UCLA Basketball 81, Cal 57: Déjà Vu All Over Again
Cal's fourth game of the month against a top 15 team ends like the previous three.
UCLA, USC, and Arizona are all really, really good. They have combined to lose five games against teams other than themselves, and only USC’s two losses to Stanford comes against a team unlikely to make the NCAA tournament.
And so, unsurprisingly, you’ll hear commentators rationalizing Cal’s recent struggles as a factor of schedule strength. “The Bears are a much improved team! They had won five in a row before this brutal stretch!”
Which is all true and fair and accurate. Cal had won five in a row, but everybody knew the schedule was going to get way tougher and wins would be much harder to come by. Which meant that Cal’s January would inevitably be graded on a curve.
January isn’t over - Cal will play USC on Saturday to close out the month and end this cruel stretch of top flight opponents. There’s still the chance to pull a surprise.
It doesn’t feel likely right now. Cal has been less and less competitive through this stretch of games. Remember back in early January, when Cal trailed USC by just 4 points with 10 minutes to go, or when they trailed UCLA by just 2 points with 16 minutes left? Sure, Cal didn’t end up winning those games, but it felt like the Bears belonged on the same court.
That wasn’t the case against Arizona last week, and it wasn’t the case against UCLA on Thursday night.
The Bruins were without Johnny Juzang due to COVID protocols, but the absence of UCLA’s best shooter and scorer didn’t impact the game in the slightest. UCLA scored early and often, and did basically everything right on offense. The Bears held serve briefly thanks to some early hot shooting, but as soon as the Bears cooled UCLA pulled away permanently.
After the game, Mark Fox easily identified the root of Cal’s issues over the last two games:
Our defense - we have to find it - we got to find some answers there. Because our team will only have chances to win if we play great on the defensive end.
During Cal’s five game losing streak, Cal has only had one decent defensive effort, against UCLA at home. USC, Washington, Washington State, Arizona, and now UCLA in Westwood have all scored at or above their season and conference scoring efficiency numbers against Cal.
UCLA did it every which way. As you would expect with a low turnover offense facing a low turnover defense, UCLA took care of the ball. But they also made a ton of shots, grabbed a ton of offensive rebounds, and got to the line a bunch.
Add it all up and UCLA scored 1.23 points/possession, tied for their 2nd best output in conference play (UCLA also scored 1.23 ppp vs. Oregon State). Cal, a team built around fundamentally sound defense, can’t get away with allowing opponents to score like that, even top 10 opponents like UCLA and Arizona.
Of course, I don’t know particularly what to do about any of this. It’s not like I see some kind of obvious error in player usage or rotation minutes. I don’t think there’s any particular lack of effort. And as much as I’m skeptical of many things about Mark Fox’s coaching, defensive fundamentals isn’t the thing I worry about.
It’s just that teams like UCLA and Arizona are really, really good and Cal has various athletic limits when they come up against teams like that, and that’s just kinda how life is now for the Cal MBB program.
For those of you who subscribe to Cal MBB survival option #4, this game at least gave us some nice glimpses of possible futures. Sam Alajiki got his 2nd career start and played the 2nd most minutes of his career, and took advantage by shooting 3-5 from deep:
Alajiki is now shooting a very silly 60% from three, which doesn’t represent his true shooting ability because 60% doesn’t represent anybody’s true shooting, but is strong evidence that he’s a plus shooter that Cal can count on within their offense.
Meanwhile, Marsalis Roberson played 12 minutes, nearly doubling his season total. He probably wouldn’t have gotten the playing time if the game had been closer, but I’d just as soon get a closer look at a player who maybe can contribute in the future. This steal and dunk against UCLA’s backups doesn’t mean a ton, but it was a nice moment of sunshine in an otherwise dour game:
Who knows? USC just got swept by Stanford, and they’re clearly the most beatable of the three powers atop the conference. And worst comes to worse, this gauntlet is over in two days.