Bird’s return lasted just eight first-half minutes, and he failed to tally a point, as Cal leading scorer Tyrone Wallace scored just four – his first single-digit output since he scored eight points in a 67-65 loss last season in the NIT semifinal against SMU. The last time he scored four points was against Colorado in last year’s regular-season finale.
With neither of those two scorers getting into any rhythm, senior center David Kravish had another poor-shooting game, going 4-for-13 with nine points and 14 rebounds.
While Kravish became the only player in school history with at least 1,000 points, 200 blocks and 800 rebounds in his career (and one of four players in Pac-12 history to accomplish the feat), he has now shot 10-for-34 over the past three games.
“They out-played us today,” Kravish said. “We came out, and I thought at the end of the first half, but we came out and they went on a sizeable run at the beginning of the second half. You have to give them credit. We’ve got to come back and figure some stuff out.”
UCLA (10-7, 2-2 in Pac-12 play) was led by double-digit games from five players, including 15 from forward Kevon Looney and 13 from center Tony Parker.
“I thought Tony struggled early, but we established the post-feeding early in the game, and in the second half, he was really good,” said Bruins head coach Steve Alford.
And now, on to the analysis.
1. Bird is the word, once again, sort of. When Jabari Bird went down 41 days ago, it wasn’t readily apparent how much his absence would affect the Bears, as they went 5-0 in their first five games without him. But, cracks began to show. Coming into Sunday, in the 10 games the Bears (11-6, 1-3) had played since Bird went down, the Bears shot 42.3% from the field and 30.1% from three-point range.
With Bird (granted, the level of competition was notably lower, but still included ranked Syracuse and Texas), Cal shot 47.3% from the field and 39.4% from three-point range.
Before Bird went down, Cal averaged 74.67 points per game, and without him, the Bears scored 56.5 per game. Bird did not start against the Bruins, but played eight first-half minutes. He went 0-for-3 from the field, and 0-for-2 from three. He ran well, leaped well, got good elevation on his shots, but he’s clearly still tentative to use his jab step, which is in part a way in which he gets into a rhythm, and also gives him more space to create.
“I thought he was fine,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. “When you’re out for a month, you lose the rhythm of the game. He hesitated on a couple of his shots – not that he was afraid to shoot, but just the flow. I told him, ‘Just get your legs under you, catch and shoot the ball in rhythm, and if it doesn’t go, it doesn’t go.’ It’s hard when you haven’t played for so long, to shot-fake, make moves off the dribble, it takes a toll on you, physically, but I thought he was fine.”
Bird limped off the court with 1:44 left in the half, seemingly having trouble with his right leg. He did not return.
Bird’s original injury that came to a head against Fresno State back on Nov. 30 was a stress fracture in his left foot, but Martin said that it was a cramp on Sunday that thwarted the comeback attempt. He will be available on Wednesday against Stanford, Martin said.
“I think it was a hamstring,” Martin said. “I think he’ll be fine, as far as I know. I didn’t even chance it. When they said it was his hamstring, I didn’t bother to chance it.”
With Bird in, Cal had kept close, down by only five despite major turnover issues (we’ll get to those later), but without Bird, the Bruins were able to pay closer attention to Mathews and shut him down in the second half, and the Cal offense once again floundered. With Bird in, Mathews had more freedom to work from the outside, and while both Mathews and Kravish said that the UCLA defense didn’t change with Bird in the game, Martin certainly noticed.
“I think he’s a threat on the floor,” Martin said of Bird. “You’ve got two guys like that, who shoot the ball on the wings. He’s a threat to score. I think [the defense changed]. I think their game plan, if he wasn’t playing, was to sag and make those other guys beat you, and when he’s on the floor, is to really get out there and try to get him, because if Jabari’s on the floor, you’ve got two guys on the perimeter making plays, so it’s hard to really help like you would like to. I think it frees [Mathews] up from the standpoint of, now you can’t just sit a guy in the lane and be a help guy. Now, you have to guard [Bird].”
With Bird in, the Bears were shooting over 50%. After the break, Cal shot 40%, as UCLA started the second half by shooting 14-for-23 (60.9%).
In the Bears’ last five losses, now, they are averaging 57 points. Those five losses have come in the past six games.
“We’ve got to get better flow,” Martin said. “We’ve got to get better shots. Right now, from the perimeter, Jordan Mathews is making the most shots. We’ve got to get more guys making more shots from the perimeter.”
With Bird’s comeback shortened and Kravish once again struggling offensively, Cal could not afford to get even more short-handed, but that’s exactly what happened, as Wallace scored a paltry four points in 35 minutes. The Bears were reduced to a one-scorer team, a team much easier to defend.
“I think the way teams are guarding Tyrone, if I was those teams, I would make it somebody as big – who has size like Tyrone,” Martin said. “Tyrone’s great in transition, he’s aggressive in attacking, and when you’ve got three or four guys corralling him, that’s tough. I thought he did a really good job in the first half of penetrating guys on the pitch and finding those guys, but it’s going to be tough. When you’re the lead scorer, it’s going to be tough for you. If it’s tough like that, and you’re not getting as many shots, you’ve got to get to the free throw line, and you’ve got to get more assists.”
2. Still soft. After last week’s loss to USC, Kravish said, simply, “We’re soft.” How soft? The Bears didn’t take a single free throw in the first half against the Bruins. That’s on a team with a hard-driving Wallace and two experienced (by now) big men in Kravish and Christian Behrens.
“When you’re not able to get to the free throw line, it means you’re making shots from the perimeter, you’re passive or you’re not posting up strong,” said Martin.
All three of those things were true. Mathews had buried four of six shots from beyond the three-point line in the first half, and Kravish took one shot from the paint in the first half – a bunny hook from the middle of the post, that he made –going just 2-for-8 before the break.
“You’ve got to be able to get to the free-throw line by posting up, being aggressive off the dribble,” Martin said. “I think we haven’t gotten a lot of post production lately, so that wasn’t just today. We’ve got to be able to get the ball down the side where we’re posting up, putting pressure on the defense, getting to the free-throw line.”
The Bears had just three second-chance points in the half, and that was only because of a hustle-play save by Behrens to tip the ball to Mathews, who buried a three to cut the lead to seven with five minutes remaining.
“You’ve got to get production around the rim,” Martin said. “You've got to be able to get post production, so you can get to the free throw line. It can’t be a situation where you’re one-on-one and you get bumped. We’ve got to get production around the rim.”
Neither team got in the bonus in the first half, so there weren’t many fouls to be had (11 in the first half), but the lack of an inside game for the Bears was still very evident. Cal had a total of three offensive rebounds in the first half, while the Bruins had seven.
That said, while UCLA’s supposed big edge coming into this game was in the front court, with Parker and Looney going up against Kravish, Behrens and freshman Kingsley Okoroh, it was the Bruins’ guards that did the most damage against the Bears. In the first half, Norman Powell shot 5-of-7 for 10 points, and Isaac Hamilton went 4-for-7 from the field and 2-for-2 from three to post 10 points before the break.
Powell finished with 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting, and Hamilton finished with 13, going 5-for-9 from the field and 3-of-4 from three-point land.
As the Bruins started to make a big run in the second half, both Looney and Parker came alive, as the pair scored a combined 20 points after the break.
“I think they were more aggressive,” Martin said. “We’ve got to be ready to go. One of the things I’m yelling from the sideline – post up, you’ve got to be able to do it on the other end, you’ve got to be able to understand what’s going on, the plays that they’re running – I’ve been yelling for so long, but you’ve got to be able to execute what’s going on, on both ends of the floor. With the post defense, it’s a matter of pride.”
“We let Parker get deep,” Mathews said. “That's our fault as guards by not putting pressure on the ball. It’s a lesson for us. We’ve got to play with the same intensity all 40 minutes.”
3. The turnover battle. UCLA shot just 13-for-35 in the first half (37.1%) while the Bears went 11-for-27 (40.7%) and a robust 4-for-9 from three, but where UCLA got those extra shots was on turnovers, a problem that the Bears have dealt with all season. Cal coughed the ball up eight times in the first half, and UCLA posted 7 points off of those turnovers.
As good as Mathews was – 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting and 4-of-6 from three in the first half, and finishing the game 8-of-14 from the field and 6-for-9 from three – he led the team with five turnovers, so just getting the ball to him wasn’t a foolproof proposition.
“I think part of those turnovers, when you’re being pressured, guys are on you, they bump you, he’s making more plays off the dribble than what he’s normally doing, so that’s what happens,” Martin said. “I really want him to catch and shoot and shot-fake and then attack.”
Mathews was also tasked with guarding Hamilton – who came into the game averaging 11 points a game -- and had 10 by the break.
“He had 10, and four of those were lay-ups,” Mathews said. “He had two transition jumpers. It wasn’t really anything he was doing. He wasn’t run off any screens, wasn’t getting any 1-2 combos. It’s just part of the game. He got buckets in transition.”
Yes, Mathews had a fantastic day shooting, but overall, he was -5 in the +/- in the first half, and finished -15. Points are nice, but when your handle can’t be consistently trusted, and you’re not getting back on defense, all the points in the world can’t make up for those court crimes. One could argue that Mathews was more open because of Bird’s presence, as the Bruins had to sag off of Mathews to account for Bird. In the second half, with Bird on the bench nursing a right leg issue, Mathews started off 0-for-2 before finally hitting a lay-up 7:35 into the half. By that point, UCLA had opened up a 16-point lead, starting with a 6-0 run to start the half, as the Bears went 0-for-3 to start, and committed two turnovers in the first 3:18.
“I thought Dave had a good look at our first play, I thought Tyrone drove and had an opportunity and missed, and Tyrone got a charge,” Martin said. “They came down, they made some baskets, 6-0, and just went from there. I think we started playing catch-up, as opposed to being relaxed. They made plays. They made big shots.”
Those big shots included two three-pointers from Bryce Alford in the second half, after he started 0-for-7.
“Alford got his head up, Looney played well, and I think, more than anything, they got their hands on those extra rebounds, tips, those 50-50 balls, and they made plays to win the ballgame,” Martin said.
4. Extra possessions. The turnovers were part of a much larger battle the Bears lost. UCLA pulled down 15 offensive rebounds to Cal’s nine, and turned the ball over just six times, while the Bears turned the ball over 16 times.
Those extra chances at the basket meant that the Bruins were able to average 1.153 points per possession, while the Bears averaged 0.847. UCLA made Cal pay dearly for not taking care of the ball, scoring on 52.5% of their possessions, answering every Cal basket, and then some, as the Bears scored on just 37.3% of their possessions.
UCLA scored 22 second-chance points on the night, and 11 off of turnovers. That’s your game, right there.
“It’s always been an area of concern,” Martin said of the extra possessions. “We talk about it all the time: You’ve got to take pride in rebounding, you’ve got to box out, drive guys back and let the ball fall in your hand. That’s a matter of pride. We spend time boxing out, and we’ve got to spend more time on it.”
Next up for the Bears is Stanford, which visits Haas Pavilion on Wednesday at 8 p.m. PT, with the game broadcast on ESPN U. While there were plenty of Cal recruiting targets in Pauley to watch the Bears on Sunday, Cal will have a visitor back on its own campus on Wednesday.