If barely sneaking by UC Irvine in overtime on its home floor wasn’t enough to force questions regarding just how deserving the Cal men’s basketball team was of its recent No. 25 ranking in the NCAA polls, a 12-point loss (that honestly wasn’t even that close) to San Diego State definitely pulled the rug out from under the underperforming Bears.
And now, as Cal prepares to host a pair of 3-1 teams in Wyoming on Friday and Southeastern Louisiana on Sunday, the fears that were expected to bubble up only during Pac-12 play are coming to fruition all too soon.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin’s teams have always had trouble scoring, but on Monday that deficiency was somehow matched by the team’s newfound inability to defend for all 30 seconds of the shot clock.
The defense actually seems to have played OK if you’re just looking at numbers — holding the Aztecs to only 36.9 percent from the field — but when you turn the ball over 16 times, get out-hustled for a 8-2 difference in fast break points and allow your opponent to take 12 more shots than you, well, you’re going to have a bad time.
The worst part about it, though, was that Ivan Rabb didn’t even play badly! The Aztecs must have quadruple-circled the star sophomore on their defensive game plan. And sure, they smartly doubled him in the paint and high post only after he made his first dribble (they would love to force him into a turnaround fadeaway or a pass to the perimeter without giving up a numbers advantage from the double), but he still managed an efficient 19 points on 10 shots, along with 11 boards and two blocks in his first competitive play in eight months.
The issues seem to stem more from the players who supported him — or, in this game, didn’t. True freshman Charlie Moore continues to show he’s maybe the second-best player on roster already, hitting 2-3 from deep while going for 17 points himself, but he can’t do it alone from the outside. The Bears’ starters made three three-pointers in 103 collective minutes of play. That’s just unacceptable.
This season, Cal’s offense will rely on defenses being unable to figure out whether to double Rabb or close out hard on shooters — taking advantage of every bad read they make — but when those shooters are ice cold, it makes that decision way too easy.
Wyoming will certainly give the Bears’ defense a bit of trouble from downtown, as the Pokes ride into Berkeley 11th in the nation in made threes per game, with 11. They also field a very balanced offense, with four players averaging double-digit points. So while the Bears must key in on Wyoming’s leading scorer, guard Jason McManamen, the Cowboys have many others who can certainly circle the wagon in his stead.
Southeastern Louisiana is also off to its best start in five years and is playing much better as a team than Cal is currently.
Wyoming does lack a true center, however, and the Lions only field one — so Rabb should do well against the litany of 6-foot-something forwards they can throw his way. The question, however, as it will be all season, will be whether the Bears can make life easier for their star — and get the hell out of their own way.