-free kinda guy, but when you give up 97 points tempo kinda doesn’t matter anymore. But for the record:
Cal’s defensive performance in three Pac-12 games:
vs. Washington State: 1.06 points/possession allowed
vs. Oregon: 1.22 points/possession allowed
vs. Stanford: 1.24 points/possession allowed
Even taking into account that Cal played Washington St. without a number of players for unexplained (coughcovidcough) reasons, and even taking into account that Oregon and Stanford are offensive buzz saws, those are scary numbers.
Hell, just take the season numbers. Cal is 288th in the nation in points/possession allowed despite a non-conference schedule that wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row.
So what’s going on? Against Stanford, there was no lack of defensive energy - the Bears were throwing themselves all over the court, and at times Stanford got sped up and turned the ball over. But it also resulted in more than a few open Cardinal players who were left with easy shots.
More specifically, Cal appears to be leaving 3 point shooters open in favor of defending inside the arc. Hannah Jump is almost completely a 3 point shooting specialist. 78% of her shots are from behind the arc, and she hits them at 41%. You just can’t leave her open, but against the Bears she attempted nine 3s, most of them very, very open.
And that’s not a bad luck one game sample. Teams are shooting 37% collectively against Cal from deep, which is 349th out of 356 D1 teams. Maybe some of that is bad luck, but it didn’t feel unlucky against Stanford.
There are other issues - the Bears foul a lot, and they’re not great at securing defensive rebounds. But defending the three point line is pretty critical in the Pac-12, where 7 of Cal’s 11 conference rivals are top 50 in the nation in 3 point shooting. Cal’s ability to defend better generally and guard the 3 point line specifically are issues worth watching over the rest of the season.
It’s too early to say that COVID has ruined a season; it’s still just January, after all, and the Omicron wave is supposed to subside soon. It’s possible that Cal plays the rest of their schedule and maybe even fits in a few make-up games.
But boy was I depressed when Cal had four different Pac-12 games postponed and a 5th that was something of a farce because it wasn’t postponed. After last year was ruined by injury AND the pandemic, the prospect of another lost season put me into a spiral, which is why I didn’t write about either of Cal’s Pac-12 games that actually got played.
That Cal lost out on opportunities to pick up wins against teams like Washington State and Oregon State and now gets to enjoy a stretch of Oregon-Stanford-Stanford-Arizona feels like cruelty. The schedule becomes MUCH more managable in the 2nd half of the season, which is maybe just as well for a team full of youngsters, players recovering from season ending injuries, and players trying to regain sharpness after quarantines.
In short, their performance against Stanford showed enough flashes of potential to keep you engaged; the question is how much the Bears will build on that potential over the next two months. Stay tuned.