Hind Ben Abdelkader leaves the team
I'm not going to spend any particular time trying to guess why, but it's not hard to come up with plausible scenarios for why Ben Abdelkader might want to go back home. I'm going to focus on what it means for Cal, both this year and in the future.
Ben Abdelkader had seen her playing time significantly diminish with the return of Mercedes Jefflo to the lineup, although I would guess that it's as much Coach Gottlieb realizing that Brittany Boyd has to play as many minutes as possible if Cal is going to win games. Although Hind is a solid player in limited minutes off the bench, her departure won't have a huge impact on this year's team. It mostly means a few extra minutes for Mercedes Jefflo or Mikayla Lyles.
It's in future that's more of an issue. Cal didn't recruit a single player last year, in part because they didn't lose anybody to graduation thanks to Joanne Boyle's incredibly unbalanced recruiting classes. Coach G only brought in four freshmen this year, and now one of them has already left the team. In two years Cal will quite possibly only have three juniors and no seniors on the roster: Courtney Range, Mercedes Jefflo and K.C. Waters.
That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, except that Cal is bringing in a very small class (two players) next year as well. That's five freshmen recruited over a three year period, and only one of them is even a combo guard (Jefflo). This team badly needs an heir apparent for Brittany Boyd.
Simply put, Cal's coaching staff needs to hit the recruiting trail and transfer market for 2015 hard. The Bears currently have one recruit, 4 star post player Kristine Anigwe, recruited. At the moment, only six players are committed to playing on the 2015-16 Bears. Coach G can either recruit a huge (say, seven players) class of freshmen that will throw Cal's recruiting out of balance, or she can recruit a limited number of players and take a dangerous roll of the injury dice, or she can supplement the roster with some transfers.
Either way, Cal needs more future players, and badly, particularly at point guard. The 2015 class isn't especially strong in terms of California recruits (at least, as far as I follow recruiting, which isn't very) and so the coaching staff is in a tough spot.
Like most college basketball nerds, I love talking about the NCAA tournament. However, I usually try to avoid the urge to really indulge myself until at least February. Obsessing over the tournament does tend to distract from the general arc of a season, the day-to-day grind and the process of getting better that defines most teams. It can be a disservice to blindly focus on what every game means for a team's tournament destiny.
Still, it's hard to resist. Luckily, it's now February. Cal has passed the halfway mark of the Pac-12 season and has played more than 2/3rds of their pre-tournament games. It's no longer too early to check in on March scenarios.
First, the good news. Cal has excellent computer numbers. The Bears are 24th in the RPI in large part due to a strength of schedule that currently ranks 10th in the country. That's what happens when you play FIVE games against teams in the RPI top 10.
Now, the bad news. The Bears haven't done especially well against the best teams on their schedule. Cal has played seven teams in the RPI top 50, and their only win was a home victory over Oregon State. None of those losses are bad losses, but Cal desperately needs to add heft to their resume. Unfortunately, George Washington has not had a particularly successful season since upsetting Cal, and so the Bears carry the blot of an RPI 100+ loss.
Now for more good news: Cal will play two (maybe four) more games against RPI top 50 teams in the 2nd half of the Pac-12 schedule, and that doesn't even include the Pac-12 tournament.
Here are the critical questions to consider over the final 8 games of the regular season:
1) Can Cal beat Arizona State and USC?
These are, by far, the biggest games of the season for our Bears. Arizona State has a largely easy schedule the rest of the way except for a trip to the Bay Area. If Cal can knock them off, they get a resume defining win that could boost them up a seed or two in the tournament.
Cal's matchup with USC is almost equally as important. The Trojans aren't as valuable a win in terms of raw RPI, but it's on the road. Win those two games, and Cal's RPI top 50 record goes from 1-7 to 3-7, a significantly more palatable number. And considering that four of those seven losses game to teams likely to end up with #1 seeds, it looks even better.
Quite simply, the ASU and USC games are the difference between a dreaded 8/9 seed and something more like a 5 or 6.
2) How will the committee treat Gennifer Brandon's absence?
Two of Cal's losses occurred without Gennifer Brandon. The Bears were going to lose to UConn anyway, but not having Gen in very well may have cost Cal the game against George Washington. Right now, that loss is the only ‘bad' loss on Cal's resume. If the committee decides to give Cal the benefit of the doubt and throw that loss out the window Cal's total resume looks much better.
3) Where is Cal likely to end up?
If Cal does well down the stretch (say, 7-1? Is that asking too much? I think this team is capable) and earns 2nd place in the #3 RPI ranked conference in the country, you would have to like their chances of getting a kind placement in March.
Unfortunately, as per usual, the tournament is not set up to be kind to anybody in the Pac-12 other than Stanford. There are two sub-regionals west of Texas. One is in L.A., and Stanford will almost certainly go there (UCLA is the designated host but won't make the tournament). The other is in Seattle, hosted by a Washington team that won't make the tournament. Thus, Cal could potentially be sent to Seattle. That's also a potential destination for Arizona State, which means Cal should be just as motivated to catch up to ASU's resume.
As you all remember, if a designated host team makes the tournament, they automatically get to play on their home floor. ESPN's latest bracketology predicts that 13 of the 16 host schools will make the tournament. That means that three regionals are ‘open' and thus would be beneficial destinations for Cal. Those regionals: Los Angeles, Seattle, Toledo. L.A. is going to Stanford. Toledo is where Notre Dame will be as a #1 seed. That leaves Seattle as the best spot to shoot for, but it might be a bit of a long shot.
I think there's a decent possibility that Cal grabs something like a six seed and gets sent to play on the home floor of whichever team is the three seed (Penn State? North Carolina? Baylor?). That's hardly ideal, but it's not the worst thing in the world either. It's not worth agonizing over quite yet, as Cal's performance down the stretch will largely determine their fate. I have a feeling that a potential Pac-12 semi-final date against ASU or USC will prove critical.
There's a lot of basketball left to play.