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Cal Men's Basketball Weekend Review: An Exploration of 3-Point Defense
Opponents are shooting lights out from deep against the Bears - is it bad luck or bad defense?
I would grade this as a ‘weak contest.’
On Thursday at around lunchtime, Cal was beaten badly in Colorado. The Buffs are very good this year and are typically even better at home in the mountains, so the final result was not a surprise. However, one stat from the game stood out to me: Colorado shot 12-21 from three.
By itself, that’s eye opening. Shooting better than 50% on a high volume is unusual. But Colorado’s long distance shooting helped plunge Cal to 334th in the nation (out of 345 teams playing this year) in three point percentage defense. Cal’s opponents have shot an absurd 41.6% from behind the arc this year.
This isn’t exactly a new problem either. Cal’s opponents shot very well from 3 last year as well. And since this trend became clear earlier in the year, I’ve been wondering why Cal’s opponents are shooting so well from behind the arc.
For what it’s worth, the historic record would suggest that Mark Fox’s defensive system isn’t the problem. Below is how Mark Fox’s teams have performed at 2 and 3 pt. defense over his entire coaching history, with the double lines indicating different teams:
Since the years are clipped form the image, it runs from the 2020-21 at the top on down, with the double lines splitting out between Cal, Georgia, and Nevada. Across 14 seasons prior to coming to Berkeley, Fox-coached teams have typically been average to above average at 3P% defense. And yet over the last two seasons it’s been ugly.
So if it’s not the scheme, what’s the deal? Well, let’s walk through every single 3 point shot that Colorado (and subsequently Utah) attempted over the weekend. I’m going to grade each shot as one of the four following:
Strong contest - The Cal defender is very near to the shooter and his defensive action is directly bothering the shot in some fashion.
Weak contest - The Cal defender is closing the shot out and the shooter is likely aware of the defender, but the shot is clean.
Open - There’s a Cal defender in the area and the shooter can’t wait around, but the shot is easy to get off.
Wide open - Nobody’s home, and the shooter has all day to set up his shot.
Cal 3 point defense vs. Colorado
Anticevich loses his man a little bit worrying either about the ball handler or about a potential screen. Schwartz (44% shooter) steps up. Wide open, GOOD
A drive and kick that Betley has reasonably well covered, though he pulls up on his close out attempt, giving space for Horne (43%) to get his shot off. Weak contest, MISS
ASIDE: Some random Pac-12 network color commentator says “Mark Fox has really created some toughness on the defensive end.” This, of course, is in reference to the team that is in last place in the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency, and AS he’s saying this McKinley Wright slices through Cal’s defense and sets up an easy bucket for a teammate. He also has no idea how to pronounce Anticevich, who has only been in the Pac-12 for :checks notes: four season! People get paid money to say these things!
Colorado gets a steal and Horne leaks to the corner for a 3, that Anticevich closes down for a semi-contest. This play isn’t a good measure of Cal’s half court defense. Weak contest, MISS
Schwartz takes a deep wing 3. Foreman was on him on the outside, but Schwartz has 6 inches on him to help get the shot up. Strong contest, MISS
Walker (52% in a small sample) is left WIDE open on the wing. Kelly was initially on Walker before leaving him to guard Battey in the post, which was either a mistake or a missed switch. The power of a stretch 4/5. Wide open, GOOD
This time Celestine has Walker, but he sees Battey coming into the paint and defends him, even though Kelly is on his way to play post defense. Unclear assignments/freshman confusion? Wide open, GOOD
Horne gets a pretty open wing shot, in part because Cal is in zone and there’s confusion on if the wing 3 was Hyder’s responsibility or Celestine’s. Open, MISS
Colorado gets a rebound, Horne doesn’t even move, and the exact same problem happens again. I’m leaning towards this being on Hyder, who is shading too far away. Celestine’s responsibility is pretty clearly the corner 3 and he has no prayer of contesting Horne’s wing shot, try as he might. Open, GOOD
There’s something off about this play. Betley and Brown attempt to trap Wright towards the sideline. As they do this, the man Betley was guarding rolls to the bucket. Lars picks up that guy and leaves his original assignment, Walker, who is heading to the top of the arc. I think this is the right decision, I’d rather leave somebody wide open from 3 than wide open under the basket. Wright easily passes over the trap to Walker. Why did we try to trap a senior point guard? Wide open, GOOD
Colorado sorta gets out in transition after a turnover in the paint. Except Cal has 4 guys behind the play, so this is really about getting set defensively. Nobody picks up Daniels (40%) and he’s wide open, GOOD
Cal is in man-to-man, and Betley is on Schwartz, who heads to the corner . . . but Betley helps off of him for reasons I can’t quite piece together, and stays in the paint. Corner 3, wide open, MISS
Cal goes into a token 3/4 court press to try to slow Colorado down, and when the Buffs pass half court it appears that Cal is going to play zone, but Makale Foreman plays man, and follows what he thinks is his assignment into the corner. The space he leaves is completely vacant, leaving Wright wide open. GOOD
The Pac-12 network rebroadcast I watched skipped over this 3. GOOD
This is a transition shot, with Wright heading up court and drawing attention only to kick to Daniels for a corner 3. Wide open, GOOD
Brown follows as Schwartz dribbles along the baseline into the corner, and when Schwartz hands off to Parquet and Parquet starts driving, Brown briefly considers helping Hyder guard Parquet on the drive . . . only for Parquet to shovel the ball back to a now-open Schwartz for an open corner 3. Open, GOOD
Colorado is in semi-transition, and Betley IDs Parquet as his assignment as Parquet receives a pass at the top of the key, but for some reason Betley doesn’t close him out, and Parquet has a 3 from the top of the key. Open, MISS
Colorado is again in semi-transition. Schwartz runs to the corner, nobody from Cal really picks him up, he gets the ball, he’s open. Brown goes for a pointless late closeout, but the damage is already done. Open, GOOD
Wright, feeling his oats after a dominant game, steps into an unassisted 3 with Hyder’s arm in his face for a solid contest. Strong contest, MISS
Colorado sends a skip pass across the court to a man guarded by Anticevich. Betley comes off the wing to help, leaving his own man open. Colorado’s back-ups are in getting up open 3s. Open, GOOD
DJ Thorpe is guarding freshman Da Silva in the paint. Da Silva leaks out to the corner and attempts a 3 after Thorpe doesn’t follow. Da Silva was 0-5 entering the game, his is probably the type of shot you’re comfortable allowing. Wide open, MISS
O’Brien, hunting his 2nd garbage time 3, launches a shot over a contesting Celestine. Strong contest, MISS
Cal 3 point defense vs. Utah
Note: I screwed up my DVR of this game and thus missed Utah’s first four 3 point attempts of the game (2-4). Oops, my bad!
Hyder goes underneath a screen, allowing Rylan Jones (career 37%) to get off a shot. Hyder recovered reasonably well, though going under the screen is risky. Weak contest, MISS.
Lars is guarding Timmy Allen, who is a career 27% 3 point shooter. This is the kind of guy you’re supposed to leave open. Lars does. Wide open, GOOD.
Utah has a baseline out of bounds, and Cal appears to be in some kind of zone. They leave Timmy Allen all alone a the top of the arc. I don’t think this was exactly what the defense was trying to do, but he’s the right guy to leave alone. Open, MISS.
Utah is in semi-transition, and before the Cal defense is set the guy leading the brake shovels it to a trailing Rylan Jones. Open, MISS
Hyder is caught helping inside off of Alphonso Plummer, who is probably Utah’s best 3 point shooter. Weak contest, GOOD.
This time Celestine is on Timmy Allen, and is sagging off hard to help in the key. Again, this was probably part of the scout, and I think it’s the smart play. Wide open, GOOD
Plummer, coming off a screen, takes something of a wild step back 3 with Hyder in his face. I think Utah was trying to get a 2-for-1, which kinda worked, but this shot was trash. Strong contest, MISS
Betley goes underneath a screen on Utah freshman Pelle Larsson (8-15 from deep entering the game). Probably not a guy you should go underneath a screen against. Weak contest, MISS
Brown goes for a steal and does deflect the ball, but Utah gets the ball back and now Brown is out of position. Kelly helps off of Riley Battin (career 32%), who gets off a corner 3. Open, MISS
A goofy play - A Ute gets stuck in no man’s land on a baseline drive with the shot clock running out. There are two dudes open on the outside, but the pass is crummy and it gives Betley time to close out as the Utah player is forced to throw up a prayer that Betley blocks. Strong contest, MISS
Anticevich is guarding a post up, and Betley helps off his man, at which point the posting player passing out to Larsson for a 3. Weak contest, MISS
Kuany and Anticevich have a moment of confusion regarding whether or not to switch on a screen, and it gives Battin the space to shoot. Open, MISS
Utah runs a play specifically to get Plummer a wing 3. Brown chases him through 2 screens and does a reasonable job defending a tough assignment. Weak contest, MISS
A crazy exchange of batted balls and quick shots leads to Utah in transition, and they find Plummer wide open on the wing. Wide open, MISS
Utah runs a screen and gets a switch that’s in their favor. When Kelly and Betley try to switch back onto their original assignments, Larsson has space as Betley tries to recover and shoots from the wing. Weak contest, GOOD
Foreman is shading inside to help and the Utah driver notices and kicks to Ian Martinez (a freshman, 3-16 from three entering the game). Weak contest, MISS
Larsson uses a screen to get a step on Anticevich, and Foreman comes down from the corner to help. Larsson kicks to Jones for the corner three. Weak contest, MISS
Utah is in desperation mode, and so their best shooter forces a shot with Hyder in his face. Strong contest, MISS
Utah gets a steal and Plummer gets another chance on the wing as Foreman tries to close out. Weak contest, MISS
Charted 3s vs. Colorado
9 wide open (7-9)
6 open (4-6)
2 weak contests (0-2)
3 strong contests (0-3)
Charted 3s vs. Utah
3 wide open (2-3)
4 open (0-4)
9 weak contests (2-7)
3 strong contests (0-3)
Obviously, when one team is on a fast break because of a steal, it’s often easy to get an open 3. But Cal often had trouble in situations that shouldn’t really be transition opportunities, like after a missed shot when Cal had most or all of their defenders back. This was more a question of who’s guarding who or somebody not getting back fast enough.
When to help, when not to help?
Cal’s guards help inside a lot. I’m assuming that this is something that they are coached to do. Sometimes, it’s a good idea and necessary, like if somebody would otherwise have a wide open driving lane to the bucket or if you’re helping off a player who isn’t a shooting threat. Other times, the help wasn’t necessary and the defender was leaving a dangerous shooter open.
Are we switching screens or not? If I’m the wing defender in zone, is this guy my assignment, or is it the guy defending the corner? These kinds of issues popped up more than a few times.
Opponent ability matters, in multiple ways
Colorado’s offense looked spectacular, and they made the Bears look very, very bad. Honestly, I think the Bears were looking demoralized at some points in the 2nd half. But when you have a senior who is the best point guard in the conference and seven dudes who shoot 34% or better from deep, you’re going to make a lot of teams look bad. Colorado almost never took bad shots, probably in part because when everybody is a viable offensive threat they never had to settle for anything less.
Utah, meanwhile, is significantly more mediocre offensively, and threes aren’t really their thing anyway. With fewer threats on the floor, Utah didn’t get as many open looks, and as one of the weakest shooting teams in the conference they missed a fair share of their good looks anyway.
So is Cal’s bad 3 point defense bad luck, or bad defense?
Well, charting 40 three point attempts allowed isn’t really going to give us a definitive answer, but as always the case, it’s a little of both. I think Mark Fox’s defensive track record compared to what’s happened at Cal is an indication that there’s at least a little bit of bad luck involved.
But I also think that there are some specific things about this Cal team that might be contributing to the goofy numbers we’ve seen. For one, there are schematic trade offs being made - Cal helps off a lot, and those choices have consequences. I also think there’s a case to be made that this group of players doesn’t have a great deal of on-court understanding . . . which probably makes sense. Three players in the rotation are brand new to this season, three other rotation members have missed games with injury, and the entire team has had limited practice time compared to other seasons. Some of it is likely personnel as well - Makale Foreman and Ryan Betley are guys known primarily for offense/shooting, and probably don’t have the kind of size that would lend toward strongly contesting 3 point shots.
While I don’t think this team is ever going to be a team that wins with defense, the Utah game was a reasonable example of how Cal’s opponents won’t have their best shooting night against the Bears every damned time. And if the Bears get Matt Bradley back and healthy at some point, they should have enough offense to pick up some wins when their opponent isn’t shooting above 40% from downtown.