USC pulls away late to beat Cal
USC's offensive athleticism is ultimately too much for the Bears to handle
Competence, fundamentals, and execution are valuable skills. The Bears have parlayed a stiff defense, great defensive rebounding, and deliberate, safe offense into an unexpectedly solid start to the season.
But those skills only get you so far, and against the best teams on Cal’s schedule, it hasn’t been enough. Florida scored inside and outside at will. Seton Hall bullied the Bears to 30 free throw attempts. And now USC used their impressive array of speed, strength, and athleticism to make life tough on Cal’s defenders.
For 30 minutes, the Bears managed to hang in with the top 10, undefeated Trojans anyway. Cal got just enough shots, and hit just enough of their mid-range jumpers, to hang around. It felt like Cal might be just a couple three pointers away from stealing a huge home win.
With 6:30 left, a transition scramble led to an open 3 for Grant Anticevich, but the shot rimmed out. USC’s Drew Peterson hit a tough fadeaway on the other end, and Cal’s last big shot to keep the game close slipped away. Instead, down the stretch, it was USC that hit some 3s while Cal’s shooting melted away, and USC’s lead ballooned to double digits quickly.
The story of the game was USC’s ability to score on the previous stout Cal defense. The Trojans went 27-48 on their 2 point shots with a whopping 50 points in the paint. That plus 10 USC offensive rebounds on 28 missed shots amply demonstrated the extent to which USC dominated inside.
Add it all up and USC scored 77 points in 64 possessions, good for 1.2 points/possession, the most Cal has allowed all season long. They did it without much three point shooting (4-10) or free throw attempts (11-13). Just a constant stream of shot attempts in the paint.
I don’t think it was anything schematic, it’s just that USC has a bunch of dudes who are some combination of fast, strong, and lengthy, and all of Cal’s defenders really struggled to stay in front. Early in both halves, different Cal starters picked up early fouls, and it became clear that USC had the athleticism to get to the spot first and either score or draw a foul.
Is it disappointing that Cal’s biggest strengths, defense* and defensive rebounding, couldn’t hold up? Sure, yeah. But USC is a top 10 team for a reason, and I don’t think what happened against USC will tell you a ton about how Cal will fare against everybody else in the Pac-12 other than Arizona and UCLA.
*Sam Alajiki didn’t play for unexplained reasons, though he was in the building so it presumably isn’t COVID. I don’t think his absence is the reason Cal’s defense struggled, but having him off the bench for 10-15 minutes as an energy defender would have been nice.
Two things that are simultaneously true:
-Cal nearly scored a point/possession against a legit top 25 defense
-Cal took 54 shots. Of those 54 shots, zero were dunks, 7 were layups, and 17 were 3 pointers. 30 were various midrange shots or hooks (the play-by-play data doesn’t distinguish).
To be clear, Cal’s offense isn’t particularly good. They’re roughly middle of the road nationally and certainly below average in the Pac-12. But their shot distribution pattern in this game specifically, and over the course of the season generally, would suggest an offense that’s disastrous.
But they’re not! Grant Anticevich and Jordan Shepherd have hit their jumpers with just enough frequency to get away with it. Andre Kelly doesn’t get many dunks or layups, but he does get lots of shots in the general vicinity of the basket and hits all of them at a high rate.
I fear that the offense may fall off a cliff in Pac-12 play with the kind of shots Cal can create . . . but we’re now four games in and the Cal offense has been, essentially, fine. Not an offense that will win you games by itself, but enough to be competitive when you play good defense.
I don’t quite understand it, but I hope it lasts!
I try not to get worked up over things that are, ultimately, minor. With two minutes left, USC was at roughly 99% chance to win:
Top 10 teams with double digit leads with two minutes left lose very, very rarely. So whatever strategy you try to use to come back are likely to fail regardless of how well you execute it.
But . . . when you’re facing a team that is 355th in the nation in free throw shooting, and you can make them shoot the one-and-one three times, and they are actively trying to run clock, which of these is the better option:
Option 1: foul immediately, save time, make USC shoot the one-and-one, have a ~40 chance of getting the ball back without USC scoring.
Option 2: let USC run 25 seconds off the clock and there’s a 50/50 chance that they score anyway.
Option 1 is superior in literally every facet.
Mark Fox chose option 2, and USC closed out the game easily.
I don’t want to complain about Mark Fox’s coaching - I liked that he let the Bears get out in transition and push tempo a little early, I like that he let Jordan Shepherd play through some early foul trouble, and I mostly just like that he’s finally fixed Cal’s defense. But his end-game decision making has never been something I’ve been very fond of, and today’s was an egregious example.
We were all hoping to for Cal to unexpectedly pop up with, if not an upset, a close competitive loss that again suggested that the Bears are destined to exceed expectations this year, and losing decisively to USC is naturally going to dampen that.
But ultimately, this season was never going to be about competing with teams on USC’s level. This stretch of the season is going to be rough, but the games that will actually tell us how much progress Cal has or hasn’t made are yet to come.