Slow start, turnovers lead to USC rout of Cal in Pac-12 home opener 80-62 photo: Cal Bears head coach Wyking Jones during recent press conference

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY–The pained look on Coach Wyking Jones’ face said it all. The question regarding repeated slow starts for Jones’ California Golden Bears, especially at Haas Pavilion, was fair given that Cal scored just eight points in the first 10 minutes of Thursday’s disappointing 80-62 loss to USC.

And Jones’ response? As honest and revealing as any Division I basketball coach ever wants to be or has to be when admitting his team was outclassed.

“It’s frustrating, but our guys aren’t trying to do that,” Jones said. “They are trying to do the right thing. They are young, it’s a process, and we have to just focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. These guys who are freshman are going to be sophomores next year, and then juniors and then seniors, and really good. You have to focus on what the light at the end of the tunnel is as opposed to what’s going on right now.”

What’s going on for Cal right now is a youth-laden club without a forceful, ball handling leader is taking its lumps.  USC, a pre-season Top 25 pick that’s dealing with a recruiting scandal and its own shortcomings, may have been the last opponent the Bears wanted to see on the occasion of their Pac-12 home opener. Those lumps Cal’s taking were hand delivered by the Trojans on Thursday.

USC’s zone look with arms and hands everywhere befuddled the Bears to the tune 22 turnovers juxtaposed against just 13 assists on 23 made baskets.  Of those 23 baskets, only eight came in the first half when Cal fell behind by 26 points (38-12 with 1:54 remaining).  The deficit grew to 30 points briefly in the second half as Cal’s issues offensively morphed into defensive indifference.  While the final score was more palatable, this marked the third time this season Cal has lost by 18 or more points at home this season.

If the light at the end of the tunnel that Coach Jones spoke of was to be interpreted literally, it would have been one lit candle at the western most juncture of BART’s Transbay Tube on Thursday.

“We have another game on Saturday against UCLA so we have to move past this and regather tomorrow morning, and prepare for UCLA,” said freshman Justice Sueing, who led the Bears with 15 points.

In fairness to the Bears, the Trojans are the last team a struggling outfit wants to see. Just ask USC’s most recent opponent Washington State.  With the Cougars methodically trying to regain their footing against the Trojans on New Years’ Eve after a first half that was as poor as Cal’s, WSU cut USC’s lead to just eight points. But on the next six possessions, Washington State committed five turnovers and saw their deficit balloon to 18 points in less than the three minutes that elapsed on the game clock.

Against Cal, USC’s zone caused the Bears to be extremely tentative to the point that guards Don Coleman and Darius McNeill became non-factors in the first 25 minutes of the game.  Cal’s normally high scoring guards combined to miss 13 of their 16 shots while committing six turnovers.  While McNeill found a way to extend his impressive streak of hitting at least one three-pointer in 14 of his 15 games as a collegian, his penetration into the paint was almost non-existent.

Marcus Lee had an impressive start offensively with a follow dunk and a couple of other buckets from point blank range, but five turnovers and foul trouble kept the Kentucky transfer from making much of a difference as the game progressed.

The Trojans were led by Nick Rakocevic with 19 points. Bennie Boatwright added 15 points, and Jordan Usher had 14 off the bench for USC.

Chimezie Metu was suspended for the first 20 minutes for his actions against Washington State in which cameras caught the 6’10” junior jabbing an opponent in the groin. Metu played 11 minutes in the second half, in which his epic dunk over Lee immediately triggered a SportsCenter alert all the way across the country at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.

The Bears return to the hardwood on Saturday when UCLA visits Haas Pavilion at 3:30pm.

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