Gary A. Vasquez / USA TODAY Sports

ANALYSIS: Cal relies on Ivan Rabb down low against Washington State in second half

BERKELEY -- Whether he liked it or not, Cal relied heavily on sophomore forward Ivan Rabb down low in the second half against Washington State.

BERKELEY -- All season long, the California Golden Bears (13-5, 4-2) have known that their success would be defined by the play of their best player—sophomore forward Ivan Rabb

Rabb’s NBA talent forces opposing teams to stray away from a traditional game plan. This season, many teams have countered Rabb’s talent by willingly giving up open shots outside. Because the Bears have not consistently hit the three-point shot (a pedestrian 36.7% from beyond the arc), opposing teams continue to force the ball out of Rabb’s hands, daring any other player to beat them. In the first half of Cal’s sloppy 58-54 win over Washington State (9-8, 2-3), the issue of the three-point shot came to the forefront. The Bears' inconsistent shooting from the outside meant that the Cougars’ defense could put all of their energy into making life difficult in the paint for Rabb. Washington State positioned itself defensively to only allow Rabb to catch the ball on the baseline or in the high post, with a plan of immediately double-teaming him and forcing the ball out of his hands before he could attack the basket.

That strategy oftentimes resulted in open three-point attempts along the perimeter. Yet, Cal's shooting struggles continued. The Bears' inability to hit open jump shots meant many empty possessions, allowing the Cougars to keep the contest much closer than it should have been (Cal was favored by 16.5 points).

The Bears shot 4-for-12 from three-point range in the first half, despite six of those attempts coming with no defender being within three feet of the shooter. Senior guard Jabari Bird, who came into the contest shooting 33.3% from three-point range, finished the frame 0-for-4 from deep. His slow start affected the rhythm and flow of the offense, which was stagnating all too frequently as a result.

The lack of accurate shooting meant that Washington State could continue focusing its defense inside. Cal even struggled from close range, going 6-for-16 on two-point shots in the half. Rabb himself only managed 4 points on 1-for-5 shooting, struggling to do anything against the double-team. The halftime score may have only shown a 29-28 deficit, but the 35.7% first-half shooting paired with six turnovers (versus only five assists) highlighted the major offensive issues that have plagued Cal despite having a potential NBA lottery pick on their roster.

"We just couldn’t get shots to fall,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said after the game. “I thought our inability to not make shots dictate our tempo and our energy level. But we did just enough obviously to win the game and compete.” With Cal’s perimeter offense continuing to struggle, Martin looked for alternative ways to jumpstart the offense inside for the second half. Rather than hope for his team’s inconsistent shooting to pick up, he relied on the sheer talent of Rabb to take over the game.

Martin put Rabb in isolation much of the second half, oftentimes being the only offensive player on his half of the court. The extra space made it difficult for the Cougars to find ways to double team Rabb in time, allowing him to be a bit more aggressive in looking for ways to score.

When Rabb was not double-teamed, he was aggressive—getting looks with his midrange jump shot, or by attacking the rim and getting to the free-throw line. In the first half, only 6 of Cal’s 32 possessions ended with Rabb attempting to score (19% of Cal’s possessions). In the second half, Rabb attempted to score on 11 of Cal’s 26 possessions (42%). The second half strategy was clear: Rabb was going to attack the basket, and was going to rely on his sheer talent to score points and will his team to victory. 

When Washington State did manage to double team Rabb in the second half, he found the open man more times than not, occasionally finding his fellow big men with a size matchup down low for easy scores. With under a minute to go in the game and the Bears only up by one, Rabb allowed the defense to collapse on him, only to quickly get the ball on the perimeter and instigate the passing sequence to find Bird for the open three-point shot.

Finally, on his sixth three-point shot attempt of the afternoon, Bird connected. His first three-point make of the game put Cal up by 4 with 53 seconds left, providing a cushion that the Bears would not relinquish.

“He’s a big time player,” said Rabb of his teammate Bird, who also recorded his 1,000th career point with that shot. “At the end of the day, we expect him to step up. At the beginning of the game, I didn’t really think of the 1,000th point. I didn’t think he was really pressing for it. He made it big at the end of the game.” Such is the theme of Cal’s up-and-down season: As the offense goes, so do the Bears. But when the offense really struggles, the strategy is simple: run everything through Ivan Rabb, and let him singlehandedly take on defenses and make plays with his sheer talent. Against Washington State, at home, the strategy proved to work jus enough. 

“We need to take care of the ball,” senior guard Sam Singer said during the postgame conference. “Shoot the right shots instead of quick shots, and we need to be a lot more efficient on offense.

“Defensively, we seem to be starting out okay. We got stops early in the game, but we weren’t scoring efficiently.”

After struggling in the first half, Rabb scored 10 points on 3-for-6 shooting, while making five separate trips to the free throw line in the second half. While his teammates continued to struggle hitting open looks, they were efficient enough to escape with a home win. After struggling in the first half, the Bears improved their shooting to 43.5% in the 2nd half. After attempting only four free throws in the first half, Cal managed to attempt 16 in the second half. Cal’s three-point shot attempts went from 12 in the first half, to 7 in the second half. Most importantly, Cal’s turnover numbers improved from six in the first half to only one in the second half. All of these adjustments were due to the offense making sure that Rabb would get better looks. All in all, the changes paid off.

Rabb’s 14 total points and 12 rebounds were good enough for another double-double, his fifth in six conference matches this season.

Such is the theme for this California squad: if all else fails, give it to young Ivan and have him do everything, and pray to the Oski in the sky that this will be enough.

In the postgame press conference, Rabb used a standard sports cliché to discuss the narrow home win. 

“In the end, a win is a win," Rabb said.

On Saturday afternoon, it was enough.

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