Only seven months til next year, in case you're counting. We'll be bringing occasional WBB content over the entire off-season, so be sure to check back as we continue to look back on the 2013-14 season and look forward to 2014-15 (I can't wait to go searching for Gabby Green and Mikayla Cowling footage!) But to start things off, let's look at the biggest questions to ponder during the off-season:
Who 'replaces' Gennifer Brandon?
Quotation marks, because you don't exactly replace Gen's skillset. The greatest rebounder in Cal history has finally run out of eligibility, and there aren't any obvious candidates to replace her minutes and her production. Despite working her way back from off-season surgery and having to shake off the rust from a long personal layoff, Brandon still averaged an impressive 8 rebounds and points/game in just 21 minutes. I think Brandon's offensive contributions can be replaced, but her rebounding is a much more difficult proposition. Here are the options:
- Give her minutes to Justine Hartman, Kyra Dunn and K.C. Waters. Cal had two post players on the roster who received minimal minutes, and so it's difficult to guess what kind of production they might be capable of in extended court time. It's possible that Justine Hartman might play closer to 30 minutes/game with Dunn and Waters getting minutes backing her up.
- Play Courtney Range at the 4. Right now, Cal has four true post players on the roster, but two of those players haven't played significant minutes. Cal could instead have Justine Hartman back up Reshanda Gray, and either have Range play as a 2nd post, or have Range play as a guard and play a four guard lineup. Lindsay Gottlieb has, to the best of my knowledge, never chosen to play a four guard lineup. I don't know if that's something that will fit what she wants to do. But it's one of the few solutions to a problem of limited post depth.
Finding a way to play Courtney Range in a position that maximizes her skill set might be the biggest question of the off-season, since she will likely enter the next season as Cal's 3rd choice offensive threat behind Boyd and Gray.
How ready will the freshmen be?
The other question will be replacing the production provided by Afure Jemerigbe and Mikayla Lyles, and that burden will go to Gabby Green and Mikayla Cowling, McDonald's All-American high school teammates*. It's entirely possible that both will be the starting guards before the season ends.
Simply put, the freshmen won't have much room for growing pains. They will be asked to play major minutes immediately, and when Cal faces teams that Boyd and Gray can't dominate single-handedly, they will have to produce. That's quite a bit of pressure, but they have the talent and pedigree to succeed sooner rather than later. If Lindsay Gottlieb wants Mercedes Jefflo to keep her role as the first guard off the bench as a defensive game changer, then both freshmen might even start to begin the season.
*To the extent that performance in silly exhibition games matter, both Cal recruits seemed to acquit themselves well in the game itself.
Barring last minute additions, there will be 10 players on the roster next year. Lindsay Gottleib typically prefers an 8 player rotation, so if everybody stays healthy, that won't be a problem.
Except, rarely is everybody healthy. Boyd, Hartman and Brandon all missed time with injuries this year, and players will likely miss injury time next year. Simply put, every player on the roster will be forced into action, and will have to be ready to contribute.
Color me optimistic. I thought Brittany Shine looked good in her 2nd half cameo against Washington in the final game of the regular season. Kyra Dunn looked like a capable defender and rebounder in her early season appearances. K.C. Waters was basically given a redshirt year, but has the recruiting pedigree to suggest she will contribute as well. Avoiding major injuries will be important, but when is that not important?
Are the Bears ready for a challenge?
When I look at the landscape of the Pac-12, I see a tough, tough conference. 10 of the 15 players who earned all-conference honors are returning, and there are some big time recruits entering the conference as well. Transfers and injuries can change the outlook, but at the moment only two or three teams (Stanford, Utah, and perhaps USC) seem likely to be worse next year. Every other team seems likely to be just as good if not better than they were in a year that was something of a banner year for the conference anyway.
For the first time ever, I think you can make a credible argument in favor of four different teams as conference title contenders. Five teams will start the season expecting an NCAA tournament spot, and five more teams will see a tournament berth as a very attainable goal.
I think that Cal starts the season with two of the five best players in the conference, and maybe even the two very best players period. That's a good place to start. But they won't start the season playing basketball as good as the Final Four team played two years ago in a much more shallow Pac-12. The Bears will have to dig deep next year.