Season snapshots: Cal men’s basketball begins to stumble

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Patrick Chong/Staff

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With a game scheduled against the Pac-12 bottom-dweller USC, many expected Cal men’s basketball team to move to 6-0 in conference play. Nobody could have anticipated a dismal defeat at the hands of such an underdog.

The Bears were handed their first conference loss with USC’s 77-69 upset victory on Jan. 22, marking the beginning of a slow spiral out of March Madness consideration. The loss was sparked by many of the struggles that had plagued the squad for most of the year, including an out-of-sync offense and porous defense.

USC forward Nikola Jovanovic exploded for a career-high 23 points on 8-for-10 shooting against the Bears, while Cal big men Richard Solomon and David Kravish were held to 19 combined points after averaging a combined 33.8 points before the game. Senior USC guard Pe’Shon Howard, who spent the night slicing through the Bears’ perimeter defense and finished with 10 assists, found Jovanovic for the game-winning dunk with less than two minutes left.

“They beat us at point of attack, and that makes it really hard to defend at point of attack,” said head coach Mike Montgomery after the game. “When the bigs came over to help — which wasn’t often enough — they’d drop it to the big because we weren’t back. Defensively, we were abysmal.”

Entering the game, the Trojans had lost five consecutive games by an average of 22.4 points. But against the Bears in January, USC dominated the paint, outscoring Cal 44-26 and shooting 56 percent in the first half. Cal also allowed an obscene 1.17 points per possession, leaving the Galen Center after gifting USC its first conference victory.

“They beat us in every phase of the game,” Montgomery said after the game. “They beat us fair and square. They played better. They had people perform better. They came out with a sense of urgency, and we were a step behind the whole night.”

The Bears’ lackluster season could be attributed to a handful of miscues but perhaps none more significant than their waning defensive play. After holding their first five conference foes to 31.6 percent from the arc, that number ballooned to 39.3 percent in their next eight games, pinning the team to the third worst 3-point defense in the Pac-12.

After Cal’s brutal loss, most hoped the Bears could find a way to bounce back against UCLA in their next match. But Cal dropped its second straight Pac-12 game to the Bruins, 76-64, starting a losing streak that would snowball into a conference record that would barely climb over .500.

Conference play, the most important stretch of the college basketball season, became an unequivocal disappointment for the Bears. The stretch was marked by two separate three-game losing streaks, including an ugly 63-59 loss to the mediocre Utes at home. Cal’s narrow lead was erased by Utah’s prowess on the offensive glass, with the Utes turning 13 offensive rebounds into 15 second-chance points. The Bears would once again let a winnable game slip out of their grasp.

The lone bright spot of the second half of the season was an anomalous victory over then-No. 1 Arizona, but the Bears proceeded to lose eight of their last 13 games and watched their hopes for time at the Big Dance evaporate. The team developed a habit of playing lackadaisical defense and falling behind early as the season progressed. This is a lethal combination for any team, let alone one that had to claw their way into the NCAA tournament conversation.

Contact Michelle Lee at [email protected].