(photo from calbears.com)
By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, CA–The most bizarre–and challenging–regular season of Cal Bears basketball has come to a close. Unfortunately, there was nothing far out and strange about Saturday’s loss to Oregon at Haas Pavilion.
In fact, it was more of the same: Cal played hard, and played focused, but we’re simply outclassed by the Ducks in a 74-63 decision.
LJ Figueroa led Oregon with 20 points, 14 rebounds, and five steals as the Ducks scored the game’s first four points and led start to finish, and by as much as 19 points in the second half. Eugene Omoruyi had 21 points, and Chris Duarte, 17 for the Ducks, who have won seven of eight.
“He definitely was the difference in the game,” UO coach Dana Altman said of Figueroa. “His activity defensively, early boards, I thought he was really good. Thought he played his tail off and did some really good things.”
Figueroa did a little of everything, but his work as the point man in the Ducks’ aggressive zone kept Cal’s offense from finding any rhythm as referenced by their paltry total of 14 assists, with eight of those coming from the two guys Cal most needs to score, not facilitate, Matt Bradley and Grant Anticevich. When Figueroa wasn’t disrupting Cal’s attack, his steals led led to a decisive 27-11 edge for Oregon in points off turnovers.
“Those easy baskets they get really impact your defensive numbers,” coach Mark Fox said. “I thought our half court defense finally looked like it did a year ago, but the turnovers, the easy baskets were really the difference in the game.”
Fox admitted that the season began with his coaching staff concerned that their point guard play might be lacking, and as the season turned to conference play, Pac-12 opponents forced the issue on a nightly basis. The Bears saw the majority of their opponents build a wall at the 3-point circle and severely limit Cal’s dribble penetration leading to tough perimeter shots or turnovers. The Ducks, with the smallish, quick lineup may have been the best at it, as they again stopped Cal at the point of attack as they did in an easy win in Eugene in January.
Bradley was made to suffer the most, as Cal’s leading scorer finished with 12 points and four turnovers. Ryan Betley led Cal with 13 points and Andre Kelly added 12. The Bears trailed 34-27 at the break after shooting 39 percent from the floor. Their shooting improved to 52 percent in the second half, but they still fell behind 70-51 before an 8-0 run with three minutes left brought some respectability.
The Bears (8-19, 3-17) last place finish in the Pac-12 comes with an alarming distinction: among Power 5 conference schools (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) only Boston College will finish the season with a lower power rating according to current Real Time RPI rankings. The Eagles, who fired coach Jim Christian mid-season on February 15, currently rank 261 out of 347, while Cal comes in at 246. What’s really disturbing is the company Cal keeps with them finishing far lower down the Division I ladder than the worst Power 5 teams typically finish with North Carolina A&T (11-10 in the MEAC) one spot ahead of Cal, and Manhattan (6-11 in the MAAC) one spot behind.
“It’s been a tough year to have a tough year,” Fox said of a season where his team has been isolated from other students, their campus environment and even themselves (only once did the team dine together in what was a socially distanced meal held outdoors) along with the mounting losses.
Fox is hoping that his team’s spirits will improve with fans and their parents present for the first time this season at the Pac-12 Tournament starting March 10. But even then, the players won’t be able to interact with their families due to COVID-19 protocols, limiting them to friendly waves and blown kisses from the arena floor into the stands.
And while several conference teams, including Oregon, play makeup games to cover for the season’s numerous postponements, the Bears must wait 12 days for the inevitability that they will at some point suffer their 20th and season-ending loss in Las Vegas.