How did we get here? Do you remember March of 2011? Cal finished 7-11 in the Pac-10, barely made the WNIT, then lost to Colorado by 16 points in a game that wasn't even that competitive.
Now, 18 months later, the motto for the season is "We Are Ready." Ready for what, exactly? If you attended the pre-season tipoff event, you heard Coach Gottlieb talking about Cal being ready to become an elite power like Tennessee and Connecticut . . . this year. It's not being viewed as some sort of distantly plausible platitude, it's the expectation for this season.
So I restate, how did this team go from also-ran to aspirations of elite level performances? And are those aspirations realistic?
There are many reasonable answers to that first question. Lindsay Gottlieb injected energy and pace to a team that badly needed a change of style. Reshanda Gray added elite depth to an already overwhelming-at-times front court. Perhaps most importantly, Brittany Boyd stepped in at point guard and turned arguably the team’s biggest weakness into a strength.
But it’s more complicated than just the addition of new faces. The story of the 2012-13 Bears is a story of a group of seniors who came to Cal with huge expectations before taking a very different path to realizing them. Even when the Bears were floundering 18 months ago the individual talent was obvious. Layshia Clarendon always had an excellent mid-range game and could at times command games offensively. Eliza Pierre typically made a breathtaking defensive play every game. Talia Caldwell sucked up offensive rebounds like a precious resource. But the pieces never meshed. The Bears lacked depth, they lacked direction on offense, and they lacked focus on defense. It wasn’t fun watching them struggle because you knew that, given the right circumstances, the talent could flourish.
Then Gen Brandon came back from an injury, Lindsay Gottlieb was hired and another talented group of freshmen arrived. Suddenly Cal could afford to have their defensive stopper come off the bench as an energy substitute. Suddenly Cal could rotate three elite rebounders in the post rather than just one. Suddenly the offense had direction. Everything Cal needed got added to the mix, and they had just the right coach to blend the ingredients.
So, back to question #2. Are sky-high expectations justified this year? It seems clear to me that the Bears are intent on ‘cutting down nets’ this year. That means winning a Pac-12 title, winning a conference tournament title, or earning a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans. That’s completely unprecedented territory for Cal basketball.
And yet . . . it’s hard to argue against their chances. Cal proved last year that they have the talent to beat Stanford, and the Cardinal no longer have WNBA rookie of the year Nneka Ogwumike. I don’t think Cal will be favored, but if setting realistically high goals is what it takes to achieve, toppling Stanford is clearly one goal of the season.
And if Cal does beat Stanford they would almost certainly end the season with an impressive seed come March, knowing that they have the talent to compete with any team in the country. I think it’s almost always crazy as a fan to ‘expect’ something like a Final Four appearance because of the inherent randomness of a single elimination format . . . but it’s not insane to suggest that it’s possible.
The problem with setting these kind of expectations is the increased chances of failing to reach them. Last year the expectations were pretty manageable – improve within the conference and make the tournament – and they were somewhat easily achieved. But this year . . . what if a starter sprains her ankle the same week that Cal is set to play Stanford twice in one week? What if Cal’s 2nd round NCAA opponent shoots 75% from 3 for a game? Does that make the season a failure?
What I’m saying is that the expectations we set as fans probably shouldn’t be the same expectations that the players and coaches use to push themselves to maximize their talents. Personally, I’m hoping for at least one win over Stanford and at least a Sweet 16 appearance. Cutting down a net would be a welcome bonus. Even more than that, I'm hoping to watch lots of exciting basketball, and I'm hoping that the senior class can leave Cal feeling a sense of completion and accomplishment.
So what do you expect from your Bears this week? Do you fully embrace Coach Gottlieb’s lofty goals?