Men's Basketball

Frustrated by Syracuse’s zone defense, Cal guard Crabbe struggles to score in uncharacteristic performance

Nate Shron | Staff Photographer

California guard Allen Crabbe walks on the court during the Golden Bears' 66-60 loss to Syracuse on Saturday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Crabbe, constantly frustrated by the Orange's 2-3 zone defense, finished with only eight points.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — When Allen Crabbe stepped into the shot, rising to fire from five feet beyond the 3-point line, the voice of a young boy rang out from behind press row.

“That’s way too deep!” the boy yelled to his friend.

But an instant later the ball splashed through, touching no part of the rim and dropping to the floor along with the mouths of the two children.

This was Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, the shooting guard capable of lighting up an arena from well beyond the arc with a stroke so smooth his teammates call it effortless.

This was Allen Crabbe, swishing home his last meaningful basket in a game of frustration that ended his junior season.

Crabbe was a nonfactor in Saturday’s 66-60 loss to Syracuse, stifled by the zone defense that never allowed him to get comfortable and gave him only one clean look at the basket. He finished with eight total points, 10 below his season average, and attempted only nine total shots. Wherever he went, a defender was there. And Crabbe could do nothing about it.

“I think he was getting a little frustrated,” Syracuse guard Brandon Triche said. “We were pushing him out three and four feet behind the 3-point line. He did a good job trying to penetrate and find guys. But we made sure he didn’t get in a good shooting rhythm.”

That one spectacular 3-pointer, which came midway through the first half and cut the Syracuse lead to 11-7, was Crabbe’s only made basket until mop-up time in the closing minutes. For the 29 minutes between field goals, he was ineffective, passive and off his game that made him one of the best guards in the country.

Time and again he passed on open and semi-open looks on Saturday, opting to pass to teammates when he should have been taking shots. The Golden Bears offense predicated on his scoring, and without it his teammates seemed unsure who should be taking the shots.

Crabbe was already cursing by his team’s second possession of the game, baffled by the Syracuse 2-3 zone that is menacing on tape and mind-blowing in person. A few possessions later he turned the ball over by stepping out of bounds, pushed to the sideline by the width of the defense.

“They keyed in on me,” Crabbe said. “The shots that I thought I would probably get weren’t there. And they took things away from me.”

Instead, California turned inside for scoring. Forwards Richard Solomon and Robert Thurman, the latter long and athletic while the former is stocky and strong, combined for 31 points on the interior but could not make up the early deficit.

The Golden Bears turned the ball over on seven straight possessions in the early portion of the game, and they played from behind the rest of the way.

It created a scenario in which Crabbe’s shooting — he had 10 games with three or more 3-pointers this season — could have brought them back. He even said on Friday that his eyes lit up a bit at the prospect of playing a team that relies exclusively on zone defense.

When he took the court Saturday, though, everything was different. Crabbe said California had seen zone throughout the year from a handful of teams in the Pac-12, but that was never for more than few minutes. Against Syracuse he was bumped, pushed and shadowed until he had backed so far behind the 3-point line that his shooting became, essentially, irrelevant.

“They weren’t leaving Allen,” California head coach Mike Montgomery said. “Whatever zone it was, they knew where Crabbe was at all times. And he’s the one guy that, percentage-wise, can shoot the ball.”

With 2:15 remaining, and the game out of hand, Crabbe connected on his second and final 3-point shot. He added a jumper shortly thereafter, finishing his night with three points that mattered and five that did not.

On Friday he exuded confidence, and his teammate Justin Cobbs said he scores with ease.

On Saturday he was frustrated, because he realized scoring is not that easy.

Said Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams: “We knew that if we were going to win we had to shut him down.”


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