[MORE VIDEO: Martin Speaks After Loss to Trojans]
LOS ANGELES -- USC came in to Wednesday’s game with the worst scoring offense in the Pac-12. The Trojans were averaging just 67.0 points per game, with the conference’s second-worst field goal percentage – 42.4. Still, they were better than California, topping the Bears 71-57.
“We’re soft,” said senior center David Kravish. “We weren’t making our hard cuts like we should have, we weren’t setting hard screens, we weren’t playing with a sense of urgency.”
“I hope they said that because they believe it; not because I said it,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Some of the guys said some things at halftime, which are things we talk about. They have to understand it. It’s one thing if coach is saying it. They have to feel it and understand it, and move forward.”
Cal (11-5, 1-2 in Pac-12) lost its second game in a row and fourth in their last five tries, despite a re-jiggered starting lineup giving Cal more size inside with Roger Moute a Bidias and Kingsley Okoroh.
“I felt like it was necessary,” Martin said. “I thought those guys battled. I thought Roger really played hard. I thought he really drove the ball, late in the game, being aggressive and under control. King did some good things, and we’ll go with that same lineup the next game.”
Despite starting both Moute a Bidias and Okoroh in place of Christian Behrens and Sam Singer, the Bears were still out-gunned down low, and once again without Jabari Bird, the Bears were at an athletic disadvantage in transition, allowing five steals and 11 points off of turnovers. Cal got four points off transition in the final 4:44, going on a 9-0 run to make the score a bit more respectable than the 62-48 margin.
“We can’t run if we don’t rebound,” said Tyrone Wallace, who finished with a team-high 21 points on 9-of-21 shooting. “They’re getting offensive rebounds, and scoring, then it’s harder to run, because the defense is set. You’ve got to get stops and get rebounds, and then you can get out on the break.”
“This was a problem a long time ago,” Kravish said. “We were squeaking games out that we should have won handily. It was just a matter of time before it came and bit us.”
As bad as the USC offense has routinely been, Cal’s attack was worse. For the fourth time in the last five games, the Bears failed to eclipse the 40% shooting mark, going 23-for-64, their second-lowest shooting percentage of the season (the lowest coming against then-No. 10 Texas, when Cal shot 20-for-64).
“I just think it’s keeping your spacing, keeping your screening, but also, knowing our personnel, it’s not like we have five guys on the floor who are capable of scoring 20 a night,” Martin said (more on that later in our analysis). “Our job as coaches is to continue to put them in positions to score the ball.”
The 10-1 start – Cal’s best in 55 years – belied some issues that Martin saw bubbling up.
“I felt like several games back, we were in this situation. It was about to happen,” Martin said. “As a coach, you talk to them – even when you’re winning games – ‘Guys, be prepared. This is about to happen.’ When you’re winning games, it’s hard to comprehend. All of the sudden, it’s happening. It’s probably good for our guys, to understand that we didn’t play tough, we didn’t compete, we didn’t battle. They win the ball. Give those guys all the credit. They set a tone, from start to finish.”
Like Kravish, this kind of loss was something that Martin had seen coming.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “I’ve said this to our guys: We’ve got to get a level of toughness. That’s one thing we have to do. We have to compete from start to finish. You get caught up in your press clippings, and it allows you, mentally, to fall asleep. Now, you’re in a fight.”
Now, for our four points of analysis.
1. Points in the paint. At the half, Cal was looking at a 24-10 points in the paint deficit, and trailed, 38-29.
After having back-to-back-to-back career scoring nights against Wyoming, Princeton and Eastern Washington, Behrens hasn’t scored more than three points in his past four games, shooting a combined 4-for-13 in that span. Martin switched up the starting lineup on Wednesday, benching Behrens and Singer in favor of Okoroh and Moute a Bidias. It didn’t work. Cal sacrificed experience in the lane and didn’t get much offensive production in return.
“We turned the ball over nine times in the first half, and that led to a bunch of lay-ups,” Kravish said. “We gave up a lot of offensive rebounds that led to a bunch of lay-ups in the paint. That’ll get you.”
It didn’t help that Kravish went a dismal 1-for-5 in the first half, and 0-for-8 after making the game’s first shot – a back-down pair in the paint after out-positioning Nikola Jovanovic -- before finishing 4-for-12.
“I was just missing shots,” Kravish said.
“You’ve got to get some production around the rim,” Martin said. “It opens things up on the perimeter. If you don’t get that, you’ll consistently see the way teams defend you … First of all, you’ve got to post. I don’t think we posted like we need to post. I thought we missed some early in the second half, to score the ball, but as far as those guys, that’s cutting, that’s screening, that’s going over the top.
“It’s hard when teams are sagging on certain guys. It’s not like you have 15 guys on the bench to put in and out. Keep working on your shots, keep your spacing, keep driving the ball.”
After Kravish’s first make, Cal was out-scored 24-8 in the paint for the rest of the half, with Okoroh flashing at times, going 2-for-4 with two aggressive put-backs. Okoroh eclipsed his career highs in minutes (13), points (4) and rebounds (6).
Moute a Bidias turned the ball over twice as the Bears coughed the ball up four times in seven possessions with just four minutes gone in the half. While Cal went with a bigger lineup against the sizeable Trojans, it paid precisely zero dividends.
While Kravish had scored 41 points in his last three games, he had just two points and two fouls at halftime, and had a very difficult time negotiating double-teams off the low block and at his favorite spot on the floor – the Pac-12 logo on the left wing.
Kravish scored eight points, leading the Bears with seven rebounds and playing just 16 minutes.
Jovanovic, on the other hand, went 9-for-14 for a game-high 21 points, pulling down a game-high nine rebounds in 19 minutes.
2. Yet again, the cheese stands alone. The cheese, in this instance, being Wallace. At one point in the first half, Wallace was 3-for-7 from the field, while the rest of the team was 3-for-12. Wallace’s nine points before the break were matched only by Jordan Mathews, who had two three-pointers to his name as Cal pulled to within nine points before the break.
Without much help from Kravish or anyone else down low, Wallace was double-teamed constantly. With the clock ticking down in the final Cal possession before the half, Singer wisely passed up a covered shot from three to find Wallace at the top of the key. USC’s defense immediately swallowed Wallace up in a double-team, and his pass out to Mathews was wild, not allowing him to get a shot off before the buzzer.
“I think we did get open looks, on missed shots, but they played well,” Wallace said. “They played tough.”
That one possession was emblematic of the Bears’ offensive effort, which was disjoined and stilted, at best. USC, however, was able to get out on the break consistently, with back-to-back steals by Katin Reinhardt setting the tone early in the game. Reinhardt led the Trojans parade to the free-throw line, as they took advantage of a timid Kravish and a young Okoroh. USC went 12-for-14 before the break from the free-throw line, with Reinhardt going 4-for-4 in the first half.
3. Finding some fight. With 9:05 left in the game, Reinhardt nailed a three-pointer off of an assist from Strahinj Gavrilovic, who got a pass from Jovanovic, off a missed three by Moute a Bidias. Malik Martin -- who came up with a block on Kravish in the first half – mimicked a grenade toss, and the rest of the USC bench blew up.
There was no response from the Bears, either on the court or off. Cal shot 34.5% in the first half, and, with 5:44 left in the second, had started out shooting 29.6% after the break.
“We didn’t play with any life out there,” Wallace said. “I think it’s discouraging, to see us lose like that. [We were] down the whole game, and didn’t fight, really. We got out-boarded, out muscled, out-toughed.”
“We have to toughen up, play with a sense of urgency the whole game,” Kravish said.
4. Ball movement. Cal’s motion offense was stymied by the Trojans, who doubled both Kravish and Wallace at every opportunity, particularly in the post with Gavrilovic and Jovanovic. Those routine double teams led to frantic and frenzied passing, but those passes didn’t lead to baskets. On 23 field goals, Cal had just 10 assists, with the team’s game assist leader – reserve forward Dwight Tarwater -- tallying three.
Cal had just four assists in the entire second half on 13 field goal attempts, and went 0-for-9 from three-point land after Mathews got good looks down the stretch of the first stanza.
Martin said that he is “not really” surprised by Cal’s offensive struggles.
“You’ve got two guys who have the ability to score the ball, in Jordan and Tyrone, and other guys, it’s not their strength,” Martin said. “I think we’ve got to get Dave going.”
Part of the reason why the ball sticks so much – particularly in the hands of Wallace, who took 21 of the Bears’ 65 shots – is because there is not a true third scoring option – at least no consistent one. At times, Cal barely has two – either Wallace and Kravish, or Wallace and Mathews.
“It’s hard to look for somebody,” said Martin. “You have to have that ability to score. Our job as coaches is to try to mix and match and do some things to be able to score the ball, but it’s hard to just, OK, ‘You’re going to be a scorer tonight.’ You have to have that in you – that skill level, that ability. We hope Dave can come around and be that guy. We thought he’d be. We have to keep pushing him to be that guy.”