Cal men’s basketball’s defensive woes continue in beatdown by Arizona

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Sometimes, people are more talented than you. Sometimes, people are smarter than you. Sometimes, people are both smarter and more talented than you.

On Saturday night, Arizona won both of those battles against Cal.

The University of Arizona Wildcats blew out the Bears by an 87-65 margin. The loss extended Cal’s losing streak to five games and put the Bears’ record at 5-11, with a dismal 0-4 record in Pac-12 play. Meanwhile, Arizona improved to 13-4 and 4-0 in the conference.

The Bears managed to hang around for much of the first half as both teams struggled to establish a rhythm offensively. There were more foul calls than usual in the beginning of the first period, making it difficult for the Wildcats to establish themselves and pull away from the Bears.

Both squads missed a lot of open looks as the game became a bit of a physical affair, and the difference really came down to free throws early on.

Darius McNeill was 0-6 from the field and 0-5 from beyond the arc in the first half, while Paris Austin (1-5 on field goals) and Connor Vanover (1-8 on field goals, 1-3 from 3-point range) played just as poorly. Meanwhile, the Bears as a whole shot an uncharacteristically poor percentage from the free-throw line in the first half, at 58 percent.

“The things that we’ve worked on the most this week — shooting and free throws — we struggled with tonight,” said Cal head coach Wyking Jones. “We went to the locker room down 12, and if Darius McNeill hits a couple of his shots and we make our free throws, they don’t have that momentum.”

If I were to counter Jones’ assessment of the first half, for one, we don’t believe in “momentum” here at The Daily Californian. Secondly, Arizona missed just as many, if not more, open looks that they’d usually knock down as Cal did, so really, the Bears were lucky the margin wasn’t wider heading into halftime.

The second half was a different story, as Arizona turned the screws on defense, blitzing the Bears’ pick and rolls while playing the passing lanes and contesting hard on all of Cal’s shots. On offense, the Wildcats played with a deadly inside-out game, both dominating the paint and hitting shots from the perimeter with equal efficiency; they shot 66 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc.

Jones stressed that Arizona’s offensive barrage in the second half was because of a lack of effort on the part of the Bears.

“For whatever reason, we didn’t have a sense of urgency on defense tonight,” Jones said. “We have to improve our sense of urgency on the defensive end. It’s a major, major problem for us right now. We’re an athletic team. We’re a quick team. We’re undersized, so we shouldn’t be getting taken off the bounce the way we’re getting taken off the bounce or opening up the floor for guys to kick out to wide-open shooters.”

Cal currently ranks 338th in the country for adjusted defensive rating, according to KenPom, which puts the team behind perennially elite basketball programs such as Cal State Northridge and Maine.

Again, the Bears struggled to defend around the basket, a discouraging trend that’s continued throughout the season. The Bears were outscored, 42-22, in the paint and outrebounded, 38-28, while Arizona center Chase Jeter scored a career-high 23 points and came within one rebound of recording a double-double.

Here’s Cal interior defense explained in one GIF.

Jeter is just the latest big man to manhandle the Cal defense, joining the likes of Moses Brown of UCLA, Nick Rakocevic of USC and other nonconference opponents who throttled the Bears inside.

As Jones mentioned, the Bears are undersized, but the way in which Cal’s defense is getting bullied in the paint hints at larger, structural issues with the defense beyond obvious shortcomings with personnel. Jones has been reluctant to play with a two-big-man lineup of Vanover and Andre Kelly, but he may be forced to in order to stop the bleeding down low.

The lone bright spot on the night for Cal was the performance of sophomore forward Justice Sueing, who scored 27 points on only 13 shots, grabbed five rebounds and made nine of 10 free throws. His lone miss at the line was his first since Dec. 15.

“Coach challenged me. I haven’t been performing like I should be, and I came into this game, and I was supposed to make plays for myself and my teammates,” Sueing said. “Regardless of how I performed, it wasn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter because we lost the game.”

The much-awaited return of Paris Austin from an ankle injury was a disappointment, and the notion that he could help this team get back on track immediately proved to be a mirage. He was outclassed by Arizona point guard Justin Coleman, who matched up with Austin all night. Coleman breezed by him with ease on multiple occasions, steadily running the Arizona offense and stifling Austin on the defensive end.

Austin accounted for only 8 points on a disastrous 2-8 shooting performance from the field. More importantly, Austin recorded only two assists, an inexcusably low number for a player who prides himself on his ability to get his teammates open looks.

The team as a whole recorded only seven assists while coughing up the ball 12 times, a ratio that carries with it the stink of last season’s stagnant offense.

Matt Bradley, who was coming off an impressive 19-point performance against Arizona State, seemed to hit the “freshman wall,” as he only accounted for 6 points on 2-7 shooting from the field. Fellow freshman Kelly continued to regress, while Jacobi Gordon, Grant Anticevich and Juhwan Harris-Dyson contributed next to nothing. Looking forward, Cal faces fellow Pac-12 bottom feeder Washington State in Pullman this coming Thursday. If the Bears lose that game, buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Rory O’Toole covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].