So, that was pretty great, wasn't it? Pretty much the most fun basketball season ever. Can we do it again please?
I'm not sure how far fan expectations will rise. For programs not named Stanford and UConn, or not blessed with once-in-a-generation talents like Brittany Griner or Skylar Diggins, a Final Four can be a singularly rare achievement. It's not a realistic goal every year. But it's also true that the trajectory of the Cal program under Lindsay Gottlieb has been consistently skyward, and some will perhaps expect her to continue that.
In terms of crafting realistic expectations, it all starts with what the Bears are losing. Eliza Pierre has been a dependable back-up point guard and the best on-ball defender on the team. Talia Caldwell is a four year starter and will leave a bigger void than her numbers indicate. And Layshia Clarendon is one of a handful of players in the argument for best in program history.
I've seen a few Cal fans posit that the Bears will be just as good, and perhaps better, next year in part because of a four player freshman class and two new transfer students. It's certainly true that talented reinforcements are coming. But that is a challenge in itself, to replace program stalwarts with long defined roles with a group of new players with less defined skill sets and limited experience. For whatever it's worth, ESPN pegs the Bears at #11:
11. California: The Bears should once again rule the backboards with Gennifer Brandon and Reshanda Gray, but Brittany Boyd will absorb plenty of pressure as the go-to perimeter scorer with the graduation of Layshia Clarendon.
That's a legitimate concern - Clarendon's ability to score outside of the paint was absolutely necessary against teams determined to prevent the Bears from scoring at will inside.
The bottom line is that to assume that the Bears won't take a step back next year is to perhaps diminish how important the seniors have been over the last two years.
Layshia Clarendon was an absolutely indispensible player for the Bears, because she was the one player who could consistently hit a shot from anywhere, who could punish teams for packing the paint and sagging off the perimeter. Consider that there are many players on the roster who can create their own shot, and there are players on the roster who are good shooters. Clarendon might be the only player who combined both skills. There were times when she carried Cal through offensive droughts. That and she frequently guarded the opponent's best guard. All that and she played more than 35 minutes a game.
Talia Caldwell may not have the same gaudy stats as other players, but her role cannot be diminished. I've talked frequently about all of the little things she does to make players around her better. Her interior defense, her screens for Boyd and Clarendon, her boxing out on the defensive glass . . . all skills that will be very, very hard to replace. And above all else, she's one of the most gifted offensive rebounders you'll ever see, and we don't need to be reminded how important that was for Cal's offense.
And while Eliza Pierre's offensive contributions are perhaps replaceable, it should be noted that none of Cal's new recruits are pure point guards. It's hard to scout defense, so it's impossible to know if there will be an impact defender ready to come off the bench at a moment's notice next year.
So, who will Coach Gottlieb call on to replace those skills? Here's a quick run through the newest six players ready to take the court:
Brittany Shine, 5'10'' guard: A native California and transfer from Florida, Shine is one of the prime contenders to replace Layshia's minutes at shooting guard. Her biggest advantage will be in terms of experience, both on the court in two years at Florida, and in practice over the last year in Berkeley. She knows her teammates and her teammates and the coaching staff should know her pretty well. She's a combo guard, and thus could potentially see time at the point as well.
Kyra Dunn, 6'3'' forward: Dunn will have to sit out most of the non-conference schedule as a transfer until becoming eligible during the spring semester, but she figures to fill the role as backup forward/center. Reshanda Gray will presumably start now, but if she remains as foul prone as she has been over her first two years, Dunn will have ample opportunities to make an impact.
Kendall Waters, 6'1'' forward: Waters will be competing with Justine Hartman and Dunn to find minutes as the first post player off the bench. She's a little undersized, but the Bay Area product has proven herself by leading Bishop O'Dowd on some deep playoff runs, and comes in with impressive recruiting rankings.
Courtney Range, 6'3'' wing: Range is the top ranked prospect in Cal's class, and she is the type of player the Bears have never had: a guard with the size of a post player. She could push Afure over to the shooting guard spot and start at the wing, or she could slide into the 4 and create mismatches for post players trying to guard her on the perimeter. She adds a level of flexibility the Bears haven't really had under Gottlieb, and she's the player I'm most excited to see in the fall.
Hind Ben Abdelkader, 5'7'' guard: A mystery recruit from Belgium. I'm not sure exactly what position HBA might play - Gottlieb describes her as a combo guard, but it wouldn't shock me if she ends up competing with Avigiel Cohen for the backup point guard spot. At the very least, we can be reasonably confident in her shooting ability, a skill always in need.
Mercedes Jefflo, 5'10'' guard: Jefflo might not make a huge impact this year with Mikayla Lyles and Afure Jemerigbe ahead of her. Gottlieb noted her defense, so perhaps she will fill some of the role Eliza Pierre left behind in terms of instant defense off the bench.
So, how will this team be different? Well, Cal will have 12 eligible players next year rather than just 10, so if all or most of the new players are ready to contribute, the team could be a bit deeper. Cal might be able to press more often and more effectively. But stylistically, not much should change. When you have players like Gennifer Brandon and Brittany Boyd, you still run, you still rebound, and you still take care of the ball.
Lindsay Gottlieb has lots of pieces at her disposal, but they are inexperienced and she is losing exceptional talent. I'm very much looking forward to watching players develop and the team gel and potentially move in different directions based on the skill sets of the new players. But expecting more conference championships and more deep tourney runs might be premature.
Women's basketball posts will be fewer and further in between as we enter the dark depths of the off-season. But over the next few months we'll have posts to say goodbye to Cal's seniors as well as more in-depth profiles of the new Bears, hopefully including video highlights so that we can make evaluations based on 3-5 minutes of youtube highlights!