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Cal Women's Basketball Preview Part 2 of 4: The Team

In Part 1 of our eventual 4 part preview I made my pitch for why you should follow Cal women’s basketball this year if you have never done so in the past. Now we’re moving our focus on to what really matters – the players themselves!

In 2009, with four healthy returning players, the challenge facing Joanne Boyle was preparing six freshmen to play significant minutes for a team with postseason aspirations.  So, in comparison, having to integrate just three healthy freshmen with seven returning players must seem like a walk in the park!  Nevertheless, Cal will still be one of the youngest teams in the country next season, with just two upperclassmen on the entire roster.  Cal is so young that their obvious go-to scorer won’t turn 19 until next May!

What makes this team so exciting is that with such extreme youth also comes talent. Ten of the Twelve players on the roster come from back-to-back consensus top 15 recruiting classes, a feat that only Cal, Stanford, Texas A&M and Tennessee can claim over the last two years.  The first class showed their ability quickly, making up 80% of Cal’s starting lineup by the end of the season.  If this year’s freshmen can have a similarly successful impact Cal could make some serious noise nationally a bit earlier than expected.  But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.  Let’s break this team down, player by player:

Returning Starters

Talia Caldwell, 6’3’’ sophomore center

Talia is Cal’s second best rebounder – pretty great for one of the best rebounding teams in the country.  She doesn’t do it with Gen Brandon’s explosiveness or Denesha Stallworth’s quickness – Talia gets by with good positioning and knowing exactly how to use her size to create space and leverage.  She started to show an impressive aptitude for interior passing late in the season, setting up Denesha for easy baskets.  And her field goal percentage is through the roof, mostly because she rarely takes a shot she doesn’t know she can make.  Talia’s major areas of improvement have to do with her ability to stay on the court.  She’s prone to drawing quick fouls, and her conditioning made it difficult for her to play effectively against teams like Oregon that race up and down the court.  An improvement in free throw percentage would also be a nice addition to her game so that Joanne Boyle can feel more confident playing her during crunch time.

Layshia Clarendon, 5’9’ sophomore guard

Layshia had a very up and down freshman campaign.  She really broke out quickly during the non-conference schedule, then took a back seat within the offense as Alexis Gray-Lawson took on the entire scoring burden of the Cal back court.  But she showed the type of poise and playmaking ability Cal will hope to get from her in 2010-11 against UC Davis in the NIT.  With Gray-Lawson still out with a neck injury Layshia scored 29 points with 6 assists and just 2 turnovers, willing Cal to a thrilling overtime victory.  If she can improve her turnover-to-assist ratio she has the talent to be a force in the back court for the Bears.

Eliza Pierre, 5’7’’ sophomore point guard

Eliza has the most obvious strength of any Bear – but also the most obvious weakness.  Her defense is something special.  She’s quick, instinctual and daring and her defense was critical in a number of different games last year.  But until Eliza develops at least a mediocre jump shot opposing defenses will be able to sag towards the paint on Cal’s bigs and dare her to shoot.  Eliza did grow into the offense as the year went on, and her ball movement and passing should be strengths this year.  Her fearlessness while attacking on defense and offense always make her exciting to watch.

Denesha Stallworth, 6’3’’ sophomore forward/center

During Cal’s NIT championship run I compared Denesha’s dominance and style of play to Ashley Walker: 

Like Ashley, DeNesha doesn't overwhelm you with size and power, but she combines an impressive variety of intelligent low post moves with an increasingly solid mid-range game.  And also like Ashley, she hits her free throws in the 75% range, an incredibly valuable skill for a player who will be drawing many fouls over her Cal career.

That’s high praise indeed considering that Walker is, in my opinion, the best women’s basketball player in Cal history.  This year Denesha will have to learn how to produce despite being Cal’s number one scoring threat, the player that opposing coaches will game plan specifically to stop.  Expect her to up her averages from last year (13 points a game, 6.4 rebounds) as she gets more touches and shots.  If she does so while maintaining her >50% shooting percentage from the field Cal will be in great shape.

Returning Contributors

Gennifer Brandon, 6’2’’ sophomore forward

Cal’s most explosive big is also a truly gifted rebounder.  Gen pulled down the most boards on one of the best rebounding teams in the country despite being just sixth on the team in minutes.  If she maintained her rebounding rate from last year (one rebound every 2.6 minutes on the floor) over a full 40 minutes she would average over 15 rebounds per game.  That’s nuts.  Her offensive game is still raw, but her physical talents are undeniable and after a successful freshman campaign she will probably see more minutes this year after logging 22 minutes/game last year.

She is currently nursing a ‘stress reaction’ that has limited her participation in practice so far this season.  As best I can tell the injury is not considered serious, and the coaching staff is being purposely cautious with her rehab to ensure she’s 100% when the season starts. The most recent reports indicate that she’ll be up and running in practice starting this week.

Rachelle ‘Mooch’ Federico, 5’11 senior guard

The veteran, emotional leader of the Bears, ‘Mooch’ came out of nowhere to contribute solid minutes off the bench and will presumably reprise her role this year.  Her main asset is a solid jump shot, something Cal was lacking outside of Alexis Gray-Lawson last year, but she’s also an intelligent player and solid defender.  She’s likely to share time with Afure Jemerigbe and Lindsay Sherbert and a strong performance in pre-season practice could even earn her a starting spot, an impressive accomplishment for someone who has paid their dues for three years off the bench.

Rama N’diaye, 6’5’’ senior center

It’s been two long seasons of rehab for Rama, but all of the reports we’ve heard thus far have indicated that she is ready to return to the court after a series of knee problems.  Rama has never been the most mobile player, and it may be asking a lot for her to return and immediately contribute heavy minutes after such serious operations.  But if she can return with full health (and practice reports sound optimistic) she would probably be Cal’s best interior defender, with the type of height to make most Pac-10 players think twice about attacking the key.

Incoming Freshmen

Avigiel Cohen, 6’0’’ guard

Afure Jemerigbe, 6’0’’ guard

Mikayla Lyles, 5’8’’ guard

Lindsay Sherbert, 6’0’’ guard

First, the big news.  Avigiel Cohen reinjured her knee and is expected to red-shirt this year.  That’s tough news for both Cohen and for the Bears.  After injuring herself a little less than a year ago she reportedly worked long and hard to get back on the court as quickly as possible, so the news must be extremely frustrating.  For Cal it means less depth at every guard position in 2010, as Cohen had the kind of experience and talent that could have allowed her to play multiple roles and positions.

Jemerigbe and Sherbert are all expected to contribute at as combo guards/small forwards, so it will be interesting to see how much playing time they get.  In all likelihood playing time will be a reflection on how quickly each player can integrate themselves into the offense, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the two to earn a starting spot, perhaps even by the first game of the year.

Lyles will likely serve as the backup to Pierre and Clarendon.  If she does start the season as a point guard I would anticipate that she will be worked into the rotation very slowly since Cal has two guards with experience playing the point.  A few non-conference blowouts to give her some garbage time minutes playing the point would be a nice to see.

If Joanne Boyle plans on continuing to play with a three guard offense then a few of the freshmen are guaranteed to get lots playing time with only three returning guards.  With Stallworth, Caldwell, Brandon and N’diaye all having some experience an occasional three big lineup sounds intriguing for the advantage it could give on defense and on the glass.  But my guess is that the lack of ball handlers would be too much to overcome on offense.

Comment starter: What are your expectations for individual players this season?