Whenever you preview a roster for an upcoming season, main topics of discussion include departed players and new players. Not so much with this team. Lindsay Sherbert transferred to Gonzaga and Brittany Shine has arrived at Cal via Florida but must sit out this season. Beyond that, it's the exact same team, but a year older.
But Lindsay Gottlieb has forcefully stated that she expects this team to improve not just because everybody is back. She expects each player to come back stronger, smarter, faster and more confident. So what can we expect from each Bear this year?
Starter: Brittany Boyd
Back-ups: Eliza Pierre, Avigiel Cohen
Obviously, this is the Brittany Boyd show. It's tough to understate the transformation Cal's offense went through when Boyd was inserted into the lineup. She ended up averaging 25 minutes a game but played about 30 minutes a game towards the end of the season, and watching Boyd's growth over the course of the season was a joy.
There's a laundry list of things we know Boyd can do. She's a menace in the open court. She's a great passer (5 assists/game), particularly when she breaks down the defense off the dribble. She can get to the rim almost whenever she wants. She's an excellent perimeter defender with the speed and instincts to lead the conference in total steals again.
And yet there are still areas in which she can improve, which should scare other Pac-12 programs. Last year Brittany just wasn't a great shooter. She only shot .164 from behind the arc and .586 from the free throw line. She actually shot much better from the line towards the end of the season when it became a major focal point in practice. Boyd doesn't need a brilliant jump shot to be a great player, but she does need to become a consistent free throw shooter because she's likely to lead the team in free throw attempts. And if she can improve her jump shot . . . look out.
The other big area for improvement is turnovers. Just like her free throw shooting, Boyd's turnover issue improved in the 2nd half of the season as she became more confident and familiar with Cal's offense. With an entire off-season working with the same players, there's no reason to think that her assist/turnover ratio won't keep improving. But Cal fans also likely need to acknowledge that the occasional turnover is the price you pay for Boyd's frenetic, high-energy style. Eliminating all turnovers would likely mean eliminating the style that makes Boyd so effective and fun to watch. Minimization is the name of the game.
When Boyd isn't on the court (because an overzealous NCAA tournament ref is calling the game, perhaps) Expect to see Eliza Pierre handling the ball. EP doesn't have the same creative passing presence that Boyd has, but the senior has plenty of experience running the offense.
Starters: Layshia Clarendon, Afure Jemerigbe
Back-ups: Eliza Pierre, Mikayla Lyles, Avigiel Cohen
Two positions here, but one will almost always be filled by Layshia Clarendon. Layshia was Cal's iron woman last year, averaging about 36 minutes/game in Pac-12 play. Hopefully Cal will win more games by larger margins, allowing Layshia to take a few more breaks. But if Cal needs her I have no doubt she'll be ready to go 40.
I'm expecting Afure Jemerigbe to start on the wing this year. The junior started 14 games last year, gradually playing more and more minutes as the season went on despite a mid-season injury hiccup. She really came on in the last 10 games of the year, and Lindsay Sherbert's transfer fully cements her spot in the starting lineup.
Coach Gottlieb will have plenty of options behind Clarendon and Jemerigbe. Eliza Pierre will probably be the first perimeter player off the bench, allowing her to act as a change of pace defensively. Cementing her role as 6th woman is her flexibility to play shooting guard as well as point guard. Mikayla Lyles is another player who will likely take some of the minutes that would have gone to Lindsay Sherbert, and the coaching staff has repeatedly praised her shooting ability. And Avigiel Cohen has now been healthy for a year and has hopefully regained full confidence in her knee. I'm not sure if the coaching staff sees her as a pure point guard or a combo guard that can play multiple positions off the bench. In either case the potential for more playing time is there.
At the pre-season tip off event, Coach Gottlieb also mentioned the possibility that Cal would play one of the post players at the 3, which brings us to . . .
Starters: Talia Caldwell and/or Gennifer Brandon and/or Reshanda Gray
Back-up: Justine Hartman
An absolute embarrassment of riches. Cal has three players that would likely start at every single other Pac-12 program - yes, even maybe Stanford. And Justine Hartman would start at more than a few of those schools as well. And when you have four players like that, it's pretty easy to understand why Coach Gottlieb would try to devise ways to get more of them on the court at once.
It's hard to look at this group and identify obvious areas for improvement. They're arguably the best rebounders in the entire country. They collectively averaged about 30 points/game on 47% shooting. Interior defense was generally above average.
Reshanda Gray's biggest area for improvement is something simple: less fouls. She committed nearly twice as many fouls as Talia Caldwell in less time on the court. When she's on the court, Reshanda was actually Cal's most efficient scorer, so if she can reign in her more energetic tendencies on the defensive side of the ball she could really explode as a scorer this year.
Gennifer Brandon can get better as a scorer simply by attacking the basket with more aggression. There just aren't many players with the athleticism to keep up, but at times it felt like she settled for jumpers or deferred to her teammates rather than just blowing by her defender.
Talia Caldwell . . . just needs to keep doing what she's been doing, but more improvement in her free throw shooting percentage would be cool too.
That leaves Justine Hartman, who is easily the toughest player to project. She's immensely talented, but saw only limited action last year as she was still getting used to playing on her surgically repaired knees. On other teams she almost certainly would have seen major minutes, but Cal had the luxury of bringing her along slowly. If she's fully recovered and ready to burst on the scene then Cal has an even stronger bench. The coaches praised the work she's done to get ready for this season, so hopefully she's ready to play more minutes.
And how do you find more minutes for Hartman without taking away minutes you need for Caldwell, Brandon and Gray? You play a lineup with three post players. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how it would work and if we should expect to see it with much frequency. Gennifer Brandon and Reshanda Gray are both quick and athletic for post players, so I would assume that one of the two would move out to guard a wing, allowing Hartman and Caldwell to hold things down in the key.
Obviously, a change like that would put lots of pressure on Cal's guards to facilitate the offense and handle the ball even more. But when you have a veteran like Layshia Clarendon and a talent like Brittany Boyd, maybe it's not such a concern? The real question is how much Cal sacrifices on defense in exchange for how much they gain in terms of rebounding. Either way I'm fascinated to see how it might work.
So there are your 2012-13 Bears. Up next in our season preview is a look at Cal's schedule and the rest of the Pac-12. Only 8 days until real games start!