Offensive woes plague Cal ahead of Washington matchup

Josh Kahen/Staff

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What do Cal men’s basketball, poor WiFi connections and the weather all have in common?

They’re all terribly inconsistent.

The Bears will host the Washington Huskies on Saturday in a matchup that gives Cal the opportunity to string two wins together for the first time since mid-November. Despite their recent win against Washington State, the blue and gold have struggled to maintain cohesion and stability in their approach and play.

“For a group that has struggled in the last couple of years, I think they (the players) sometimes feel pressure to change something immediately,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “That’s not going to happen fast.”

No better evidence exists for the Bears’ inconsistency than their play on offense. The Bears score a pathetic 65.4 points per game, ranking 311th out of 350 teams. This is likely the result of poor ball movement, as the blue and gold rank 345th in the NCAA in assists with a measly 9.3 per game. Cal has had brief glimmers and short spurts of offensive production that give fans hope, but almost always follow its hot streaks with scoring droughts and dry spells.

Part of the Bears’ struggles comes from their lack of a true passing point guard. Joel Brown and Paris Austin split minutes at the one, but neither effectively manages the offense. Austin is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, and Brown’s youth and inexperience limit his ability to dictate the offense as a floor general.

Matt Bradley, Cal’s brightest star and leading scorer, often handles the ball but is almost always looking for his own shot, which is the only potent offensive weapon the Bears have in their arsenal.  The three guards combine for a lowly 5.5 assists per game. To put that in context, there are 39 players in the NCAA that average as many assists by themselves.

Poor offensive production isn’t headline breaking news for Fox. He was ousted from his last job in Georgia in part because of his team’s inability to shoot efficiently and effectively. The Bulldogs under Fox’s tenure were often below average in the NCAA in terms of shooting statistics, and it seems he has yet to find the formula for Cal’s offensive production.

This lack of scoring poses particular problems for the Bears upcoming matchup with the Huskies, one of the best defensive teams in college basketball. Washington limits opponents to a staggering 37% from the field and average an absurd 6.4 blocks per game, 10th and fifth best in the NCAA respectively. The key to their defensive prowess is two freshman forwards — Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels — who were ranked second and seventh individually by the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, making them two of the hottest prospects in basketball.

Stewart is an old-school type of big man, averaging 18.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, putting him in the Pac-12’s top five for each of those statistics. While the 6’9” forward lacks the ability to shoot the ball from beyond the arc, he more than makes up for his three-point shooting with his play on the low block.

On the other side of the frontcourt is McDaniels, who complements his fellow forward by stretching the floor while providing the Huskies with consistent ball distribution. McDaniels has struggled to limit his fouls so far in his young career, averaging 3.4 penalties per game and fouling out of two of his last four contests.

Cal is in the top half of the league in drawing foul calls, and could very well force the Washington forward to the bench if he isn’t mindful of his defensive aggression. That aggression is high-risk, high-reward for the Huskies, who will sometimes witness outstanding defensive performances from McDaniels such as his six block game against USC, and other times will see him play less than 15 minutes because of foul trouble like in his game against UCLA.

Both McDaniels and Stewart exploit one of the Bears’ greatest weaknesses — their lack of a true big man. Forwards Grant Anticevich and Andre Kelly have been serviceable for some games against smaller teams, but they have been unable to stop the better forwards they’ve faced this season, such as Fresno State’s Nate Grimes, Harvard’s Chris Lewis and Washington State’s CJ Elleby.

The only other forward that gets substantial playing time is Lars Thiemann, who may seem intimidating because of his 7’0” size, but is often a liability on the court with his -1.7 box plus/minus. The Bears consistently find themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard when talented forwards come to town, and with Washington starting two of the best forwards in the NCAA, Haas Pavilion could bear witness to another electrifying performance from the visiting frontcourt.

This is not to say that the Bears are without hope. Matt Bradley lit Washington State up for a career-high 26 points, including a game-sealing three-point dagger, and if he continues to find success on that side of the court his performance could once again carry the Bears to victory. While no Cal player represents a true secondary scoring option for the offense, Austin and Kareem South can occasionally be the spark that lights the flame for the blue and gold. One or both of them will need to be on their game if they stand a chance to overcome the Huskies elite defense.

On the other side of the ball, the Bears are one of the better teams in the NCAA. The Bears have limited their opponents to score less than their season average (in regulation) in 13 of their 15 games this season, with the only exceptions coming from their matchups against then-No.1 Duke and St Mary’s. While stars will generally get their points against the Bears, Cal is good at ensuring that offensive outputs from opposing teams are isolated to specific players rather than total team efforts.

Ultimately, the blue and gold will need to score and defend not just in short spurts but for all 40 minutes. This core of this Bears’ team is young and lacks maturity, but they will need to find it within themselves to play a complete game if they want to challenge a team of Washington’s caliber. Consistency will be the theme for Cal going forward.

“We have to get to where we can play more than 32 good minutes,” Fox said.

Cal takes on Washington on Saturday at Haas Pavilion.

Michael Brust is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeB_DC.