Cal Women's Basketball Season Preview Part Four: Pac-12 Preview

"UCLA 4th?! This guy is such a homer!"

 

Note: Click to read Preview Part One ; Part Two ; Part Three

Before we get started: This Is Cal Basketball has premiered, and if you have the time you can probably spend a few hours watching the many, many well produced videos they've created.  It's a spectacular introduction to the personality of the team.

Last year I boldly predicted that the Bears would finish 3rd in the Pac-10, behind obvious top 15 teams Stanford and UCLA.  They finished 7th.  Will I make the same mistake again?!  Read on to find out!  All teams are listed in predicted order of finish.

Stanford

Key Returners: Ogwumikiis (Nnemkadi, Chiney), Toni Kokenis
Key Losses: Jeannette Pohlen, Kayla Pedersen
Impact Freshmen: Amber Orrange, amongst others

Another year, another attempt to find reasons to think that the Cardinal won’t win the Pac-10 going away.  On one hand, Pedersen has been at Stanford for what seems like forever, and was generally considered a glue player in VanDerveer’s triangle offense.  And Pohlen was a revelation at point last year, a whirling dervish of energy on both ends of the floor who prevented teams from collapsing on their post players.  On the other hand, the Ogwumike sisters are probably the best returning post tandem in the country and now-sophomore Toni Kokenis looked brilliant when given time on the floor backing up Pohlen.  Stanford isn’t invincible, but it’s also naïve to think that they aren’t prohibitive favorites again.

USC

Key Returners: Ashley Corral, Brianna Gilbreath, Jackie Gemelos, Cassie Harberts
Key Losses: Kari LaPlante
Impact Freshmen: Alexyz Vaioletama, Ariya Crook-Williams, Karina Alofaituli

This is a huge, huge year for the Trojans.  Coming off a WNIT championship game appearance (after arguably getting screwed out of an NCAA spot), USC has virtually every contributing player back, and they add the 9th ranked recruiting class in the nation.  And all of this is happening with coaching changes and question marks in Berkeley and Westwood.

There are doubts, of course.  The returning core of players couldn’t really come close to beating Stanford or UCLA last year and struggled to beat Cal, Arizona and Arizona St.  Will a team of seniors improve enough to get over the hump, or will the freshmen class force their way into the rotation to try to provide that boost?

Cal

Key Returners: Layshia Clarendon, Talia Caldwell
Key Losses: DeNesha Stallworth
Impact Freshmen: Brittany Boyd, Justine Hartman

Last year I thought I was playing it safe by picking Cal to finish 3rd in the conference.  The Bears ended up 6th, a full three games back of Arizona and USC.  And yet here I am, picking the Bears to finish 3rd again.  Am I a sucker, a homer?  Perhaps.  But here’s my argument.

Last year Stanford and UCLA dominated the conference.  But look at Cal’s record against the other teams in the top half of the standings.  Against Arizona St., USC and Arizona the Bears finished a combined 4-2, with one loss coming on the road on an absurd buzzer-beater.  For all of Cal’s numerous flaws last year, they showed they had the talent to beat every non-elite team in the conference.  And Cal actually played pretty well against top-10 UCLA.

But what about the 5 losses total to Washington, Washington St. and Oregon?  Well, I think that either the team learned from those let-downs, or Coach Gottlieb has fixed the problems that caused those let-downs.  Probably both.

Honestly, UCLA would be in this spot if they had either Nikki Caldwell or Jasmine Dixon.  But they don't, and Cal has the talent to take advantage.  Prove me right Bears, prove me right!

UCLA

Key Returners: Markel Walker, Atonye Nyingifa
Key Injuries: Jasmine Dixon (ACL)
Key Losses: Darxia Morris, Doreena Campbell.  Oh yeah, and Nikki Caldwell
Impact Freshmen: Kacy Swain

Tough, tough off-season for the Bruins.  Nikki Caldwell was offered a king’s ransom by women’s basketball standards and UCLA wouldn’t or couldn’t match that offer.  So Caldwell left for LSU and took her entire staff and the 27th best recruit in the nation with her.  Then the 5th best recruit in the nation left for Cal.  Then their unquestioned best player tore her Achilles Tendon and will almost certainly miss the entire year.

UCLA does have some returning talent and managed to hold on to three highly regarded recruits, so it’s not all doom and gloom.  Walker is a solid player inside, so the main key will be replacing guard production lost with the graduation of heady veterans Morris and Campbell.  Still, Dixon’s injury means UCLA will have lost 5 of their top 8 rotation players, the heart and soul of a team that reached heights not seen in a decade in Westwood.

And will UCLA have the same level of preparation, toughness and attitude that they had under Caldwell?  Her teams were tough as nails and they inflicted untold horrors on opponents unprepared to handle stifling defense.  New coach Cori Close is much more known for her offensive acumen.  After a few years watching Cal play against Caldwell’s defense, I’m thrilled with any change at head coach.  It will be interesting to see where UCLA falls on the ‘rebuilding vs. reloading’ spectrum.

Arizona St.

Key Returners: Kimberly Brandon
Key Losses: Dymond Simon, Becca Tobin, Tenaya Watson, Head Coach Charli Turner Thorne (temporarily)
Impact Freshmen: Eliza Normen

On the surface, Arizona St. might appear to be in a rebuilding year.  They’re losing three of their top four scorers.  On the other hand, I’m not sure if losing Dymond Simon might be addition by subtraction.  She led ASU in scoring, but she did so by taking a ton of low percentage shots, and with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio as well.

Becca Tobin might be the biggest loss, and in any case it’s just not clear if ASU has the talent to move past their recent level of achievement, which has been ‘solid but unspectacular fringe tournament team.’  Which admittedly has been better than Cal over the last two years, but I’d like to think that Cal’s ceiling is a little higher than that.

Also of note: long time coach Charli Turner Thorne is taking a coaching sabbatical and planning on returning in 2012.  Long time assistant coach Joseph Anders will take the reigns in her stead.  I really have no idea how this will impact ASU, but it’s worth watching.

Utah

Key Returners: Iwalani Rodrigues, Michelle Plouffe, Janita Badon
Key Losses: Michelle Harrison
Impact Freshmen: None

Utah probably picked the right year to join the Pac-12.  The young Utes struggled at times last year, but improbably coalesced in time for a stunning four game run through the Mountain West tournament, earning an NCAA spot in the process.  They were promptly eliminated by eventual national champion Notre Dame, but actually gave the Fighting Irish a pretty decent game.

Utah only loses one rotation player from that team and none of their high volume scorers.  Will they have the type of talent to compete night in and night out with Pac-12 teams?

Tough to say.  But competitive losses to Stanford and Washington last year suggest they might have what it takes.

Washington St.

Key Returners: Sage Romberg, Jazmine Perkins, Ireti Amojo
Key Losses: Katie Madison
Impact Freshmen: Shalie Dheenshaw

The Cougars were the surprise team of 2010-11.  That a team could go 6-12 in conference and still be a (pleasant) surprise speaks to the depths the WSU program had fallen into.  Perhaps most importantly, WSU generally avoided the type of humiliating blowouts that were typical of the team for most of the last decade.  And the Cougars did it with only one senior in their main rotation. 

So how much better can Washington St. get this year?  If things fall right, Washington St. could finish in the top half of the conference, behind the California schools and Arizona St.  That likely won’t be enough to make the NCAA tournament, but the fact that it can even be considered is a sign of tremendous progress.  I’m guessing Coug Of The Year candidate June Daugherty keeps Wazzu fans happy.

Oregon

Key Returners: Nia Jackson, Amanda Johnson, Ariel Thomas
Key Losses: Kristi Fallin
Impact Freshmen: Jordan Loera

Last year was going to be a rebuilding year for Oregon, but even then it was tough going in Eugene.  Without Taylor Lilley the Ducks struggled mightily and then had some injury problems to boot.  The healthy return of Nia Jackson and a full year of experience in Paul Westhead’s system for a few promising sophomores should be enough to make Oregon a dangerous team.  But even a talent like Lilley only got Oregon into the WNIT, which is their likely post-season destination this year.

Arizona

Key Returners: Davellyn Whyte, Brooke Jackson, Shanita Arnold
Key Losses: Ify Ibekwe, Soana Lucet
Impact Freshmen: Aley Rhode

Arizona was one of the worst rebounding teams in the conference last year, and they don’t have Ify Ibekwe in the middle to suck up 10 rebounds a game.  Presumably somebody will attempt to replace that production, but at times Ibekwe seemed to be the only player keeping Arizona competitive.  In my mind, she is easily the biggest loss to graduation in the conference.

Davellyn Whyte, Shanita Arnold and Brooke Jackson are all solid perimeter players, but Arizona doesn’t return a single player that averaged 5 rebounds per game last year.  Their four post players include two JC transfers and one true freshmen (who, admittedly, is a 6’5’’, 4 star recruit.  Watch out for Aley Rhode!). With only two seniors on the roster it’s probably going to be a rebuilding year in Tucson.

Washington

Key Returners: Kristi Kingma, Regina Rogers
Key Losses:  Sarah Morton
Impact Freshmen: Jazmine Davis PG, Talia Walton F

Expectations are a funny thing.  Washington St. won 6 conference games and their coach is up for a prestigious award.  Washington’s coach won 6 conference games (including a sweep of their rivals!) and got fired.  Washington made what looks to be a pretty good hire, luring Kevin McGuff from Xavier, which you may recall was a couple of devastating blown lay-ups away from a stunning upset of Stanford in the NCAAs two years back.

Kristi Kingma is a pretty solid player to build a team around, and there are a few promising freshmen.  But I’m afraid it might be the same old story: I could imagine Washington surprising a few people if Regina Rogers can solve her health, conditioning and fouling problems to the point that she can play more than half a game.  But at this point, in her forth year in Seattle, I’m guessing she is what she is – an excellent post player playing 7th man minutes off the bench.

I do think that, with his track record, McGuff will eventually build a winner in Seattle, but not in one year.  UW would do well to finish in the middle of the conference standings.

Colorado

Key Returners: Chucky Jeffery
Key Losses: Brittany Spears
Impact Freshmen: Arielle Roberson

Colorado wasn’t a good team last year (despite beating Cal so decisively in Boulder) and they lost by far their best player in Brittany Spears, so I’m not anticipating Colorado setting the world on fire in the Pac-12.  Jeffery is an excellent, versatile player who is the leading returning scorer, rebounder and passer.  Will she have enough talent around her to keep the Buffs competitive?  It’s worth noting that Colorado tends to play well at home, in the altitude, and Cal does visit Boulder this year.  2011 WNIT redux?  Let’s hope not!


Oregon St.

Key Returners: Alyssa Martin, Sage Indendi, Earlysia Marchbanks
Key Losses: El Sara Greer
Impact Freshmen: None

The toughest job in college sports last year wasn’t a complete disaster.  The Beavers had a solid non-conference showing and survived some spectacularly bad luck in the first half of the conference season to win a couple games down the stretch.  OSU’s 15 losses to teams not named Stanford came by an average of just 7.6 points, including 11 single digit defeats.  That’s almost stunningly competitive (and unlucky) for a team that finished the year 2-17 in conference play.

So if OSU can turn just a few of those narrow defeats into wins they could immediately push their record into the realm of respectability.  And a team with seven freshman and two sophomores can typically be expected to improve a great deal the next year.  It’s pretty unlikely that the Beavers have the type of talent to push too far away from the bottom of the conference, but here’s guessing that Scott Rueck is helping to push out the memory of LaVonda Wagner much faster than anybody anticipated.

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