No, the above title isn’t referring to the exciting brand of basketball directed by Ben Howland down in Westwood, but instead to its older, staler cousin to the north, the program run by Ben Braun. I hear the charge ‘Cal Basketball is boring’ levied at the team a lot, and I have to admit, the notion is not without merit. However, it’s a rather odd idea. What does the word ‘boring’ even mean when applied to a basketball team, and is that a bad thing?
How is a particular basketball team, relative to its competitors, considered boring? One might as well ask, ‘what makes a team exciting?’, or ‘what is exciting about basketball?’ Well, blocked shots are pretty exciting, as are steals. Slam dunks are very exciting, and alley-oops are especially so. Driving to the hoop can be exciting. A transition offense is exciting, as are high scoring teams in general. Now, while Cal basketball does incorporate most of these elements, the above description certainly doesn’t fit very well any Cal team I can remember. Cal basketball does, in fact, lack excitement.
Conversely, what can be boring about basketball? Well, jump shots aren’t particularly exciting. Passing the ball around the perimeter certainly isn’t exciting, and 3-point shots are only exciting when they go in. Most half-court offenses aren’t as exciting, and low-scoring games in general can be rather tepid affairs. Does this sound like a better description of Cal basketball? Yeah, I thought so.
Some teams are inherently more exciting. Their games lend themselves to a certain sense of drama. There are teams (I’m thinking of recent Arizona squads here) who have such talent and athleticism that, even if they’re playing poorly, you just know that they’re going to go on a massive scoring run sooner or later, and all the other team can do is hope that when it comes, they can keep it to 9-0 and not let it get to 17-2 or something like that. These teams are fun to watch, and they make for great television. Steve Lavin’s teams at UCLA were like that; ultra-talented but schizophrenic. Despite being loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans, they would sleepwalk through games, often showing only flashes of brilliance. Pull an upset one night, toss out a clunker the next. The 2002 squad in particular had losses to Pepperdine and Ball State and only went 11-8 in the Pac-10, losing to Cal in the first round of the conference tournament, yet turned it on to topple No. 1 seed Cincinnati in the NCAAs and reach their third consecutive Sweet 16, saving Lavin’s job (for one more year, at least) in the process. Gosh, they were exciting, and hard to watch just the same.
Cal’s teams have never been so exciting, having neither incredible talent nor inexplicable losses in great abundance. This year’s edition has been particularly predictable. Not a single one of the Bear’s 14 wins have been a shocking upset, and only the home loss to San Diego is the least bit puzzling. They’ve been pretty consistently mediocre for most of this season, and that leads to bored fans and empty seats.
OK, Cal basketball is boring, but so what? Sure, it might not get the blood pumping for college basketball fans in general, but for Cal fans and alums, does it matter? More than anything described above, you know what’s exciting? Winning. In his book, ‘Moneyball,’ Michael Lewis cites Oakland Athletics fan surveys which state that more than anything else, winning puts butts in the seats. Braun’s particular offensive style may be rather dry, but his real problem is that his teams haven’t won enough games recently. Do that, and the complaints of ‘boring’ basketball will cease. Believe me, given the choice between ‘exciting’ and ‘winning’, I’ll take winning every time, and call it exciting just the same.