When a team is sitting at 13-4, tied for 2nd place in the conference, there typically aren't many nits to pick. Considering how much talent the Bears lost last year, they're doing quite well. But that doesn't mean that things are perfect. With six new players getting comfortable in the rotation and Gennifer Brandon returning from injuries and time off, the Bears have increasingly placed a heavy burden on the backs of Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd.
To their credit, both players have responded strongly. In fact, I've already written two separate posts describing just how good Cal's inside/outside duo have been this year. There's just one problem: The Bears are dangerously reliant on two foul prone players, and in the same year that the entire college basketball world has to adapt to new rules and points of emphasis that have markedly increased the amount of fouls called per game.
It's tough to quantify just how important Gray and Boyd are to Cal, and just how much Cal suffers when either isn't on the court. It obviously hurts to have Gray on the bench, because she has a field goal percentage nearly 25% higher than any other player on the roster. It obviously hurts to lose Boyd, because she's responsible for nearly half of Cal's assists, amongst the many other skills she brings to the court.
Both players are averaging 30 minutes/game. That's fine against the CSU Bakersfields and Arizonas of the world. But against tough teams like Arizona State, Coach Gottlieb probably wants closer to 35 minutes out of both. So how do you balance foul trouble with Cal's undeniable need to have their two stars on the court? And just how foul prone are the duo?
Boyd is the player most obviously impacted by the new rules. Part of what makes her great is her ability to disrupt opposing offenses with her quick hands and instincts. But one or two bad reaches (or wrong calls) puts her in the danger zone, and Boyd is also prone to picking up offensive fouls for the same reason that she picks up defensive fouls.
Boyd averages a foul every 8.9 minutes on the floor. But it's worth noting that in Pac-12 play, the number has risen to a foul every 7.5 minutes on the floor. When the competition gets tougher, Boyd has to play more aggressively, and the fouls have gone up. At that current rate, Boyd would foul out of a game after 37 minutes. Either way, it's a meaningful increase from last year, when she averaged a foul every 10 minutes on the floor. Either Boyd is playing more aggressively this year (quite possible, as she's clearly a bigger focal point for Cal's strategy on both ends) or the Bears have not adapted their style to the new rules.
For Reshanda Gray, her fouling issues preceded the new rules. Gray was notoriously foul prone over her first two years, perhaps in part because she wasn't being asked to play starting minutes. After averaging a foul every six minutes on the floor as a freshman and every 6.3 minutes as a sophomore, Gray has improved to a foul every 8.5 minutes. It's going to be tough to get that much lower considering the requirements of her position. When you have to bang down low on both ends and rebound, you're always going to be at least a little foul prone. It's part of the job for any decent post player.
How has Cal adapted as a team? That's harder to say. It's worth noting that, nationally, college basketball hasn't adapted much. The biggest change in the game appears to be an increase in fouls called and free throws attempted/game, rather than the (presumed intended effect) of increasing field goal percentage.
Cal has an interesting gap between the number of fouls they commit (a roughly average amount, nationally) vs. the number of times they send the opponent to the free throw line (free throw rate of 16.6, 44th nationally). I suspect the difference is that Cal commits a disproportionately large amount of offensive fouls and off-ball fouls that only result in free throws when the opponent is in the bonus.
Long story short? Those 32 fouls committed leading to 34 ASU free throws were painful and played a major role in the defeat, but I don't think it's necessarily symptomatic of a team-wide issue. And fouls will probably be an issue for Brittany Boyd for as long as Cal needs her to make things happen on defense.
A quick USC/UCLA preview
I'll probably have more info in each gamethread on Friday and Sunday night, but quickly:
Cal will be playing for 2nd place in the conference on Friday night against those darned Trojans, who have always played Cal tough. USC is one of many surprise teams in the conference - after a largely mediocre non-conference performance, they've turned it on in Pac-12 play. It should be noted that their early success has been built upon a schedule that has only featured one tough road game.
UCLA, meanwhile, is doing reasonably well considering their severely limited rotation due to injury, and all three of their conference losses have been two point defeats. The scary part? Both teams have been succeeding with defense.
It's hard to say where Cal stands at the moment. Stanford seemed like maybe they might kinda be vulnerable before the year began, but they have looked thoroughly dominant throughout the year and especially in conference play. The conference title just doesn't seem like a realistic goal at the moment. It's probably not necessary to agonize over every game like we did last year, when one misstep meant the end of the race.
So best just to relax, try not to let the shooting droughts drive you crazy, and enjoy watching Boyd and Gray do their thing while the freshmen develop. And hope that it leads to some wins over the rivals down south.