Inconsistency plagues Cal basketball

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When did this team become so frustrating to watch? For one reason or another, the Cal men’s basketball team keeps coming out slow in games.

Against Stanford, the Bears trailed by 18 with 6:32 to go in the first half. And that deficit is hardly an isolated incident. Against Arizona State, Cal fell behind by 16 early in the second. Against the Bruins, the deficit was as high as 19. And when the Bears played the Trojans, USC led by as many as 12 in the first.

This trend is not contained to losses. Cal faced early holes against Washington, Washington State and Oregon State, too. Even though the Bears prevailed in those games, the trend had already been set: Cal likes to start off slow.

Other than the first few games of the Pac-12 season, Cal has trailed by significant deficits in nearly every Pac-12 game. The only game in recent memory that the Bears started off strong in was the upset over Arizona, which now looks all the more improbable, given the fact that the team is sandwiched between disappointing conference losses.

Cal’s slow starts have manifested themselves in a number of ways, but one thing that has been common is lazy defense. This was apparent in the recent Stanford game, in which the Cardinal made six of their first eight 3-point attempts. Stanford should have made seven of those attempts, but Dwight Powell missed a wide-open shot 2 1/2 minutes into the game.

At the beginning of the game, Cal sold out to defend the paint and forced the Cardinal to win from behind the arc. This strategy made sense because Stanford is not an elite 3-point-shooting team. But it stopped making sense when Stanford started draining three after three.

Cal eventually abandoned that strategy, but the damage had already been done. Once the Bears started defending the perimeter, Stanford never made another 3-pointer in the game. But the Cardinal didn’t need to. They already had a lead and were able to defend it with ease.

Keeping their lead became even easier because of the rate the Bears fouled the Cardinal. Cal committed eight fouls in the first half and 16 in the second. Cardinal players drove to the hoop easily, and when their possessions didn’t end up in points, they often ended in trips to the charity stripe.

Cal’s interior defense, led by Richard Solomon and David Kravish, is normally stout. But against Stanford, the Bears only allowed 24 points in the paint. But considering that both Kravish and Solomon picked up four fouls each, it’s easy to see how the paint defense failed even though Stanford wasn’t always able to put the ball through the hoop. In addition, Ricky Kreklow, who often plays like a forward even though he is listed as a guard, also added four fouls of his own.

Stanford took 35 free-throw attempts in this game. While it’s easy for Cal fans to shake their heads and mutter something about “Pac-12 refs” under their breaths, this game definitely featured plays in which Cal players fouled in lieu of good defense.

And a final overarching theme of the Stanford game was turnovers. Cal committed 13 turnovers, which Stanford converted directly into 21 points. And few of those turnovers came off fluke plays. The Bears often made sloppy, long passes that Cardinal players easily intercepted.

Turnovers, open 3-pointers and fouls. What could be more frustrating than that? Yet that has been the identity of this Cal team over the last few weeks, with the win over Arizona as the exception.

It’s amazing that Cal didn’t fall into any of these pitfalls against the Wildcats, but for four quarters, the Bears were able to hold on. It seems inexplicable now, given their performance before and after that game.

But that win over Arizona shows what the Bears are capable of when they are at their best. Unless they shore up the team’s glaring holes, Cal may end up as a team that misses the NCAA Tournament all together.

Riley McAtee covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee