By Morris Phillips
This Cal-UCLA pairing isn’t looking much like a rivalry right now.
The Bears looked like they were stuck in Southern California freeway traffic in falling to UCLA 76-56 on Sunday. The loss was Cal’s seventh in a row against the Bruins, and they haven’t won in Pauley Pavilion since 2010–well before one of college basketball’s best known venues underwent a major renovation.
Coach Mark Fox’s club didn’t actually get stuck in traffic. But they did deal with COVID-19 snafus that kept Makale Foreman and a second player in Berkeley on Saturday while the rest of the team traveled to Los Angeles. Those two players joined the team for the game but missed Saturday’s practice and the pre-game walk through. Fox wasn’t succinct, but apparently both players may have been saddled with false positive tests that took 24 hours to correct.
That upheaval along with playing one of the Pac-12’s championship favorites on a date historically early in the schedule left Cal disorganized, especially in the game’s first half.
“We were a step behind every play,” Fox said. “They shot nearly 70% in the first half. You have to give them credit for some for that, but obviously our defense was nowhere near where we wanted to be. Offensively, I didn’t think we played with any authority.”
At one point, the Bruins scored 15 straight to extend their lead to 31-11 with 6:57 remaining. The Bears would trail 40-22 at the half without recording a steal, a blocked shot or an offensive rebound.
“Yeah, we defended without fouling,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “Also they only had three offensive rebounds on 27 misses, so we worked hard on our boxing out. We know they’re a big, strong, physical team. The most irrelevant stat on a statsheet is the halftime score. I laugh when I hear ‘ya, ya, we were winning at half.’ That means you lost if somebody says that. We talk about strategy at halftime. What had hurt us, adjustments, we were well-aware that Mark Fox’s teams are not going to quit.”
The Bears did string together five consecutive possessions with points, getting them to within 66-54 with 4:30 remaining. But UCLA responded, scoring 10 straight to re-establish a 20-point lead.
Foreman led Cal with 14 points. Ryan Betley and Matt Bradley each contributed 12 points.
Both programs have remarkable similarities in the last two seasons, but UCLA and Cal have embarked on dissimilar trajectories. Both Fox and Cronin are veteran coaches in their second seasons at their respective schools, and in both programs, tough times and decisions have already hashed out. But the Bruins have better weathered the storms, starting with their 50-40 victory over Cal in January that sparked a 10-3 finish to last season that vaulted the Bruins to the top of the Pac-12 standings.
The Bruins have the better recruits but things didn’t gel until Cronin repeatedly demanded a defensive approach and got his team to buy in.
And the Bears? For Fox and his crew, their have been breakthroughs–seven conference wins last season and a Pac-12 tournament upset of Stanford–but the losses have been glaring, including Sunday’s.
Ironically, both teams returned eight rotation players from January’s game into Sunday. The Bruins have a clear, defensive identity augmented by offensive standouts Tyger Campbell (11 points, 12 assists on Sunday) and NBA prospect Chris Smith (21 points, two steals), a long armed shooter and defender who has grown at both ends of the floor.
Of Cal’s eight returners, none seems poised for stardom, including Bradley, who watched the final minutes from the bench as Cal briefly rallied. More specifically, none of the eight has added a secondary skill that will help Fox fill in the gaps. The Bears absence of an offensive facilitator and a secondary scorer needs to be addressed. Which players can answer the call?
The Bears continue their Los Angeles swing at Pepperdine on Wednesday. The Waves took the Bruins to three overtimes last week in San Diego before falling 107-98.