Before you start, watch the above video. Great highlights from Hawaii and some very emotional locker room scenes before and after games. Then, read this interview with Reshanda Gray. A must read for Cal fans.
This team is close. Very close.
Close to what, though? Obviously, close to notching multiple big wins. A two point loss to undefeated Rutgers on the road. A one point loss to 5-1 Texas on a neutral court. An actual win over a veteran Virginia squad with a pretty good new coach that beat Tennessee.
But how close are they to maximizing talent and fulfilling expectations? That’s a harder question to answer, mostly because only a few hundred people saw how they performed in Hawaii in person. (It’s for that reason that I’m not going to review those games in any kind of depth). I’ve seen three games so far this year and listened to two others. My impressions are almost unanimously positive:
-Cal’s shooting has been above-average (16th in the nation in 2 pt. field goal percentage*)
-Cal’s defense has been solid, if unspectacular (.776 points per possession allowed, 79th in the nation*)
-Cal’s rebounding has been elite (10th in the nation in rebounding percentage*)
When you can combine efficiency stats like that it can lead to special seasons. Of course, we all know the one area that has been plaguing the Bears: Turnovers. Now, before we get too far into it, a couple points. Cal’s turnover problems may seem just a bit worse than they are in reality for two reasons:
1) Cal is playing at a much faster rate this season. More possessions = more chances to turn the ball over each game. It’s also arguable that playing faster and more aggressively might lead to more chances to throw the ball away, commit charges, and otherwise turn the ball over.
2) It’s a simple fact that women’s basketball has more turnovers than men’s basketball, so if you are relatively new to the women’s game, your perceptions might be shaded a bit. Comparing stats over the last few years, the turnover percentage in the women’s games seems to be about 3% higher on average than the men’s game.
Still, even within that context the turnovers are the one thing holding the Bears back from arguably an elite status. Cal has a turnover percentage of 28%, which would probably cripple the offense if the Bears weren't so good at scoring when they actually get a shot off. So why should you be optimistic about Cal’s chances to improve ball security?
I doubt that this team will ever completely eliminate their turnover problems. But this is the first year under coach Gottlieb’s system. That means getting used to playing fast after two years slowing it down under Coach Boyle. And lest we forget, this team does have a freshman point guard. Talented though Brittany Boyd obviously is, you still have to expect growing pains.
Frankly, if you were attempting to concoct a worse-case scenario that would lead to a ton of turnovers you would have a young team under a new head coach playing an up-tempo style with a true freshman point guard and two other true freshmen playing major roles and major minutes. Also, interestingly, Brittany Boyd, Reshanda Gray and Justine Hartman are the three highest usage players on the team, well ahead of veterans like Layshia Clarendon and Talia Caldwell. It's probably not going out on too far a limb to suggest that more freshmen touches = more turnovers.
Two years ago turnovers were a huge problem for a Cal team integrating six freshmen into the rotation. But as the season wore on and the players learned to become more comfortable within the offense and with each other, the turnovers diminished and the team surged through the end of the season and went mostly unchallenged in the WNIT.
That’s what we’re shooting for now. There will be unadvised passes in every game this year, but if there are 10 against Texas maybe there will only be 5 later in the year against Arizona St. And with one very glaring problem to fix I think we can trust the coaching staff to improve things. If they do this can be a very very dangerous team come March.
*All of the various efficiency stats I've been citing in this post come from 'Women's Basketball State', a subscription based stat clearinghouse similar to what Kenpom does for men's basketball. I highly recommend it, because it provides nifty things like a statistical aggregation rank (that currently has Cal 17th in the nation, ahead of Stanford!) and player usage rates, amongst hundreds of other interesting numbers. You'll probably hear me citing these stats for the rest of the season. A glossary explaining the various stats can be found here.