WHERE THIS TEAM STANDSLet's go back to the days before Christmas 2006. Cal had just announced that DeVon Hardin was out for 8-12 weeks. Cal stood at 8-3 against a fairly soft pre-season schedule and had suffered an inexplicable home loss to San Diego. It was increasingly clear that Nikola Knezevic would not return for a long time, if at all, in 2007. Ahead was a road trip to Chicago to face DePaul, and then Tucson, Tempe and Palo Alto. Things looked bleak.
Raise your hand if you thought, forty days later, Cal would still be standing at 12-7, having won at Stanford and against Washington, and having given the #9 team in the nation all they could handle on the road. Even more important, it feels like Cal is improving as it adjusts to life without the big guy. For that, we've got to give Ben Braun a lot of credit. He's the same coach as he's been for the previous nine years - conservative motion offense, big emphasis on defensive fundamentals, solid, unspectacular. But this relatively young, short-handed team is improving under his watch - that much is undeniable.
The Good - Building Confidence
Check out this quote from the Jonathan Okanes' writeup of the Oregon game in the CC Times:
"The balance was excellent for their team," Cal coach Ben Braun said. "It wasn't about stopping one or two guys. It wasn't one guy out there. It took everyone on their team to beat us today....If they are the ninth-ranked team in the country, we're one of the teams that's right there in the mix."Now Ben Braun doesn't really believe that. We don't believe that. There's an appreciable gap between super-talented Oregon and Ben's ragtag bunch of Bears. But we love that Ben uses his post-game presser to stoke the confidence of a team that needs every bit of it. Ben starts two freshmen, and one of them happens to be Cal's most important player in Ryan Anderson. His wing, Omar Wilkes, has shown a frustrating tendency to shrink into his shell on the offensive end and not look for shots. Every one of the Bears knows that they dress nine scholarship players, and that they should be losing more often than they win.
After Hardin's injury, we wrote that we would judge Ben on the team's improvement; we worried that the team's confidence might evaporate in conference play. The above quote suggests that Ben is mindful of the need to buck his Bears up - we can't quantify what this means, but we'd guess it has something to do with Cal's play over the last two weeks.
The Good - Improved Rebounding
In this week's presser, Braun discussed Cal's recent improvement on the glass:
"A week ago, I challenged our team, I told them if we don't rebound we aren't going to win many games. We solved the rebound issue against Oregon State, we outrebounded them by four. Washington is the best rebounding team we will play, and we outrebounded them by (11). Giving up offensive rebounds and put-backs, and putting opponents at the foul line are ways we are giving points away."The Bears' improved team performance coincides precisely with this speech (we're not counting the Stanford win, which was due to Ayinde's incredible play and Stanford's generally poor effort).
The Pretty Good - Balance on Offense
Offensively, Cal has got to be more than a two-man show. Fortunately, there are signs in recent weeks that other Bears are stepping up with confidence. Theo Robertson, in particular, has looked much more comfortable on the offensive end, scoring 14 against UW and 19 in the loss to Oregon. Omar Wilkes is beginning to look for his shot, hoisting it up nine times against Oregon and 14 times against the Huskies. And the Bears would not have beaten Oregon State on the road without 13 points off the bench from sharp-shooting Eric Vierneisel.
How far can Cal go this year? As far as Theo, Omar and Eric can take them.
The Bad - Second Half Defense
Still, there are some intractable issues plaguing Cal on the defensive end. Coach Braun alluded to the numbers problem facing his short-handed Bears:
"If teams are making contested shots, you can live with it, we just have to accept that Oregon is one of the better shooting teams, especially when (Aaron) Brooks is on. We can give up lay-ups and fouls, which puts our team at a disadvantage or we can hold in and make teams beat us from the outside. I think we have got to play those percentages a little. Thus far, teams have knocked down some shots. If you change that and rush out hard and they throw in, our guys are in foul trouble they are going to the free throw line and scoring easy shots. Both Oregon State and Oregon hit some shots, and I don't know if we are going to take some of those away."I'm not sure I follow his logic with respect to Oregon, which doesn't have a dominant post game. I thought Cal was simply slow to get out on shooters in the 2nd half, which suggested fatigue and better ball movement by the Ducks. But his point in general is valid - the Bears have to protect Anderson from foul trouble, and this can lessen defensive intensity on the perimeter. Ben and the team deserve credit for distributing fouls efficiently (only two Golden Bears have fouled out in conference play - Wilkes and Christopher at ASU) while playing fairly effective defense.
Still, it's clear that Cal has a second-half issue. Since Hardin went down, the Bears have been outscored in the second half of every game except Washington. (Oddly, the Bears have smoked both overtime opponents - UW and ASU - in the extra period). The DePaul and Oregon games looked very similar, as Cal's sluggish reactions left shooter after shooter open on the perimeter. People focus on Hardin, but we could also really use Knezevic right about now.
The X Factor - Fatigue
Logic suggests that short-handed teams will tire as their seasons progress. If so, the Bears are doubly jinxed, since they rely on three freshmen who are getting their first exposure to the more physical brand of basketball at the D-1 level. But we're not so sure that Cal's 2nd half issues will extrapolate to the entire season. After all, it's late January and Cal has just played its best three-game stretch of the season. We'll have to wait to see whether the Bears can keep their intensity up over the remainder of conference play.
The Outlook - Hazy
Which is a good thing - we thought in late December that this team would be lucky to qualify for the NIT. Now it appears that the NIT is well within reach, and recent outcomes suggest that the Bears have an outside shot of sneaking into the NCAAs. We haven't run the math yet on what it will take to get into the tourney, but let's say that Cal has to win at least seven more games to have a shot. That would put the Bears at 11-9 in a tough conference, with 19 wins overall. Looking at the rest of the schedule, it's vital that the Bears get at least a split at home this weekend. A tall order against two ranked teams, but them's the breaks.