My apologies for being MIA over the holiday period - but I'm back, and just in time for the most critical, difficult stretch of the regular season!
While I've been out, the Cal women easily defeated George Washington as expected, rose up to #7 in the nation, and suddenly face the most imposing stretch of Pac-12 games I can ever recall. For the first time in a long while four Pac-12 teams are ranked. Somehow, Cal will play 5 games against those ranked teams in their next 7 games, despite the fact that Cal is one of those ranked teams.
Which brings us to Utah. The Utes are actually one of those non-ranked teams, but they're a solid 9-2, with close losses to BYU and North Dakota the only blemishes. Most impressively, they have a resounding 18 point win over a borderline top 25 Michigan team, the biggest indication that the Utes are a team to be reckoned with. After finishing 8-10 in their inaugural Pac-12 season, the Utes looked poised to take a step or two up in the standings.
That makes this game unexpectedly important. A loss would be worrying, not necessarily because a road loss to a solid Utah team would be distressing, but because this is one of the 'easier' games in the early Pac-12 schedule, and if Cal loses it heaps added pressure when the Bears take on Colorado and Stanford.
So, how worried should we be? Last year Cal beat Utah twice, but neither game was a runaway. Utah seems like the team that Cal should be able to out-athlete to victory, but Utah's slow-down style and patience have always done well against Cal's defense, which means this game will be another test to see just how much Cal's defense has improved in year 2 of the Gottlieb era.
Players To Watch
Taryn Wicijowski & Michelle Plouffe: Last year it was the Wicijowski and Plouffe show, and that's even more the case this year. And the reason I mention them together is because they're statistically so similar:
Wicijowski (6'3'' junior forward): 31.4 mpg, 16.8 ppg, 8 rpg, 1.2 bpg
Plouffe: (6'4'' junior forward) 31.4 mpg, 16.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.3 bpg
If you're looking for differences, Wicijowski shoots at a higher percentage while Plouffe is the better passer, and a threat from behind the arc. They play somewhat different roles on offense and defense, but in terms of pure impact on the game it would be tough to find two teammates more similar.
Last year against Cal, both players switched roles. When the teams met in Berkeley, Wicijowski was held to just 2 points while Plouffe dropped 19. Later in Salt Lake City Wikijowski scored 17 while Plouffe managed just 4. That's a good template for Cal - if one of them gets their points but the other struggles, the Bears are in great shape. But if both are scoring, then things might get iffy.
Keys To The Game
1. Force Bad Shots: I picked this key precisely because it will be really hard. If there's one thing that Utah has excelled at, it's the ability to create decent shots on every trip down the court. Last year they had the 3rd best 3FG% in the Pac-12, and that percentage has improved (albiet against iffy competition) so far this year. Plouffe and Wicijowski both find great shots, and when they do they tend to hit them. It will require constant defensive intensity for the full 30 seconds every time down the court, and that's a tall order. But it's the type of thing the Bears should be able to do.
2. Get their forwards in foul trouble: For obvious reasons, Utah really relies on Plouffe and Wicijowski to play major minutes and score major points. They're both sound, disciplined defenders, so I don't really anticipate either spending significant time on the bench with foul trouble. But if Brandon, Caldwell, Gray and company can draw some whistles it would make things much tougher on the Utes.
3. Defensive pressure on Danielle Rodriguez: Utah's freshmen point guard has put up impressive numbers in her young career, but she hasn't faced a defense quite like Cal's yet, or defenders like Layshia, Brittany and Eliza. She's averaging just 1 turnover/game to start the season, and although her impact on the stat sheet in other areas hasn't been huge, she's done a solid job facilitating Utah's attack. Might the Bears be able to force her into some freshmen mistakes?