Soul search: what was and what could have been

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When Jaylen Brown committed to Cal last May, fans envisioned an ultra-athletic trio of him, Ivan Rabb and Tyrone Wallace running teams off the floor and torturing defenses in an unstoppable pick-and-roll symphony:

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If you collapsed on Rabb’s roll to the basket, Brown would flash from the weak side for an open three-pointer. If Brown’s defender recovers to contest his trey, then the freshman forward would drive past him and finish it off himself or dish it to Rabb.

Ideologically, that core complemented by a competent center and a knockdown shooter should have produced a top offense. But in practice, that trio never developed the chemistry, efficiency or production that it should have. Answering why requires more than a drink — or five — and should start with the Brown, Wallace and Rabb disconnect. The collaboration failed to meet expectations, mostly because of a stagnant offense exacerbated by Brown’s inconsistent stroke.

Considering how stingy Cal’s defense was this season, it was confusing to see the Bears struggle so much on the other end of the floor. When they didn’t have a transition opportunity, they half-heartedly executed their sets — setting apathetic screens off-the-ball and cutting as if they were running through the motions. This all led to a dependence on the individual brilliance of their trio of studs, which ultimately spelled their untimely demise in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments.

In the halfcourt, Cal would typically start with some sort of off-ball action that freed up one of its shooters for an open shot or one of its big men for a post-up. If this failed — as it did very often — the team would move on to an isolation play, usually for Wallace or Brown.

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Roger Moute a Bidias fails to break free from his man for the triple. Brown then takes it upon himself to barge through a flurry of defenders to get to the rim. He draws the foul, but you can imagine the physical toll it takes when you run it four or five times a game. No wonder the trio averaged just 65.7 percent from the charity stripe.

Isolation plays such as this were far too common in the Cal offense. It’s true that Brown, Rabb and Wallace are skilled individual scorers, but their talent was wasted by forcing them to create outside the flow of the offense. Teams started to scout the Bears, and they started to snuff out the fluff plays prior to the isolation. After that, it was a coin toss to see whether the trio could score one-on-one.

It became even easier for teams to stop the set plays when they realized neither Brown nor Wallace could make a shot beyond 15 feet. Defenders started to sag off the duo when they didn’t have the ball, ready to collapse into the paint to contest a Rabb post-up or rotate onto another perimeter player that could reliably hit a jumper.

This was taken a step farther when teams started to play zone against the Bears. Cal would desperately try to get the ball to the middle, the zone’s soft spot, with little success.

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They got better at attacking the zone as the season progressed, but a fundamental flaw was exposed: You don’t really have to guard any of the team’s best three players if they’re floating behind the arc.

A simple remedy to this would have been to play the core trio with dual shooters in Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird. Martin started experimenting with this lineup halfway into the conference season, around the time Cal went on its seven-game win streak … hmmm.

With this lineup, Mathews and Bird provided enough spacing by keeping their defenders honest, opening up lanes for Wallace and Brown and freeing up some space in the low block for Rabb post-ups and rolls to the rim. If they cheated off of them, then the squad would ping the ball around until it found an open three-pointer. Mathews and Bird combined to shoot a sizzling 41.3 percent from deep this season.

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Outside of this just being an incredible shot, it encapsulates Cal’s increased efficiency when they went to this lineup. Oregon attempts to match up with the Bears’ small-ball unit by playing the 6-foot-9 Jordan Bell on Rabb. When Brown bull-rushes the rim, Bell is forced to come over and help. But because the Ducks have Bell at center to keep up with Cal, they don’t have enough size protecting the rim to prevent drives such as this.

Cal needed the best version of itself to compete with Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament and with the nation’s best in the NCAA tournament. But the team that showed up appeared ill-coached, ill-equipped and ill-prepared to meet expectations. It’ll be a long time before the stars align again for a trio of bonafide studs and top-notch role players to come together like this to play on a Cal team. Hopefully then it won’t be wasted.

Winston Cho covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho