Read Part 1 of CGB's season preview here
It’s a pretty stable, easy to break down the group of bigs that will play this year. There are four forwards/centers (for our purposes, there is no real difference between the roles of forwards and center). Two returners will likely be starting and two freshmen will get significant playing time as subs off the bench.
Already that’s an improvement from last year just in terms of bodies. It was DeNesha Stallworth and Talia Caldwell, with Rama N’diaye subbing for both as necessary. There wasn’t any flexibility to deal with foul issues, bad games, injuries, or any other random problem that pops up during the course of a long season. Stallworth and N’diaye have both moved on, but Cal will get Gennifer Brandon back after a long recovery from a stress fracture in her shin, and they add two highly rated recruits in Reshanda Gray and Justine Hartman.
What we know
Talia Caldwell will carry a heavy load again
For my money Talia was the most pleasant surprise of an otherwise harsh 2010 season. She doubled her points/game and her free throw percentage and was a constant, nearly unstoppable force on the offensive boards. And she did all that with a big increase in minutes Now, because of Brandon’s injury, she’s the only returning post player who saw the floor last year. She’ll likely be a focal point of the offense and a point of emphasis for the opponent’s defense until Gennifer Brandon shakes off the rust and the freshmen integrate into the rotation.
This team will dominate the boards
When she was in the right frame of mind, DeNesha Stallworth showed an above-average ability to score. But she was never a dominating rebounder. Gennifer Brandon will get the majority of the minutes Stallworth left behind, and she is a dominating rebounder. For as good a rebounder as Talia Caldwell was last year, Brandon was better as a freshman. For comparison’s sake:
Talia Caldwell, 2010/11: 8.6 rebounds/game in 31 minutes a game
Gennifer Brandon, 2009/10: 8.5 rebounds/game . . . in just 22 minutes a game!
So when our starters are in we should fully expect to dominate the boards. But when you look at some of their high school stats, there’s reason to think that there might not be a massive drop-off when Gray and Hartman come in to play. Gray in particular registered some staggering rebounding numbers and I’ve heard her athleticism and style of play has been compared to Brandon on a number of occasions. If our guards chip in as they’ve done in the past only Stanford should challenge Cal on the boards all season.
More depth will help
It’s hard to say exactly how much lack of depth hurt the Bears last year. Certainly, having one forward/center recovering from knee injuries off the bench is tough. Objectively, there were times when Cal had to slide Lindsay Sherbert into the 4 spot of the lineup, which is far from ideal. And when you know you have no choice but to play 35 minutes, it can’t help but lower your intensity on defense and limit options strategically because starters can’t afford to get into foul trouble.
Subjectively, I think players may have gotten mentally exhausted last year. Granted, some of that may have been a side-effect of losses piling up in Pac-10 play. But at times the energy level of the team, particularly the bigs, seemed low, and that likely contributed to home losses to Washington, Washington St. and Oregon. With four posts all 100% healthy, that shouldn’t happen this year.
What we don’t know
What will we get from Gennifer Brandon?
There’s a pretty wide range of possibilities here. I’m confident that she’s 100% healthy physically, but that doesn’t mean that injuries might change her confidence mentally, or that she’ll need a certain number of games to get used to being back on the court.
On the other hand, she’s now a junior by age, with lots of time spent both observing and practicing. That’s reason enough to imagine her returning to the court better than she was as a freshman. A ‘sophomore leap’ would result in a very valuable and productive post player, and she has all the physical tools to make that happen.
What will we get from the freshmen?
Two years ago we saw the range of the freshmen transition for post players. DeNesha Stallworth had immediate success, built on that success, and eventually performed so well that she probably could have been named WNIT MVP over Alexis Gray-Lawson. Talia Caldwell was effective against certain matchups and struggled adapting to faster paced teams like Oregon. Gennifer Brandon could dominate physically but that didn’t mean instant success on offense. Brenna Heater had moments but ultimately her season was derailed by injuries.
It doesn’t matter how highly touted you are as a recruit – transitioning to college level athletics is hard. It’s tough, if not downright impossible, to guess which players have what it takes physically and mentally to adapt. Both Justine Hartman and Reshanda Gray have the ability to make big impacts this year, but don’t expect them to take over immediately. Luckily this team has enough depth that they shouldn’t have to.
Will Cal find an impact scorer inside?
I think fans can enter the season extremely confident about the rebounding Cal will get from their posts, and reasonably confident about defense. But without Stallworth, will there be a post player capable of scoring 20 points on a given night? How will Cal go about replacing the production of last year’s leading scorer?
Volume scoring isn’t what Talia Caldwell does. She doesn’t take a ton of shots and only goes up when she knows she’s likely to score. It’s a strategy that fits with her style and skill-set, and the result is a relatively efficient, high percentage shooter.
Reshanda Gray probably isn’t quite polished enough on the offensive end as a freshman. But I could see Gennifer Brandon or Justine Hartman fill the scoring void left by Stallworth. Brandon showed scoring flashes while playing about 20 minutes a game as a freshman and she has the size, athleticism and explosiveness to beat defenders in the post. It’s more a matter of how much she has developed in the last year and a half off the court, and how confident and healthy she is. Admittedly I’m going out on a limb without having really seen meaningful tape of Hartman, but everything I’ve read indicates that she’s a versatile, confident scorer for a true freshman.