California’s only two losses this season – in the midst of the Bears’ hottest start in 55 years -- came to teams in the top 10 in the nation. On Sunday, Cal rolled over – at home -- to 2-10 Cal State Bakersfield, 55-52.
The Bears did not have a single field goal from someone not named David Kravish or Tyrone Wallace for the first 18:54 of the first half against the Roadrunners, and did not lead after the 16:48 mark in the first half against a Bakersfield team that ran roughshod over Cal on the inside thanks to aggressive, physical play from center Aly Ahmed.
“He’s a good player," Roadrunners coach Rod Barnes said of Ahmed. "He’s very physical and really skilled and patient. He’s one of the best big guys that I’ve ever coached from the standpoint of knowing how to play down low. He’s not the most athletic guy, but he’s one of the most skilled guys who understands how to play the game. Tonight he had one of his best games against really good competition. He scored 19 points before, but not against guys and a team that good defensively.”
Ahmed scored a game-high 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting with 10 rebounds to take control of the low post, while the Roadrunners completely shut down a three-point game that was sorely missing the injured Jabari Bird. The Bears went just 2-for-15 from beyond the three-point arc, and their struggles from distance showed at the most crucial point in the game.
After Brent Wrapp hit a free throw to put Bakersfield up by three, Cal dribbled the ball up and burned 11 seconds off the clock before the bench called a time out. Coming out of that break, head coach Cuonzo Martin had a play drawn up for the best three-point-shooting Bear not currently in a walking boot -- Jordan Mathews.
With six seconds left, Mathews got the in-bound and, for the second time in the second half, booted the ball out of bounds, turning possession over to the Roadrunners, and effectively sealing the game, with Ahmed nailing two free throws with four seconds left to truly ice the contest.
The loss to Bakersfield represents easily the biggest blow to whatever future NCAA Tournament aspirations the Bears have, as the Roadrunners came in ranked No. 340 in RPI (Cal came in at No. 71). If the Bears are on the bubble come Selection Sunday, this game will be why.
“We can’t come out flat in the first half. That’s been a pattern we’ve been setting for ourselves for a while now," Kravish said of the Bears, who shot 7-for-19 in the first half. "When we come out flat, we dig ourselves in a hole and then we want to just turn it on like a light switch, and that’s not just something you can turn on and off. You have to keep it on the whole time. It’s a process. By the end of the game, it was too late.”
There were also several major concerns that reared their heads, and not for the first time this season.
1. Turnovers. If you thought turnover woes ended after the 22-turnover night against Montana, you were wrong. The Bears turned the ball over 18 times, with the Roadrunners taking advantage, scoring 20 points off of those turnovers – better than their in-game average of 0.859 points per possession. 10 of those turnovers were unforced, as Bakersfield notched eight steals to Cal’s four.
"They turned us over 18 times. That’s unacceptable," Kravish said. "Right there, that’s 18 possessions we didn’t have, 18 shots we didn’t get to put up, and they took advantage.”
Turnovers in and of themselves are concerning, particularly when ball movement on Sunday was disjoined and hurried, but of even greater concern is the fact that two of the Bears’ most veteran and dependable players – Mathews and Wallace – were responsible for four turnovers apiece to lead the team.
“I think it’s frustrating for everyone, not only for me," Wallace said. "When we turn the ball over, it affects everybody. The other team will run down our back scoring. They got a lot of points off turnovers tonight, and that hurt us. It’s not just whether it affects me, it affects everybody.”
Here’s where turnovers really hurt: The aforementioned points per possession. Both teams had 64 possessions on the night. In the first half, Cal scored 0.588 points per possession, while the Roadrunners were scoring 0.882 points per possession. The Bears scored more than one point per possession in the second half, but the Roadrunners stayed steady, scoring 0.833. Cal came away with more nil possessions in the first half thanks to 13 turnovers, and the 10-point lead Bakersfield took into the locker room was able to withstand whatever run the Bears could put together in the second half.
"We got out of the gate slowly and I don’t think we played as hard as we normally play early," said Martin. "We let those guys make back cuts. We just lost on principle. In the first half I don’t think we set a physical tone. They were aggressive and came down on the passing lanes. I don’t think we posted up as strongly as we need to. I didn’t think we drove or set screens. I didn’t think we defended well. Late in the first half we made some plays. Late in the second half we made some plays. They did a great job of controlling the tempo and making enough plays and putting pressure on the defense. Eighteen turnovers and 14-25 from the free throw line, especially at home, it’s hard to win ball games regardless of who you’re playing against.”
How did the Roadrunners come away with points so consistently, despite shooting 18-for-46 from the field, just like Cal?
2. Take the freebies if you can get them. Free throws. There are two parts to this second point. First, and perhaps simplest: Hit shots from the charity stripe. That’s what Bakersfield did, going 17-for-24 from the line, with Wrapp and Ahmed going a combined 10-for-14. The Roadrunners hit 7-of-8 attempts from the line in the final 5:45, while the Bears went 2-for-5.
Part Two of this point: Aggression. Take the ball to the hole, drive, draw contact and don’t be afraid to take a hit. There was one player who did that consistently on Sunday for Cal, and that was Wallace, who was the only Bear to have more than five free-throw attempts (he went 7-for-11 to help him to a team-high 17 points). In contrast, three Roadrunners had six or more free-throw attempts apiece.
In the first half, Cal took just four shots in the paint. Bakersfield took 15, including lay-ups. The Roadrunners hit eight of those shots. The Bears hit one. Though that trend reversed itself a bit in the second half – with Cal shooting 16 in the paint – Bakersfield still attempted 13 shots in the post, making five, as the Bears made nine, with Wallace going 3-for-6. That game-long aggressive streak is what got the Roadrunners to the line, and what punched the Bears in the mouth.
3. Be. Aggressive. Be. Be. Aggressive. Martin has said repeatedly that he doesn’t care about the numbers, to an extent, as long as the team is aggressive both on offense and on defense. There were at least three opportunities that point guard Sam Singer passed on to let fly from three-point range, and at least that many times in the mid-post where Kravish hedged on his patented baby hook and passed out to the perimeter. The early play of Ahmed seemed to catch both Kravish and Christian Behrens off guard, and while Kravish did finish 6-of-11 from the floor – his best shooting night in quite some time – and paced the team with 10 rebounds (Wallace came in second with nine boards) it was the shots he didn’t take that harmed the Bears the most, and not just for the points he didn’t score. It’s hard to imagine that the overall tentativeness on the part of the senior big man doesn’t have a ripple effect.
Aggression also has to play a part on defense. With the Bears down 41-34, Kravish gave up position in the low post and instead of taking a charge, allowed Jaylin Airington to take the ball to the cup, where he was in turn fouled by Dwight Tarwater. Roger Moute a Bidias came up big in several instances on the defensive end of the floor with a block and several shot angle changes with his 7-foot-1 wingspan, and even saved a possession with a jumper from the left wing off of a three-point miss by Wallace to cut the lead to five points with 7:34 left.
Singer also had his moment late, poking away a steal that led to a Wallace lay-in to cap off a 5-0 run with 1:11 left that brought the Bears to within two points. Isolated moments, though, even in crunch time, can’t replace an entire game’s worth of intensity, and that, more than anything, is what’s going to bother Martin headed into the start of Pac-12 play against No. 13 Washington, which stubbed its toe earlier on Sunday with a loss to unranked Stony Brook.
“I think it’s bad timing to lose this game at any time," Kravish said. "But we have the conference season ahead of us and that’s huge. There’s no reason for us to think we can’t win this league. But if we keep coming out flat like this, we could prove a lot of people right, and that’s not what we’re trying to do.”
Coming off a loss to then-No. 6 Wisconsin, and the Christmas layoff, Cal came out looking rusty and, frankly, listless at times, prompting Martin to sub out four of the five starters less than five minutes into the game.
“I didn’t think we set a tone. I didn’t think we had two great practices coming out of the break either," Martin said. "Sometimes that can be misleading because I’ve been around where a guy has had a bad practice and then played great. I didn’t think we set a great tone in practice. Maybe they overlooked the team and didn’t come out ready to play. They paid for it. That’s why I always talk about respecting all of your opponents. You can’t get consumed with what’s on the front of the jersey or the record. I told the guys before the game – I wrote on the board, ‘All it takes is one night. Don’t fall asleep.’ We paid for it.”
4. Second verse, same as the first: Bird is again the word. Two of the Bears’ three losses on the year have come with sophomore Jabari Bird on the bench with what’s been reported to be a stress fracture. Bird has now been out for 28 days, has not practiced for 28 days, and doesn’t look anywhere close to coming back.
Let’s get this out of the way now: Bird was, to say the least, hot-and-cold in the first six games – all of which he started -- scoring 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting against then-No. 23 Syracuse, then just five points on 2-of-8 from the floor against then-No. 10 Texas, followed by a season-high 18 points against Cal Poly and then just four points on 1-of-9 against Fresno State. Bird’s rebounding has also sagged a bit from the beginning of the season. In the first three games, Bird piled up 13 boards, but over his last three, he pulled down just four.
That said, when he went down, he was averaging 11.7 points per game (good for fourth on the team at that point), and ranked second on the squad and 15th in the conference with nine three pointers.
With Bird down, Cal has had to lean almost entirely on Wallace for a dynamic scoring option, with Kravish at one point going through a 7-for-23 shooting slump.
“You have to be a scoring threat," Martin said. "You have to have guys with the potential to score the ball. When certain teams aren’t defending certain guys, now they have a scouting report. It’s my job as a coach to put guys in position to get the ball where they need to get it to be able to score the ball.”
There’s a reason that Martin has continually listed Bird as day-to-day: Without even the spectre of him as an offensive threat, defenses are able to sag down and bang Kravish around, or clog the lane against Wallace instead of having to get out to the perimeter.
“I think you have struggles when you miss wide open shots," Martin said. "It’s just getting reps up and getting in the gym. If it’s not a case where shots are contested and you are forcing shots…If they’re wide open and they’re not falling, you have to continue to get reps. I went through that myself my first two years of college. I wasn’t a three point shooter so guys didn’t defend me. I had to get in the gym and work on it. I corrected it my last two years. That’s part of it. That comes with time and with confidence. The only way you get confidence is putting the reps in and then you start to see the shots fall.”
Just as they did with Martin when he played, opposing defenses are daring Mathews and Singer to beat them from distance, and it’s not happening at the moment.
“The one thing we talked about on the offensive side of the ball – and I’ve known coach Barnes for a while – there are certain guys in his style that they want to defend. They feel like they’re not good shooters and they need to double up with somebody," Martin said. "All of the sudden you spend more time on Tyrone or David Kravish. They’ll leave a couple guys open. They’ll box and one or triangle and two and do different things. So we let our guys know that going into the game. You’ve still got to play with confidence. You have to be ready to play and be ready to shoot the ball. They just didn’t fall. If you take Sam Singer, for example, he spends a lot of time working. He’s actually working with his shot as we speak. They just didn’t fall but he has to stay aggressive. I thought he had wide open looks but they didn’t fall. I think defensively guys just got locked in. In the second half we had a sense of urgency but you’ve got to set a tone early. If you let them get their heads up it could be the ball game.”