The juniors on the current Cal basketball team were part of a top 5 recruiting class. The sophomores were part of a top 15 recruiting class. The freshmen were part of a top 5 recruiting class. Cal’s last three average recruiting class ranking is surpassed by just one team: Stanford, by an insignificant margin.
Over the last three years Cal women’s basketball has recruited a collection of talent on par with any other program in college basketball. The kind of talent that gets fans dreaming about conference titles and Final Fours. The kind of talent that can completely redefine a program, even one coming off of four straight NCAA tournament appearances.
For two years, achievement hasn’t matched talent.
For new coach Lindsay Gottlieb, her challenge is to immediately make talent and achievement align. I would hardly call Cal fans restless – that type external pressure doesn’t exist in women’s basketball the way it does in revenue sports. But there’s no way to call last season anything other than a major disappointment. It’s not entirely fair to place major expectations on a first year coach, but it’s also incredibly rare for a coach to inherit this level of talent. And like any good coach, I believe Gottlieb is embracing those immediate expectations.
There are all kinds of reasons the Cal women didn’t maximize their talent last year. For one thing, injuries and transfers meant Cal was without the services of three players from their heralded, 7 player recruiting class in 2009. And when losing a sophomore to injury means you’ve lost a ‘veteran’ that tells you just how young a team is. The Bears regularly started a lineup made up entirely of underclass(wo)men. But it went beyond just injuries, attrition and inexperience.How could a team go a combined 4-2 against USC, Arizona St. and Arizona but lose 5 games combined to Washington, Washington St., and Oregon – three teams with significantly inferior talent that finished in the lower half of the conference? I hate playing amateur psychologist, but there were major issues with effort, focus, chemistry, and every other intangible buzzword your usual hack announcer will throw out. And at times it was visible on the court.
It’s a complicated enough problem simply to diagnose and solve for a coach, let alone us fans. Joanne Boyle basically admitted towards the end of the year that she was out of answers. So what reason would fans have to think that things will be better this year?
Joanne Boyle did spectacular things at Cal – she saved women’s basketball the way Jeff Tedford saved football, and I would have been happy to have her back this year. But at the same time, I think this particular group of players might benefit from a change. It’s a reset, a fresh start and a second chance. Gottlieb has a certain infectious, unlimited energy that will hopefully shake this team out of its rut.
While the addition of Gottlieb’s leadership will likely help, you only need to read a few interviews with this team to get the sense that they learned the hard way from last year’s struggles. Consider the following quotes:
It’s definitely has been tough. I remember coming in my first year and talking to my dad and he goes, "Oh hopefully you’ll make the Tournament after that class, you lost Dev and Ashley." And I’m like, "Make the Tournament? What do you mean? We’re gonna make it!" Not thinking what goes into it, how hard the season gets. So I definitely would say there’s a feeling of underachievement, definitely with all the outside and spectators and this big ole class of seven players, you know?
Well, I think we had those Arizona games and then some games that we were very together. But then some stuff happened between... it's not something really to get into... but it wasn't what was supposed to be. It's kind of hard to not have a very powerful point guard, or when you have a center like DeNesha that we had who wasn't very connecting with the team. Obviously she left us because of it. I don't think the dynamic of the team was right.
We lost by thirty or something like that, and I was so mad. I thought to myself, I would give everything just to play on the floor right now, and I felt that some of the girls just... Sometimes I felt like, oh, you just play because of the scholarship. You don't understand the fact that you are in a Cal uniform, you know?
You can’t help but feel that the team is in a much better state of mind. And if you care to read between the lines of the above quotes there are certainly some implications about addition-by-subtraction. It’s only a year later, but only six of the twelve players on the active roster saw the court last year. The 2011 Bears will be a very different team, and considering what happened in 2010 that’s almost certainly a good thing.
Last year, thanks to injuries and class imbalance, Cal only suited up 9 players. Two were freshmen with limited roles, another was a senior recovering from major knee surgery, and another was a senior who had never played significant minutes in her entire career. The result was a tremendous amount of pressure on a few players, some of whom were asked to play out of position.
This year there are 12 currently healthy (knock-on-wood) players, and everybody should be available at their natural position. For the first time in a few years there’s actually enough depth that there should be some serious competition for playing time, particularly at point guard.
Will all of the changes, additions, lessons learned and extra experience add up to achievement? That will be the question that defines this season. If Cal fulfills the promise of that talent they could finish 2nd in the conference and perhaps even give Stanford a run for their money. But another season of inconsistency could leave fans wondering if the strongest recruiting class in Cal's history might fail to ever reach the NCAA tournament.
Coming soon: Frontcourt, backcourt, and Pac-12 previews