Cal’s Defense the Key to a Run to the NCAA Tournament

Posted by Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) on February 13th, 2014

Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) is a national columnist for Rush The Court. He filed this report after California and Washington State played Wednesday night in Pullman, Washington.

Seemingly half of the Pac-12 has been considered the conference’s second-best team this season as Arizona continues to run away with the title. First it was Oregon, but the Ducks lost that title to California when the Golden Bears came into Eugene and left with a 96-83 win in mid-January. Cal held that distinction for all of two weeks before a loss to rebuilding USC began a stretch of five losses in six games. Curiously, that one win was over then-undefeated and #1 Arizona. So the Bears are a confusing bunch, led by their suddenly porous defense and inept offense. Entering last night’s game against Washington State, they had scored more than a point per possession once in their previous five games, and only held their opponents to under a point per possession once in the same span.

Behind a superb second half from Justin Cobbs, the Bears found a way to pull it out in OT. (Getty)

Behind a superb second half from Justin Cobbs, the Bears found a way to pull it out in OT. (Getty)

After Washington State junior guard DaVonte Lacy hung 39 points on them Wednesday night, including eight three-pointers, it’s safe to say Cal’s defense isn’t fixed, even if its offense showed up in a 80-76 overtime win in Pullman. In fact, the Cougars scored more points per possession than the Bears, but lost the opening tip-off and the overtime tip as well, and the Bears had the last possession in all three periods. Cal’s per-possession defensive performance was its worst in more than two months, dating back to an early December home win against Nevada, although last night’s win was just its second since beating Washington State in Berkeley a month ago.

“Washington State did a really nice job. You’ve got to give these kids credit,” Cal head coach Mike Montgomery said after the game. “They’ve had a tough time and yet they battled. They shot the daylights out of it.” In fact, the Cougars made 13-of-26 three-pointers, aided by Lacy’s 8-of-16 performance from behind the arc, and likely would have won had it not been for Golden Bears senior guard Justin Cobbs, who had 22 points – all of which came in the second half and overtime – and seven assists. Cal also struggled to contain Washington State senior forward D.J. Shelton, who finished with 18 points and 19 rebounds and was the only Cougar besides Lacy who scored in double figures. “I didn’t ever tell these guys this game was critical,” Montgomery said. “We’d lost at SC, where these guys didn’t even show up. Losing to UCLA on the road, they’re good. Stanford’s good. Arizona State’s good. But yeah, this was critical.”

California’s path for success going forward is simple: It needs to patch up its defense. If the Bears can’t stop opposing teams from scoring, they’re destined to fall out of the Pac-12 Tournament early, which would jeopardize their already tenuous bid for an NCAA Tournament bid. Cobbs can only carry them so far, regardless of how well he plays. “Any road win you can get is [worth] cherishing and it means a lot, especially in this conference, where teams are just beating up on each other,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep playing and grinding and see what happens at the end of the season.”

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