WBB: Improved defense keeps Cal consistent

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Would you believe that Cal's defense this year might be better than the defense played by last year's Final Four squad?

Cal's offense just isn't as good as last year's offense, and that's not particularly surprising. Layshia Clarendon and Talia Caldwell were two of Cal's most efficient scorers, and they both brought individual skills that have been very difficult to replace. Specifically, Layshia's ability to create her own shot and Talia's ability to bring down a ton of offensive rebounds have been missed.

Somewhat quietly, however, Cal's defense has been excellent, and is worth exploring further. Honestly, at the beginning of the year, I wouldn't have necessarily expected Cal's defense be just as good as last year. Clarendon and Caldwell were both solid defenders, and Eliza Pierre wasn't available to play her typical lockdown perimeter defense off the bench. I expected Cal's defense to decline along with the offense. That didn't happen. Why?

To start, let's compare the component stats just to get a good overview. National ranks for these defensive stats are in parenthesis, except for offensive rebound percentage, which I had to calculate for Cal myself:

2012-13

2013-14

Points/possession

.816 (76th)

.847 (50th)

eFG%

37.8 (118th)

37.9 (64th)

O Rebound %

26.9% 28.5%

Turnover %

22% (200th)

19% (264)

Free throw rate

17.8 (160th)

17.7 (64th)

What is interesting to note is that many of the actual percentages are virtually identical to last year. In a normal year, considering the personnel that Cal lost, that would be considered a solid victory, a sign that new players had helped replicate the results more experienced veterans produced last year.

Except this isn't a normal year. Note that Cal has produced a free throw rate nearly identical to last year, but doing so produced a nearly 100 spot improvement in Cal's national ranking*. That's because the new rules and points of emphasis has created an environment with many, many more foul calls. For whatever reason, Cal's defense has seemingly been immune to the impacts of the new rules.

There has been a slight decline in Cal's ability to force turnovers (likely a reflection of a lack of depth that has prevented Coach G from pressing as much as she might like) and Cal's dominance on the glass, but generally speaking Cal has been able to retain their basic efficiency numbers on defense while everybody else around them got worse thanks to the new rules. That's remarkable, so I'm going to continue remarking on it.

Who deserves credit? Well, certainly the coaching staff for quickly integrating new players on defense, and for recruiting players who simply have a knack for playing defense. Mercedes Jefflo is a gifted defensive player who is flashing Brittany Boyd level theft abilities in limited playing time. Courtney Range has had trouble turning her obvious athletic gifts into offensive production, but she hasn't let that stop her from using those gifts on defense and on the glass.

But like most things that have gone right for the Bears this year, I suspect that a significant amount of the credit should go to Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray. Let's take them one by one.
Brittany Boyd has always been a threat to steal the ball. She has added a level of discipline to that ability that was perhaps lacking in the past. Previously, she would go for the steal every time. Sometimes that would mean a spectacular fast break layup. Sometimes that would mean that she would be out of position and the opponent would take advantage by scoring or drawing a foul. This year, she has managed to retain her ability to force turnovers without compromising the integrity of the defense as often. That's a big step forward, and a reason that she might just be the best all-around perimeter defender in the conference.

Reshanda Gray was probably always Cal's best interior defender. Remember, she was given the Chiney assignment last year. But that ability was masked by her limited playing time and frequent foul problems. Her one problem was that she put opponents on the line too often. Not any more. Now she plays 30+ minutes of high intensity interior defense and has significantly cut the number of fouls she picks up on a per minute basis. And it's probably the biggest difference between this year and last year.

It's an improved defense that has helped Cal win games when the offense wasn't clicking. Early in the season, Cal would have likely lost games to Idaho, UOP and Colorado without stingy defensive performances. Lately, great defense has turned potentially dangerous games against teams like WSU and ASU into relatively routine wins. And with an offense that has seemingly found its footing over the past few weeks, the continued consistency of Cal's defense makes the Bears a much more dangerous team now than they were back in December or January.

*It's important for me to note that these national rankings have not been adjusted for strength of schedule. Cal's ranking of 50th in defensive points/possession seems not so spectacular until you consider that Cal accomplished that number despite playing a schedule ranked at the moment as the 18th toughest in the nation. Cal isn't far behind Duke, Stanford, Maryland, Tennessee and Kentucky (~.83 ppp allowed vs. Cal's .847), all teams expected deep March runs themselves.

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