It feels like so long ago that it’s hard to believe it ever happened, but I promise, these Bears were, once upon a time, legitimately good. The date was Jan. 18, and the Cal men’s basketball team was one of the biggest surprises in the country. Thanks primarily to a stingy defense and surprising contributions from reserves Jordan Matthews and Jeff Powers, the Bears embarked on a five-game win streak. At 14-4 with a 5-0 conference record, Cal was well on its way to securing its third-straight NCAA tournament bid.
And then, without warning, Cal’s magic bean supply ran dry. On their annual LA roadtrip, the Bears fell to a last-place USC squad and were blown out by UCLA. It just got worse from there. Cal proceeded to drop eight of its next 12. The frustration culminated in a head-slappingly frustrating loss to Utah at home as tournament hopes hung in the balance. Those following the team’s arc over the past few months were left wondering exactly how a team that looked so good in January now resembled a chicken running around with its head cut off.
Turns out the answer isn’t too complicated. The stifling defense of those first five games just vanished. The offensive efficiency did decline slightly as both Ricky Kreklow and Jabari Bird battled lingering injuries and Richard Solomon regressed after a strong January. The real catalyst, however, was their play on the other side of the floor.
So, what changed? Mostly, the ability to defend the 3-point line. Cal started out Pac-12 play holding opponents to a 31.6 percent mark from distance. Over the next 12 games, that figure lept to 39.3 percent.
I went back and looked at the highlights of the Cal vs. UCLA game from Jan. 26, which happened near the start of Cal’s second-half slide, to try and figure out exactly how the Cal defense was allowing these 3-pointers. From those highlights, I found the Bruins’ 3-point proficiency came not as a result of bad on-ball defense or any physical limitations, but rather a lack of focus and discipline in transition.
With that, let’s go to the tape.
Tyrone Wallace possesses all the physical tools of a great defender. His 6-foot-5 frame and Gumby-like wingspan allow him to effectively contest shots from smaller guards. He’s also quick and strong and doesn’t give up much room on the ball when defending.
But he’s also prone to some bad habits on the defensive side, namely of the ball-watching variety. That becomes evident on UCLA’s fifth possession of the game. Above, you can see Wallace positioned just inside the three-point line as the Bruins come down court in semi-transition. Because Cal is in transition defense, Wallace ought to be tracking David Wear, who is lagging behind the play. Instead, Wallace is standing flat-footed, unaware of Wear’s impending presence, staring right at a dribbling Norman Powell.
When Powell passes the ball to Wear — who catches it about two feet away from the 3-point line — Wallace is completely out of position, standing at least seven or eight feet away in a stance that in no way resembles an athletic position. It takes him a second to realize Wear is his responsibility, and by the time he lunges out to contest the shot, Wear has already released a wide-open 3-pointer.
The onus of Wear’s openness isn’t completely on Wallace, though. The Bears’ defense is loaded heavily on the strong side, leaving no one in Wear’s vicinity to help out Wallace. But the primary mistake is one of the mental variety, and that theme carries on throughout the entirety of the UCLA game.
Wallace isn’t the only offender of poor awareness in semitransition. As you can see above, Richard Solomon is absentmindedly drifting back into the paint. One problem: The man he’s supposed to tag, David Wear, is preparing to spot up on the three-point line once again. Solomon is so accustomed to occupying the area under the basket that he forgets his man, Wear, actually shoots 44 percent from the three-point line.
Kyle Anderson, the UCLA point guard, passes to Wear, who is standing right at the top of the arc behind the three-point line. When he catches the pass, Solomon is backpedaling and looking at Jordan Adams, who is trailing behind Wear on the right wing.
Like Wallace earlier in the game, Solomon notices Wear spotting up and makes a desperate attempt to contest the shot, but he’s six feet in front of Wear as the shot is released, and Wear rattles home another wide-open 3-pointer.
These same mistakes — ball-watching, mental lapses and hesitance to commit — plague Cal on the play illustrated in the diagram at the top of the page. Once again, the Bruins are racing down the floor in transition. This time, Bryce Alford is handling the ball, and he’s moving with a head of steam toward the hoop. Wear is at the top of the arc and a likely nonfactor as Alford’s angle prevents him from swinging out to Wear. However, Zach LaVine — a 40-percent 3-point shooter — is standing all alone on the wing, in perfect position for an Alford drive-and-kick.
Meanwhile, the entire Cal team is clumped in the paint, staring right at Alford. Justin Cobbs, Christian Behrens, Wallace and Solomon are all zoned on Alford and are unaware of or ignoring LaVine. As Alford approaches the hoop, no one appears certain of whose job it is to cut him off. Cobbs has a bad angle, and Behrens is too far behind the play, so it is between Wallace and Solomon. Solomon also has a fairly bad angle but pursues the shot-block anyway. Wallace, who has the best positioning to cut off Alford, just kind of stands still, allowing Solomon to take the responsibility. But what he forgets about is LaVine, who’s still just hanging out on the perimeter.
Alford flies under the hoop and hits LaVine with a perfect pass. Wallace’s scramble to contest the shot is futile.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why these mistakes started to occur with greater frequency during the stretch run of Cal’s March Madness bid. It could’ve been a problem with coaching, the team’s leadership or maybe just a collective slide in confidence after dropping the USC game. The “why” will forever be a mystery, but the “how” we can attempt to pinpoint. Looking at mistakes Cal made in the first half of a UCLA game, it becomes fairly evident how Cal’s defense took a major slide right at the moment it needed to be at its best.
Staff writer Winston Cho contributed to this article.