The George Washington Colonials approached the California Golden Bears pretty much the way everyone else has this season: zone up defensively to try to slow down the Bears in transition and make it harder on them to get the ball into their post, unquestionably their strength over the last three to four years since this class of seniors came to Berkeley as highly-touted freshmen.
Over the last couple seasons, the very fact of facing a zone might have been enough to keep Cal out of their rhythm. They might've been victimized by turnovers or their own impatience to settle for 3-pointers instead of looking for shots more within their comfort zone.
But things have been a bit different this season in large part due to their increased patience when they attack the zone.
"We just felt that our zone could maybe take them deeper in the shot clock and keep 'em off balance," said George Washington coach Jonathan Tsipis after the game. "But I think if you watch them on film last year as opposed to this year, their guards are much more active against the zone - they're putting the ball on the ground, they're getting in the gaps. I don't think they settle for threes - they really try to pound the ball inside. And I think even when they do take jumpers they get such good position inside."
Despite the best efforts of a generally spirited Colonials team to for the Golden Bears out of their comfort zone, Cal's first eight points came from their post players; those opening three minutes weren't so much a harbinger of things to come as the continuation of a routine that seems set in stone at Haas Pavilion.
The dance between the Golden Bears and their opponents usually includes a mix of man and zone, as it did in the George Washington affair, in an effort to keep them on the toes before they eventually go about their standard business of finding a way to score in the paint, whether it be off an offensive rebound or post up on the block.
The scouting report on stopping Cal is so clear that it can almost suck the excitement out of an otherwise milestone season for the program. Things have become so routine and so difficult to disrupt that Cal games could easily become boring in that there's no flow, Cal's season increasingly monotonous in that the overarching narrative of any game is clear before tip. One team slowing the game with a zone while the other continually pounds it inside simply doesn't make for the prettiest basketball.
Yet the narrative of how this program got to this point of moving from a fringe NCAA tournament team to clearly deserving a top 10 ranking over the past two years is what makes this season fascinating if you're not exclusively a fan of the Golden Bears and satisfying if you are.
Underlying the decision of Cal opponents to stick with zone defense despite getting burned in the post anyway while shutting down the perimeter is a simple truth: most teams don't have any solution for stopping Cal.
After all, George Washington did utilize a mix of zone and man defense.
"I thought tonight GW mixed up their defenses pretty well and I think it kept us off balance a little bit," second year California coach Lindsay Gottlieb said during her press conference after the George Washington game on Friday. "I think we never quite got into the offensive flow that we wanted to, but I wouldn't attribute that to them playing zone and we weren't ready for that. We're always ready for zone. I think it was more just GW doing a great job changing things and us never feeling exactly comfortable, which may be expected with a week off."
The challenge for the Colonials in playing man was not only containing Golden Bears leading scorer Layshia Clarendon on the wing, but also a mismatch at point guard: as long as 5'3" point guard was on the court opposite Cal's 5'9" Brittany Boyd, man was bound to be ineffective. It was a similar dilemma that the Kansas Jayhawks faced a week before as Cal dominated the post against zone and exploited mismatches against man defense, whether by going at the 5'4" Angel Goodrich or continuing to find touches for their post players.
"By design, we've worked on it, kind of knowing that we'd want to use [zone defense] coming out here...and mix it up just from a tempo standpoint," said Kansas Jayhawks coach Bonnie Hendrickson after their 88-79 loss to Cal. "We tried to stay away from it to start the game because they've hit a lot of corner threes when people started in the zone early. So I think we waited until first media (timeout) then we started to play it miss and make.
"We were good at times and we weren't good at times. We were much better in the first half. In the second half they went on a little run; I think they scored on 5 of 7 possessions then we had to get out of it. And it wasn't necessarily from the three - it just went one on one inside (because) we just got ourselves spread out."
And that's just the story in halfcourt sets. Try to pressure Cal full court and Boyd will eviscerate the press and create easy buckets for her teammates in transition. Or as the Colonials found out on Friday, commit turnovers and Cal will run the ball back the other way to make you pay. Whereas in the past a zone could stifle a Cal team without a whole lot of consistent perimeter shooting threats, that sort of flexibility and resilience is a sign of maturity from their players and a coaching staff that figured out how to help the team play through the increasingly obvious scout.
"Last year I got the job, you want to put in your offense, you want to put in your system, and we probably spent 80% of our time working on man-to-man offenses, and then we saw 90% of zone last year," said Gottlieb when asked about the amount of zone they've faced thus far this year. "So coming into this year I know no one can match up with our post players, we have very fast guards, so we know we are going to face a lot of zone, and I think we average a lot of points."
While still acknowledging Cal's obvious weakness from beyond the 3-point arc - the shot 30.1% from beyond the arc during non-conference play and just 1-for-11 against George Washington - the picture that emerges after watching multiple opponents resort to the same ultimately ineffective strategy is one of an extremely balanced team.
"I believe in this team more than anyone because I see them every day and I know what they are capable of," said Gottlieb after the GW win. "I think the balance is something that I'm really proud of. I think that we have found multiple people in double figures are something that I'm really excited about. I think our ability to sometimes play through the post and sometimes have it be Layshia scoring 28, whatever it may be, that's the stuff that were excited about."
Prior to the Kansas game Gottlieb referred to in which Clarendon scored 28 points, Nick over at California Golden Blogs wrote in his preview that the game would be a big test for the visiting Jayhawks because they were relatively untested to that point. However, something similar could be said about the Golden Bears: though they had played a tougher schedule, they still had yet to beat a ranked opponent (for whatever the rankings are worth this season). That Kansas game was significant in that Cal showed they could impose their will against a ranked opponent just as they did against anyone else - everything was clicking from Boyd to Clarendon to the post play, which were all buoyed by a defensive game plan that included limiting Jayhawks star center Carolyn Davis and turning point guard Angel Goodrich into a (contested) jump shooter.
But the win against the Colonials was important for another reason: it was the latest example that Cal can beat the teams they're "supposed" to beat when things aren't quite clicking on all cylinders.
To the Colonials' credit, Clarendon was held to just 3-for-5 shooting from the field, although she got herself to 12 points with the help of 6-for-6 free throw shooting. Boyd was just 3-for-11 with four turnovers and three assists on Friday and after showing signs of frustration in the second half, Gottlieb and assistant coach Charmin Smith each had a brief chat with their sophomore point guard on the bench.
"What I was talking to her tonight about was that she's made herself and elite player and so just having her handle the ebb and flow of the game," Gottlieb said after the game when asked about what she discussed with Boyd after taking her out at the 12:36 mark in the second half. "If her shots aren't falling, if calls aren't going her way, still being that leader on the floor and that the team relies on that and she was really responsive to that. I thought she bounced back and made some really critical plays.
"But we talk to all of them. You feel like those learning opportunities are so huge when you have a young point guard and I love that about Brittany. She likes that coaching."
With their floor leader out of the game, Cal continued to go about their business of applying full court pressure and went on a 5-0 run. When a refocused Boyd returned to the game about three minutes later, the momentum continued and ended up becoming part of a nearly 10-minute, game-deciding 20-0 run.
Clearly this is a team with room for growth, from their starting point guard as well as the team as a whole. But what Cal has shown thus far is that they have all the tools to keep themselves among the elite through what should be a much more difficult conference schedule than women's basketball fans are used to and perhaps make an even deeper tournament run than was expected prior to the season.
"I haven't been trying to think about Pac-12 play until now because it was like every game is the most important game," Cal forward Talia Caldwell said after GW win in which she scored a game-high 19 points and grabbed a game-high tying eight rebounds. "It just feels good to get through preseason one chunk at a time. So now, looking forward to the Pac-12 I mean as a team, we know our identity, the posts rebound, we have a great floor rotation, everyone is great, and we compete hard in practice. We just know what we do and we know that we need to do it better and that we need to do it cleaner and harder and just be consistent all year, keep that same energy and love and enjoy the game."
The biggest improvement between now and two years ago is that in addition to knowing their identity, it's an identity that's flexible enough to be responsive in the face of the challenges that opponents present. It's an important sign of maturity for the program and figures to help them finish the season with a legacy more significant than their program-best start.