Week 1 Recap: Cal Women's Basketball on the Rebound, Cal Men's Basketball Stumbles
Jayda Curry has landed, and the rest of the Pac-12 is on notice. Plus, will the Cal offense go as far as Jordan Shepherd can take it?
For 2021-22, Cal basketball is all about an attempt to rebuild. That’s just the reality you have to face when both teams finished 12th last year, and both teams are picked to finish 12th again. How far up can you climb in one season?
To answer that question optimistically, let’s start with WBB.
I’ll admit to being just a little bit miffed about the WBB media picking Cal to finish 12th this year. Last season’s 12th place finish was entirely about injuries that decimated the roster generally and the guard rotation specifically such that Cal simply couldn’t play normal basketball. Did Cal, when heathy, really have a roster of talent that’s 12th best in the conference?
After two games, the answer to that question appears to be an emphatic no, and that means it’s time to introduce you to Jayda Curry.
See, Cal already had plenty of intriguing talent on the roster. Players like their four ESPN top 100 recruits who were freshmen last year. Or players like Cailyn Crocker and Jazlen Green who had promising freshmen campaigns two years ago and missed last year injured. Or two intriguing grad transfers, Jadyn Bush (Harvard) and Karisma Ortiz (Texas).
And yet it’s an unheralded freshman guard who received a handful of mid-to-low-tier Pac-12 offers who has caught everybody’s attention and may just be the key missing ingredient (no pun intended) in Cal’s offense.
Ahead of the season the word out of camp was that Curry was a big time shooter, and from two games worth of evidence that looks spot on, as Curry is already 5/9 from three and 13/15 from the free throw line (plus 4/8 and 7/7 from the line in Cal’s two exhibition games). If Curry were just a great shooter, that would already be a huge addition to the roster, as shooting has been a limiting factor on pretty much every Cal roster for . . . well, since I started following the team closely back in 2008/09.
But Curry has been more than that - she’s leading Cal in minutes and acting as a secondary ball handler. She’s slashing to the rim in aggressive (nearly reckless!) fashion and finishing, while drawing a bucket of fouls. As best I can tell, she’s played good defense.
Now, for the necessary caveats. This is a two game sample, against teams that aren’t representative of the level of competition Cal will face in the best conference in the nation. I wouldn’t bet on Curry to continue to lead the team in scoring and minutes.
But regardless of how her freshman campaign plays out, it’s clear that Cal has found an underappreciated gem in the last recruiting cycle, a player who perhaps fell through the cracks in a year when the pandemic made scouting players tougher than usual.
And now, as a result the Bears suddenly appear to have depth where they didn’t have players period last year. Players were playing 35 or 40 minutes last year are in role player spots now. An injury would not be catastrophic (i.e. Karisma Ortiz has an injury that has held her out of the first two games and Cal has been fine).
And as a result the Bears have two easy wins over teams that a good Pac-12 team should beat. Nothing earth-shattering, but after last year I won’t be taking a single win for granted.
The WBB team will be back in action tomorrow against Utah State, and I’m really hoping the live stream will be better than what we got in the season opener, because I want to see more Curry bombs.
For the Cal men, there’s the general goal to rebuild of course. But there’s the specific need to rebuild the offense without Matt Bradley around.
Bradley was a very specific type of valuable player - he was capable of taking a huge offensive burden while still playing efficient basketball. For a team that otherwise struggled on offense, having the luxury to hand the ball to Bradley and let him create his own shot when nothing else was working helped a great deal.
So, with Matt Bradley gone, do you hand that exact role over to someone else, or do you restructure the offense around balance, trying to distribute shots across the roster?
If two games are any indication, Cal has chosen the first option, and Charlotte transfer Jordan Shepherd is Cal’s new go-to-guy.
That worked reasonably well in Cal’s first game - Shepherd got hot from 3 and took care of the ball, ending with a solid 27 points on 20 shots. The problem was that the rest of the team didn’t do much offensively and Cal struggled defensively.
But against UNLV, a team with a more effective defense, Shepherd again played the go-to role, but this time to less effect. His 3 point shot wasn’t falling, his drives were ineffective, and he was more turnover prone.
After just two games, Shepherd’s usage rate is 32.5%, which is actually a touch higher than what Matt Bradley put up last year. And I’ll be honest - I don’t understand it as a coaching choice. Shepherd is a solid enough player, but he struggled to score efficiently in a lower volume role playing in Conference USA over the past two years. It’s hard to see how asking Shepherd to take way more shots is going to work against Pac-12 competition.
And honestly, what I saw late in the game against UNLV was concerning. It would be one thing if Shepherd’s looks came in the flow of the offense. But what I saw was Joel Brown running down the court, dribbling toward the wing, and handing the ball off to Shepherd, who would try to drive around a screen and create. It didn’t really look like there was a ton going on other than relying on one guy to create his own shot around a screen.
Maybe I’m missing something - the stream was a little choppy and I haven’t rewatched anything. Maybe this isn’t the plan - there are guys out injured (Makale Foreman, DJ Thorpe, Marsalis Roberson, and Monty Bowser) that perhaps were supposed to take more of the shooting burden. If this is the plan - if the Cal coaching staff came in to this season thinking that their best bet was to have Shepherd play a ton of minutes and shoot the ball 35% of the time when he’s on the court, then Cal might be in an even rougher spot than I thought.
Regardless, it’s clear that Cal’s ability to compete will depend on their ability to play great defense, because the offense is going to be a challenge. That was really the reason why the season opening loss to UCSD was so concerning, and why Cal’s loss on the road to UNLV was a bummer but at least a step in the right direction. Allowing 1.11 points/possession at home to the Tritons is bad regardless of any context. Holding SDSU to .89 points/possession in Vegas is a sign that maybe Cal can win some games that are played in the 50s.
Is trying to win rock fights my preference? Nah, but it’s better than the current alternatives.