For the last three years, Coach Gottlieb and the women's basketball team have hosted a pre-season tip-off event as a way to introduce the team to the fans and build excitement for the coming season. In year one, the event was held in a hotel meeting room on Shattuck, with decent turnout. Last year, it was at the alumni house and had slightly better turnout.
This year it was held in a large meeting room at the SAHPC, and the turnout was significantly larger and very enthusiastic. The fruits of a Final Four appearance! On display was the net that came down in Spokane, artfully draped over Cal's regional championship trophy. Anybody who signed up for Cal Triple Threat got entered into a raffle for a signed basketball, and drinks and very excellent finger food were all available, even though the event was entirely free. If you've never been to the tip-off event and you live in the Bay Area, you're missing out.
And while we joke about the free food, the real fun is hearing from the coaches and seeing the players interact with each other. And if the goal was to get fans excited for the upcoming season, well . . . my appetite has been whetted.
The program began with a summary of everything that happened in the world of Cal women's basketball since the season ended in New Orleans. Graduations, drafts, the China trip, recruiting trips (To the East Coast, and Lithuania, and Italy and . . . ) and lots and lots of chances to talk to everybody around the country about how exactly Cal built a final four team over the last few years.
Then Cal's assistant coaches introduced the players. I'll share a few of the comments made about each player, but after listening to the coaches, the first thought in my head was a simple problem: How are the coaches going to find minutes for all of these players? The Bears are bringing back six players last year who saw significant minutes, and those players are all a year older and a year better and will want to make bigger impacts. They're adding two juniors as transfers who only have two years to make an impact, and had to sit on the bench waiting for the chance to contribute. And they are adding four freshman, and the coaches made clear that they think that they have one of the best classes in the country, regardless of what recruiting rankings say. The recruiting rankings happen to think it's a plenty good class, but they think two players at least are under the radar nationally.
But alas, there are only 200 minutes to hand out every game, and I doubt that everybody will be averaging 15 minutes each. I would still speculate that the freshmen won't get a ton of playing time on a team that has nine total juniors and seniors, but who knows? In any case, Cal should again be plenty deep.
Coach Steding introduced the freshmen, starting with Hind Ben Abdelkader. Evidently, the entire team has dropped everything in favor of Hind, which means I won't feel bad if/when I mispronounce her last name. But I enjoyed the story Coach Steding related about how shy Hind through the recruiting process . . . until they got her on a basketball court. You've got to love the game to travel nine time zone across the world away from home.
Next up was Courtney Range. In CGB's profile, I talked about how everyone raved about her versatility, but the coaches took it to the next level, saying that she could essentially play any position on the court, and that the coaches just might use her in that capacity. I don't think that's especially likely this year (or even down the road, for that matter) but I'd wager it's more a statement about the breadth of her talent rather than what the coaches envision her role being.
Mercedes Jefflo was next, and Coach Steding described her as a 3 point shooter with the potential to play defense like Eliza Pierre. She also specifically mentioned that recruiting services don't know what she can do, but that the coaching staff knew all along, and that Jefflo (the coaches and players have gone with Jefflo rather than Mercedes) has a tenacious toughness that will serve her well at Cal.
When KC Waters was introduced, the skillset described would remind Cal fans of a recently departed senior. Paraphrased: ‘A great finisher. Knows where to be and how to position her body to get a rebound.' Talia Caldwell, anybody? She was also described as not realizing how good she is, which I would imagine can be a common problem for freshman suddenly thrust into practice alongside veteran players like Reshanda Gray* and Gennifer Brandon.
Coach Charmin Smith was next up to introduce the juniors, and began with Kyra Dunn, and after describing how she dealt with the challenge of a mid-year transfer, described her ability as a shot blocker, which was probably the funniest part of the entire show. As Charmin described how multiple players have gone up thinking they had an easy basket only to get swatted, (I think) Courtney Range raised her hand in acknowledgement. Then she described an unnamed player who practically swallowed a rejected shot, only for that unnamed player to be revealed when Mercedes Jefflo called her out from the stage. Luckily, Reshanda is secure enough in her hoops skills to admit being the victim of Dunn's impressive wingspan.
Justine Hartman was away that day attending a family baby shower, but Coach Smith made it a point to echo similar comments Coach Gottlieb had made at the end-of-season banquet last year, about how ‘Hart' had turned a corner in terms of her buy-in and effort, and that she's entering this season in excellent shape physically.
Brittany Shine came up next, and Coach Smith particularly lauded her for her work ethic and her speed, although from the sound of the conditioning drill the coaches put the team through, endurance might just as well be her strong suit. On a side note, speed was again a common theme, and while Cal lost some quick players, I fully expect them to be faster this year. A scary thought for the rest of the conference.
Reshanda Gray, fresh off a busy off-season that included a trip to Russia with team USA, was introduced with Coach Smith talking about how much the coaches are on her every day to push her to reach her very high potential. With Gen Brandon not guaranteed to start the season and Talia Caldwell gone to graduation, Beast Mode will have to carry a bigger burden this season, but the coaches have full confidence in her ability to step up. They even mentioned that she's been working on a 3 point shot, although I must admit that the thought of Reshanda anywhere away from the low block, ready to blow by anybody silly enough to try to stop her makes me kinda sad.
The final junior was Brittany Boyd, and Charmin talked about how, like Reshanda, the coaches are all over Brittany to take this team by the reins. Brittany hasn't actually been practicing lately thanks to a high ankle sprain, but the coaches didn't seem at all concerned about her ability to be ready for the season. And the coaches were raving about her performance in China, and evidently the term ‘China speed' has been coined to describe how Boyd took her game to a new level in the Far East, a level that the coaches now expect from her all season long.
Coach Kai Felton got to introduce Cal's senior class, starting with Gennifer Brandon, who has been furiously working to come back from stress fracture surgery, and who has taken her limited ability to move around in practice as an opportunity to try out some ball-handling drills that the guards typically spend time on.
Next up was Avigiel Cohen, who evidently spent the entire summer organizing some sort of Cal alumni conference in Israel, which . . . really makes me feel lazy. Ace is one of four team captains (along with Reshanda Gray, Mikayla Lyles and Afure Jemerigbe) and with those kind of leadership skills it seems like a pretty obvious choice, no?
Coach Kai introduced media/communications guru extraordinaire Mikalya Lyles by talking about how her shooting has gotten even better, to the point where she's surprised when a shot doesn't go in at practice. Unfortunately, we all have to wait another five days to see the results of some of her off-season work - the next season of thisicalbasketball.com, which will go live on Sunday.
And finally, the event ended with the introduction of Afure Jemerigbe. Coach Kai talked about how a flip switched for Foo during the NCAA tournament run, when she realized how much she could contribute in a variety of ways. Her playmaking was absolutely essential in every close game in March, and the coaches are excited to see that carry over into her senior season.
Phew, that's 1,500 words of the coaches talking about their players, and I really didn't even scratch the surface of all the little insights into practice, the players, and the process this team goes through to achieve what they have achieved and plan to achieve. Which is why you should go to these (again, free) events if you have the chance! A few other CGBers were in attendance and might offer other choice quotes, but hopefully I've given you a taste of what the coaches expect entering a new season.
And in case you need more motivation, you can even get yourself a picture with Coach G! She supplied the talent, I supplied the awkward. It's the CGB way!
Thanks coach! Can't wait for the season to start!
*Man, are we already describing Reshanda Gray as a veteran? It's totally true but still sounds weird to me.