Washington State Blows Out Cal Men's Basketball

The Bears follows up their best win of the season with their worst loss, falling 82-51 in Pullman

Washington State entered their game against Cal with the unequivocal worst offense in the Pac-12. The Cougars aren’t a good shooting team, particularly in the paint, and they turn the ball over frequently. They had managed to score 1 point/possession or better in just 7 of 22 games, and their best mark against Pac-12 competition was 1.14 points/possession against UCLA. Even that performance was almost entirely a crazy good 3 point shooting night, as Washington State shot just 37% on their 2 point shots and turned the ball over 22% of the time.

Worse, Washington State was still without Isaac Bonton, their point guard and go-to offensive player. Without him, Washington State had lost at home to tied-for-last-place Washington this past weekend.

Washington State scored 1.32 points/possession despite shutting things down for the last 6 or 7 minutes of a game that had been decided long ago.

Even for a Cal defense that had taken a pretty clear step back from last year, this was an alarming performance. Because it wasn’t just that Washington State shot lights out from 3. It’s that a Washington State team that can’t finish at the basket shot 18-35 from inside the arc. It’s that a Washington State team that turns the ball over more frequently that any other team in the conference was so comfortable that they turned it over a season low 7 times. It’s that this Cal defense performed worse against Washington State than Northwestern State or Idaho.

It’s little things. Cal is still going underneath on almost every single screen, which leaves the ball handler open for a free shot at a 3 pointer. Against a team like Wazzu, that can’t typically finish inside but CAN get hot from 3, this frustrated me. Teams have been taking advantage all year long, and Washington State took advantage just like everybody else. Except that on multiple occasions the ball handler elected to drive anyway despite the Cal defender going underneath the screen . . . and the ball handler still managed to get to the bucket and finish. What’s the point of running a ball screen defense specifically designed to protect against the drive if we’re giving up a bunch of open 3s and it’s not protecting against the drive?

It’s here where we must acknowledge the performance of Noah Williams, the Washington State sophomore who was the guy frequently toying with Cal ball screen defense. He’s an excellent shooter who went 4-6 from deep. He’s not a great finisher inside, but went 8-14 on his 2 point shots against the Bears. Joel Brown started the game guarding Williams, but as the game went on and Williams kept getting hotter, Mark Fox threw Jalen Celestine and even a recovering-from-illness Matt Bradley at him. It didn’t particularly matter, as Williams put up an absurd 32 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists in just 31 minutes. Between made baskets and assists Williams nearly accounted for more points himself (47) than Cal did as a team (51).

Cal is now in a neck-and-neck race with Washington to the bottom for worst defense in the Pac-12. But here’s what I’m concerned about. Here’s the points/possession allowed by Cal’s defense in each of the last four seasons:

2017-18: 1.11
2018-19: 1.11
2019-20: 1.05
2020-21: 1.11

Mark Fox’s success as a head coach has generally come on the defensive side of the ball. In year 1, that reputation appeared accurate as Cal meaningfully improved as a defensive team. In year 2, despite a roster with plenty of continuity, Cal has slid back to the exact same level of defensive performance seen under Wyking Jones.

It’s appropriate that Cal is essentially tied with Washington of all teams for worst defense in conference play. Washington is also coached by a man, Mark Hopkins, known primarily for defensive coaching. Cal will face off against the Huskies and Mark Hopkins on Saturday in a game that will likely decide who finishes last in the Pac-12.

Meanwhile, both Cal and Washington fans are probably wondering something similar these days: if our defense-first coaches can’t build a good defense, why should we have hope for the larger trajectory of their tenure?

A note on randomness

Over the years, one of my opinions that has only grown stronger with time is that almost everybody underrates the role of random chance in sports. And this stupid pandemic season has provided some of the very best evidence. Many teams are playing back-to-back games against the same team to minimize travel exposure risk and to get games in. As a result, we have multiple examples of two games played under identical circumstances, without any time in between to practice a new game strategy.

Here’s how Dennis Gates’ Cleveland State Vikings did in back-to-back games vs. Wright State:

Here’s what Army did in back-to-back games vs. Colgate:

These games (with point swings of 38 and 46 respectively) are on the extreme end, but most of mid-major conferences have moved to this kind of schedule this year and you can find goofy examples like this in each one. UC Davis went down to San Diego and got blasted by UCSD by 20, then won the next night by 7. Boise St. went to Fort Collins and took a 22 point loss to Colorado State, then came back two days later and built a 23 point 2nd half lead and cruised to an easy win.

It was for this reason that I sounded some mild tones of caution after Cal beat Colorado, and it’s for this reason that I’m not shocked that the Bears could beat a team that was in Pac-12 title contention by 9 in one game, and lose to the 10th best team in the conference by 31 points just a few days later. Today’s game was almost certainly a combination of Cal playing near the bottom of their ability level, and Washington State playing right at the top of theirs.

It’s just that the range from ‘playing your best’ and ‘playing your worst’ is much greater, and more subject to random chance, than many are willing to admit. Sports are random. College sports probably more so. One game by itself doesn’t tell you very much about how good or bad a team is, and you’ve got to look at the whole.

In two weeks it will be time to start really examining that whole. It’s not going to be very fun.