WBB season in review: More than a transition year

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back on a team that had to learn how to win games despite some very unusual challenges on and off the court, yet still managed to succeed despite it all.

In 2012-13, Cal went to the Final Four. In 2014-15, Cal will have two All-American candidates and two McDonald's All-American recruits.

But what about 2013-14?

This year was about a transfer in on-court leadership, and a new team learning how to win games despite some obvious limitations in terms of skill set and personnel. Five years from now, this year will likely be viewed as a transition year, but that's underselling what this team accomplished, and how much they grew over the course of the season.

It's worth remembering everything the Bears had to overcome this year. There was the obvious challenge of replacing a senior class that was a huge part in taking the program to new heights. Losing Layshia Clarendon and Talia Caldwell in particular were huge hurdles, and there weren't players on the roster with similar skill sets to step into their roles*.

Then there was the challenge of Gennifer Brandon's rehab from off-season leg surgery and then her absence for personal reasons. At the beginning of the year, Cal was suddenly left with just three players from last year's typical rotation.

The first 10 games of the year were, quite frankly, offensively hideous. Sure, there's no shame in losing to Duke and UConn, but Cal lost a winnable game to George Washington and were lucky not to drop nail biters to Idaho and UOP. Scoring was suddenly a huge struggle, in part because without Caldwell and Brandon, the Bears weren't able to rebound like they had for the past two years.

Gennifer Brandon would eventually return, but it took quite a bit of time before she was playing at a level comparative to the previous season, and I'm not sure she ever quite got her touch around the basket back. Meanwhile, Courtney Range was forced to play the 4 in Brandon's absence, a role that probably slowed her development at her preferred position as a wing.

There were other challenges. Justine Hartman's early season concussion left the post rotation thin for a few games. Mercedes Jefflo was suspended for a few games. Hind Ben Abdelkader suddenly left for home. Brittany Boyd struggled with various leg injuries late in the year and missed the last game of the regular season.

It's true that many teams face these types of issues. But because of the amount of roster turnover and the lack of depth because Cal didn't recruit anybody for the 2013-14 season, this was a team ill-equipped to handle much in terms of roster issues.

And yet, when the dust settled, the Bears finished 2nd in an improved Pac-12 and in the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.

It wasn't always fun to watch. Cal finished the year with an eFG% of 43%, good for 256th in the country. Ponder that for a second. Only 93 teams in the country shot the ball worse than Cal did this year. Of those 93 teams, only 13 managed a winning record, and only one (Hampton) made the NCAA tournament, where they were promptly beaten by 30 points by 5 seed Michigan State. Teams that cannot shoot the ball do not finish in 2nd place in major conferences.

Lindsay Gottlieb has gotten a bit of criticism for Cal's poor shooting, and that's fair. She's going to have to balance future recruiting classes with more shooters. But if it's Gottlieb's fault that Cal has trouble making shots, then she deserves credit for somehow molding the team into a top 25 caliber squad.

It's worth noting that Cal's shooting numbers made a pretty drastic improvement in conference play. When Pac-12 play began, Cal carried an 40.7 eFG%, which would have put them somewhere in the vicinity of 310th in the nation. But by then, the Bears had grown into their new roles. Despite an uptick in the quality of competition, Cal's eFG% was 44.7 in conference play, which was 4th best, and more middle of the road nationally.

Being average isn't really something a team with Cal's talent should strive for, but that increase from bad to competent allowed Cal to go 13-6 against Pac-12 competition, with one of those losses coming without Brittany Boyd. Five of Cal's six conference losses were by single digits. This team learned how to play with each other, and they learned how to win games despite a weakness that would be crippling for most other teams and most other coaches.

The growth seen in individual players was impressive. Reshanda Gray went from being a bench player to one of the most efficient post players in the country. Brittany Boyd transformed into an incredibly dynamic player who can impact games in more ways than almost any player in the country. Afure Jemerigbe finally put it all together and came up with huge two-way performances down the stretch of conference play. Mikalya Lyles became a starter for the first time and her shooting and offensive spacing played a major part in Cal's offensive improvement. Mercedes Jefflo and Courtney Range both dealt with typical freshmen growing pains but emerged as solid contributors as the year wore on.

It's easy to see the missed opportunities. A few less injuries, a bit better shooting, and maybe Cal wins a couple more games and avoids playing a road game against a 2 seed in the 2nd round of the tournament. It's easy to be greedy. But ultimately I suspect that this team came reasonably close to its ceiling, and that ceiling ended up being pretty successful and plenty entertaining.

If this team can build on the lessons they learned in a trying season, they could be poised for even more success in 2014-15. But that's a topic for another day.

*For what it's worth, I think Mercedes Jefflo did an admirable job taking over Eliza Pierre's role as a defensive change of pace and secondary ball handler off the bench.

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