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Cal Women’s Basketball Season Preview Part 4: The Pac-10

We’ve already covered why you should be following Cal women’s basketball, given an in depth preview of the 2010-11 Bears, and a breakdown of the season schedule.  This time, we’re going to take a quick glance at every other team in the conference and try to predict what’s going to happen.  The teams are listed in my predicted order of finish, from first to last, and at the end you’ll get my guesses at tournament seeds and All Pac-10 teams.

Stanford Cardinal

Key Returners: Nneka Ogwumike, Kayla Pederson
Key Losses: Jayne Appel, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude.
Impact Freshmen: Chiney Ogwumike

As usual, Stanford is the clear favorite to take home another Pac-10 title.  But for the first time in a few years I think there is reason to believe that Stanford could maybe kinda sorta be vulnerable. That reason is defense. The Cardinal clearly have the offensive firepower to outscore any opponent – with their two leading scorers back from a team that went over 80 points 13 times in 2009 Stanford will not be starved for points.  But I think some of the preseason expectations may be underestimating the loss of the interior defense of Jayne Appel and the perimeter defense of Rosalyn Gold-Onwude.  Cal fans will undoubtedly remember that it was Appel who shut down Ashley Walker in 2008 and that it was Gold-Onwude who made Alexis Gray-Lawson’s life miserable in 2009.

Now, Stanford has traditionally played excellent defense under Tara Vanderveer, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if a few players step up to replace the defense and incredible rebounding of Appel and the intensity and leadership of Gold-Onwude. Early games against Baylor and UConn will give Cal fans an immediate look at how successfully Stanford has replaced their graduates.

UCLA Bruins

Key Returners: Jasmine Dixon, Markel Walker, Doreena Campbell
Key Losses: Erika Tukianinen
Impact Freshmen: UCLA is deep and experienced enough that I wouldn’t expect big contributions from any freshmen

I’ll be completely honest: UCLA scares the absolute bejeezus out of me. They have a ruthless, successful coach with a core group of experienced returning players who have already caused Cal fans horrible pain in the past.  Nikki Caldwell’s aptitude for coaching defense makes UCLA a tough, tough matchup for just about anybody, and last year Cal’s extreme youth made it even tougher.  There will be tremendous pressure on Eliza Pierre and Layshia Clarendon to successfully run Cal’s offense when they take on UCLA’s pressure, trapping defense.  Marcel Walker made a tremendous impact as a freshmen for the Bruins, but it was Jasmine Dixon who really turned UCLA into a Pac-10 power when she became eligible after her transfer from Rutgers.  If UCLA can replace Erika Tukiainen’s 3 point threat it could be a special season in Westwood.

USC Trojans

Key Returners: Briana Gilbreath, Ashley Coral, Jackie Gemelos
Key Losses: Aarika Hughes, Heather Oliver, Hailey Dunham
Impact Freshmen: Cassie Harberts

Briana Gilbreath and Ashley Coral.  Ashley Coral and Briana Gilbreath.  Oh, and maybe Jacki Gemelos.  The Trojan dynamic duo combined to take over 40% of USC’s shots -   Corral runs the show with her passing and 3 point prowess, while Gilbreath does the dirty work inside.  But this time USC may finally have Jacki Gemelos, former high school player of the year, healthy for an entire season.  With Gemelos as the wild card USC is the true unknown in the Pac-10 this year.  The Trojans did lose two of their better rebounders from a team that struggled to rebound the ball already, so that will be a concern.  But if Coral, Gilbreath and Gemelos all stay healthy and play up to their ability USC will go far.  Add into the mix freshman forward Cassie Harberts (who began her USC career with 16 points in 37 minutes against Gonzaga) and you have another intriguing California power.

We’ll get an excellent idea of what USC is capable of before conference play because they face a brutal non-conference schedule that includes 4 games against preseason top 25 teams and another two games against teams that received votes.  4 of those 6 games are on the road.  With a home win against Gonzaga but a decisive road loss to Duke we still don't have a great read on the Trojans.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Key Returners: Dymond Simon, Becca Tobin, Tenaya Watson
Key Losses: Danielle Orsillo, Kayli Murphy
Impact Freshmen: Adrianne Thomas

Arizona St. was a difficult team to figure out last year, and I’m not sure what to make of them this year either.  2009 was a down year by recent standards for ASU despite having what must have been the deepest team in the Pac-10 last year – 10 players played 13 minutes a game or more.  The Sun Devils lose only two players who were a part of that rotation, but one of those players is Danielle Orsillo, who Cal fans undoubtedly remember.  Orsillo was the only consistent offensive threat and it’s unclear who will be expected to step up and fill the void.  The most likely candidate is senior guard Dymond SimonStill, ASU was one of the better rebounding teams and they always have a strong collection of talent, so another top half finish in the Pac-10 is expected.  Still, one gets the sense that ASU has been passed up by UCLA and USC in the conference pecking order.

Arizona Wildcats

Key Returners: Ify Ibekwe, Davellyn Whyte, Soana Lucet
Key Losses: Ashley Frazier
Impact Freshmen: Erica Barnes

While Davellyn Whyte led Arizona in scoring, it was Ify Ibekwe who did everything else to make the Wildcats a competitive, dangerous team last year, averaging a double double while playing some of the best defense in the Pac-10.  With experienced returners Lucet, Brooke Jackson and Shanita Arnold mixed in with promising freshman Erica Barnes Arizona is the Pac-10 team set to improve most on their 2009-10 record.  If there’s one thing holding the Wildcats back it’s depth – in an overtime win over Wichita St. to start the season Arizona essentially only played 6 players, despite Ibekwe fouling out after only 22 minutes on the court.

Oregon Ducks

Key Returners: Amanda Johnson, Nia Jackson
Key Losses: Taylor Lilley, Micaela Cocks
Impact Freshmen: Deanna Weaver, Ariel Thomas, Ashley Buis

The most exciting team in the Pac-10 is facing the challenge of replacing their two leading scorers in 3 point artists Taylor Lilley and Micaela Cocks.  Lilley in particular was the player who made coach Paul Westhead’s run and gun system work so effectively and her skill and leadership will be missed.  Still, the Ducks have a solid group of returners in Amanda Johnson, Nia Jackson, Jasmin Holliday and Victoria Kenyon.  If Westhead’s solid recruiting class grows into his system as quickly as last year’s team did then Oregon is another candidate to cause problems for the top half of the Pac-10.

Washington Huskies

Key Returners: Kristi Kingma, Regina Rogers
Key Losses: Sami Whitcomb
Impact Freshmen: Marjorie Heard, Mercedes Wetmore

The loss of Whitcomb, who led the Huskies in almost every single counting stat, will be the challenge. Kristi Kingma showed promise and if Regina Rogers can stay on the floor UW could make some noise in conference.  But with no returning players who averaged better than 10 points per game, where will the scoring come from?  Kingma and Rogers got off to a good start, but it doesn't look like Washington has the depth to make a run this year.

Washington State Cougars

Key Returners: April Cook, Jazmine Perkins
Key Losses: Kiki Moore (transfer)
Impact Freshmen: Sage Romberg

WSU gave a couple Pac-10 teams a scare in 2009 and even notched upset wins over ASU, Oregon and USC late in the season, but the loss of 2nd leading scorer Kiki Moore, who transferred to Fresno St., really takes away any of the momentum the Cougars might have brought into this season.  Still Washington St. returns most of their roster, and I’m inclined to cut them some slack for their road losses to St. Marys and UC Davis because April Cook was injured.  I don’t think there’s any indication that WSU has the kind of talent to get anywhere near .500 in the Pac-10, but they are experienced and well coached enough to pull a few home upsets.

Oregon State Beavers

Key Returners: Almost Nobody
Key Losses: Everybody Else
Addition by subtraction: Finally firing their insane head coach
Impact Freshmen: Many, presumably

The question must be asked:  Has a college coach ever left a team in a worse situation than LaVonda Wagner did after finally getting fired at Oregon State?  In my mind not even Bill Doba can hold a candle to the utter destruction Wagner left in her path after guiding OSU to a last place finish before massive player transfers at one point left the Beavers with just two scholarship players.  If OSU is remotely competitive in Pac-10 play it would immediately vault Scott Rueck into ‘coach of the year’ consideration.  The Beavers got off on the right foot with a win over Long Beach St. in which freshmen Alyssa Martin and Alexis Bostick combined for 38 points and the only two returning players on the roster (El Sara Greer and Angela Misa) contributed 15 points and 18 rebounds.

What about Cal?

So, where do the Bears fit into the predicted standings?  I firmly believe that by the end of last year Cal was the 3rd best team in the Pac-10 despite their 4th place finish.  But the loss of Alexis Gray-Lawson, Natasha Vital and Lauren Greif plus the challenge of integrating three more freshmen are major hurdles.  Considering those factors means I can’t predict the Bears will pass up UCLA (or, obviously, Stanford).  And it’s entirely possible if things go wrong that USC or even ASU could finish above the Bears.  But last year’s freshman class showed too much poise and talent during their end of the season run for me to pick Cal to finish behind the Trojans or Sun Devils. 

Cal’s performances in the first two games of the season, particularly the poised play of Linsday Sherbert and Afure Jemerigbe, are reasons to be optimistic.  Cal’s sophomores are playing like veterans and it appears that the Bears have the talent to play with any team in the country (non UConn division).  Still, Avigiel Cohen’s season ending knee injury and Gennifer Brandon’s continued stress fracture struggles leaves Cal’s roster perilously thin.

Put me down for a 3rd place finish, a 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and lots of reasons to get even more excited for 2011-12

Predicted Tournament Teams
Stanford – low 1 seed or high 2 seed
UCLA – 3 seed
Cal – 5 seed
USC – 6 seed
Arizona St., Arizona and Oregon – NIT

All Pac-10 teams

I went with a three forward, 2 guard lineup because few Pac-10 teams designate players as centers and because the league is filled with deserving forwards.  It killed me not to put DeNesha Stallworth on the first team and Eliza Pierre on the second team but I’m trying to stay unbiased and not overreact after two impressive games.  After all, preseason picks all look pretty meaningless in March.  For the record the Pac-10 put 15 players on the All Pac-10 team last year without dividing them into first/second/third team or sorting by position.  I’m going to try to be a little more organized than that.

First Team
Forward – Nneka Ogwumike - Stanford
Forward – Kayla Pedersen - Stanford
Forward – Jasmine Dixon - UCLA
Guard – Brianna Gilbreath - USC
Guard – Jeanette Pohlen - Stanford

Second Team
Forward – Markel Walker - UCLA
Forward – DeNesha Stallworth - Cal
Forward – Ify Ibekwe - Arizona
Guard – Ashley Coral - USC
Guard – Layshia Clarendon - Cal

All Freshman Team
Forward – Chiney Ogwumike - Stanford
Forward – Cassie Harberts - USC
Forward – Erica Barnes - Arizona
Guard – Lindsay Sherbert - Cal
Guard – Ariel Thomas - Oregon

Comment starter:  Pre-season predictions always come out wrong - point out all the places where I screwed up!