Lindsay Gottlieb and the Cal women's basketball team will face a non-conference schedule both intriguing and challenging this year, with exciting matchups at home, on the road, and in neutral locations. True, there was a coaching change and a high-impact transfer over the off-season, but Cal has way too much talent to be rebuilding and the non-conference schedule reflects that reality.
The absolute highlight of the home slate is a Saturday, December 17th showdown with Ohio St., who has been a perennial top 25 team recently. The Buckeyes have lost an elite talent in Jantel Lavender, which will relieve Cal fans who watched her score 33 points in an Ohio St. victory over Cal two years ago in Columbus. But Ohio St. has plenty of other talent returning for what should be a great game at Haas.
Then there's Texas and Rutgers, two tournament teams that brought in recruiting classes ranked just about as highly as Cal's. And did we mention that Lindsay Gottlieb and Joanne Boyle get to face off, mano-a-mano? Has the student become the master? It will all be decided on the beautiful beaches of Hawaii!
Cal's 2011-12 non-conference schedule (Last year's RPI rankings in parenthesis)
Cream of the Crop: @ Rutgers (17), vs. Illinois (170), vs. Virginia (70) & Texas (41) (Waikiki Beach Marriott Rainbow Showdown), vs. Ohio St. (10)
OK, I'll admit that Illinois doesn't really count as 'cream of the crop.' That RPI is pretty atrocious for a major conference team. But the Illini don't graduate a single player, so maybe they'll be a bit improved from the team that only won 4 Big 10 games on the year. And in any case, they're a major conference team coming to Haas, so we'll give them the benefit of the doubt.
But Rutgers, Texas and Ohio St. all made the NCAA tournament and (as mentioned above) only Ohio St. had major personnel losses from last year. All three will be major tests for a Cal team looking to prove that last year's season wasn't representative of their true talent.
And then there's Virginia, now coached by Joanne Boyle. This, I suppose, will be the mostly anticipated non-conference game of them all, for obvious non-basketball reasons. Virginia's four leading scorers are returning from a team that made the WNIT quarterfinals, and we all know what Joanne Boyle can do as a coach (particularly in her first year) so the Cavaliers will not be an easy matchup. Beating Illinois and splitting the other four contests would be a pretty solid result.
Solid mid-majors: Cal State Bakersfield (159), vs. Prairie View A&M (116), @ St. Mary's (100)
The Bears might not even face Prairie View - it's them or UNLV in the 2nd round of the 'Berkeley Marina Cal Challenge.' And it's also quite possible, or even probable, that these three teams won't be as good as they were last year. St. Mary's in particular loses Louella Tomlinson, perhaps the best player in program history. But they have a number of returning contributors and Cal faces them in Moraga, so a victory can hardly be taken for granted. Still, Cal should win all three of these games.
Victory Fodder: vs. Sacramento State (332), at Hawai'i (263), vs. UNLV (251), vs. Santa Clara (241), vs. Dartmouth (311)
I really wish Sac St. wasn't on the schedule. The Hornets finished 4-25 last year and will only serve as an anchor on Cal's strength of schedule. Although at least Sac St. is a local team - Dartmouth will do the same without making any particular geographic sense. The rest are typical schedule filler, depending on how much worse or better each of our opponents are this year compared to last. Hopefully none of them crater quite like Sac St. did last year.
Sacramento St. and Dartmouth aside, I love this schedule. A good mix of home, road and neutral games, a good set of challenging opponents without any nearly unbeatable juggernauts, and plenty of intriguing storylines. It's also worth mentioning that the Bears avoid the Washington road trip, which prior to last year was a guaranteed pair of wins. But I don't think anybody wants to experience this any time soon. Also, the Arizona schools won't be coming to Berkeley, which means that Cal has a schedule on the slightly more difficult side in the new Pac-12. And as usual our first Pac-12 weekend is a difficult road trip down south.
On the bright side, the final regular season game of the year is at home vs. Stanford. A full season for Lindsay Gottlieb to teach, for young players to develop, before our rivals come to our house. Dare we all hope?