The normalcy of losing to Pepperdine

Cal men's basketball falls to the Waves, and the problem is that this was expected

Pepperdine is a solid enough team. They’ll probably finish 5th in the West Coast Conference, which is still one of the best mid-major conferences in the nation. Still, if you threw them into the Pac-12, they would do well to finish 9th. They’re not a team that will get anywhere close to the NCAA tournament bubble.

I came to the game late, when the Bears were trying to sustain a comeback from a 19 point deficit. I watched with indifference as the comeback sputtered. When the game ended, I tried to decide whether or not I felt anything (the answer: no) and reflected on why I had no emotional response. I think this is why:

Vegas had the Waves as 4.5 point favorites, Kenpom had them as 5 point favorites. Thanks to some hot three point shooting, they won by 12 points instead. For most of the last decade, losing a game like this would be an anomaly. For the 4th year in a row, it’s an expected result.

Losing to Pepperdine isn’t exactly the same as losing to USF, isn’t exactly the same as losing to Santa Clara, isn’t exactly the same as losing to Seattle and Yale and Central Arkansas and Portland St. But at a certain point you’re not spend the mental energy to parse the difference any more.

I feel guilty about my lack of emotional response, and about my indifference towards trying to find insightful things to say. Guilty because I value you as a reader. Guilty because I do admire and appreciate the efforts of the players who go out there and compete. Grant Anticevich and Matt Bradley, to take just one example, have both clearly put in a ton of work to become better as individual players. Both clearly put their full effort into winning each game, and both clearly hate losing.

But this is a fan website and I’m a fan first, with my analyst brain coming in a distant second. And I just don’t have any enthusiasm as a MBB fan. Maybe some of that is COVID fatigue, maybe some of it is getting burned out covering the Wyking Jones years. But a lot of it is the fact that the program is multiple years removed from being competitive in Pac-12 play, and the overwhelming suspicion that the program is a long ways away from becoming competitive in Pac-12 play again.

So, the game. Mark Fox’s thing is defense, so it is concerning that Cal’s defense wasn’t really up to the task of slowing down Pepperdine. Because it wasn’t just that the Waves were hot from 3. They also were 55% from inside the arc. There were, quite simply, lots of open shots.

To be fair, Pepperdine’s strength is their shooting, both inside and outside. Kessler Edwards and Jan Zidek are both super efficient inside-outside threat thats Cal couldn’t deal with, and if they got going it was always going to be tough for Cal’s limited offense to keep up. As has typically been the case so far under Mark Fox, when his defense can’t limit the opponent then there isn’t an easy path to victory.

I’ll be honest, seeing Justice Sueing and Connor Vanover excelling as key members of teams with real NCAA tournament expectations does feed in to my feelings of indifference and pessimism.

Maybe I’m down because Mark Fox benched Cal’s best player, then claimed after the game that the benching was made to give Cal their best possible chance to come back and win.

This team will almost certainly improve. I’m inclined to think that the pre-season practice that was lost due to a positive COVID case is impacting Cal’s defense. More than anything else, Ryan Betley and Matt Bradley are shooting well below their career 3 point shooting averages and their numbers are very likely to rebound.

The problem is that there aren’t all that many winnable games left on the Cal schedule, and if the Bears don’t improve quickly they will carry an ugly record into a very tough middle of the season schedule. As it is the Bears are clear underdogs in their final two non-conference games against USF and Boston College, though both opponents are more gettable than an average Pac-12 team. Cal will also host the comparatively beatable Washington schools in early January. If the Bears don’t improve quickly and grab some wins in their next 6 games, the final record this year won’t look all that different from what Wyking Jones put up in his two years in charge.

I want reasons to stay engaged as a fan. I want success and happiness for the players on the roster. But when my reaction to a double digit loss to Pepperdine is a shrug before moving on, what else is there to say?