Cal men’s basketball’s defense needs to emerge from hibernation

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There’s no more important time of the year for college basketball teams than the home stretch of conference play. The nonconference games of the previous year are distant memories. The results of early-season conference tilts can be deemed flukes or slow starts. But those late-season matchups are played under the scrutinizing eye of the bracketologists and bracket-lovers alike, lending an extra level of importance to each game.

During this crucial stretch — when the incentive to play well is at its highest — the Cal men’s basketball  team has floundered. After starting their Pac-12 slate with an unblemished 5-0 record, the Bears descended into a 4-8 skid, winning back-to-back contests just once and embarking on two separate three-game losing streaks. With their slim chances of reaching the tournament at risk with a loss in a matchup with Colorado on Saturday, Cal eked out a 66-65 overtime win. Still, the Bears likely find themselves on the outside looking in as Selection Sunday fast approaches. To reach the NCAA tournament, they’ll probably have to win at least one game at the Pac-12 tournament, which starts Wednesday, though they don’t play until Thursday. And winning that game will require a return to the way they were playing near the start of the new year.

So what’s changed? Mostly, the play of the defense. After holding opponents to an average of 67.8 points per game during that halcyon five-game stretch, the Bears allowed 75.3 ppg over the next eight. The most embarrassing effort came in a loss to USC in late January, when Cal allowed a dreadful 1.17 points per possession to the worst team in the conference.

The Bears need to return to their stingy defensive past in order to do some damage in the Pac-12 tournament and therefore allow themselves a shot at attending the Big Dance. What that requires, for the most part, is a return to defending the three-point line. They held their first five Pac-12 opponents to a 31.6 percent mark from distance, a figure that would rank second in the conference if maintained. The next eight games saw Cal allow its opposition to pour in treys at a 39.3 percent clip, which sunk them all the way down to the third worst 3-point defense in the Pac-12.

It’s hard to pinpoint a single reason for the drop in the team’s perimeter protection. Part of it might just be dumb luck. Part of it might be the quality of its opponents over that initial stretch. The main issue seemed to be a lack of defensive discipline, as the Bears appeared to be missing rotations that led to an influx of wide-open threes.

Other issues arose on the defensive side of the ball as the season wore on. Cal ranks among the worst teams in the Pac-12 at forcing turnovers. When teams began to pile on points thanks to their lax 3-point defense, the Bears struggled to put together runs to counter because of their inability to generate easy points from steals and blocks. Cal was also unlucky in some respects; teams shoot 73.7 percent from the free-throw line against them, which is among the highest marks in the country. Obviously, a team has no control over the opposing team’s free-throw efficacy.

Outside of praying for mercy to the free-throw gods, there might not be much the Bears can do before their Thursday matchup with (probably) Colorado. It’s hard to break habits, especially this late in the season. Capture some of that early-season magic for a couple games, though, and Cal will in all likelihood find itself cheering loudly when Selection Sunday finally arrives in less than a fortnight.

Michael Rosen covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.