After a hard fought loss to open the season against Rutgers back east, the Bears came home for two games this week. One was a sloppy, glorified scrimmage against an over-matched Sacramento State team. Frankly, I'm going to mostly gloss over that game. It's an amusing little coincidence that Cal beat Sac St. and Illinois by the same margin.
But the other contest was a potentially interesting game against Illinois, who was coming off of a close, 3 point loss on the road against Oregon. If the Illinois game turns out to be a fair indication the Bears should be primed for a good year. Let's talk about why.
Depth - It was another one of those goofy Pac-12 reffed games. Both teams were impacted, and the whistle came hard and fast. By the end of the game 41 fouls had been called (more than 1 a minute). Last year that type of overzealous foul calling might have derailed the Bears. But because Cal suddenly has a 10 person rotation it barely caused a problem. Reshanda Gray only managed 9 minutes before fouling out - but Justine Hartman stepped up with a big game, scoring 17 points in just 20 minutes. When you have four elite posts the margin of error is so much bigger. It allows all four to stay aggressive on both ends. Picking up a cheap foul isn't the end of the world anymore.
Ball movement - Cal's offense was so stagnant last year. Plays seemed to develop so slowly, and the Bears frequently struggled to get off a good shot. When you play deliberately on offense you can't afford turnovers, but that was another area that Cal struggled with. This year? The ball movement is so much faster, so much more confident. The Bears are playing much faster, and that can sometimes mean more turnovers. But we had turnover problems without getting many good shots last year. Now Cal is getting good shots on more possessions.
Brittany Boyd - Following that last point about ball movement - boy it sure is nice to have a true point guard. That she happens to be a good defender and makes 2 or 3 amazing plays per game is just gravy.
Lindsay Gottlieb's offense - I have to think that Cal's offense must be something very odd - a post-driven up-tempo offense. Right now Cal's top three scorers are Talia Caldwell, Justine Hartman and Reshanda Gray. Gennifer Brandon is 5th. And this is a team that currently plays at the 25th fastest pace in the nation. That speaks to the speed and athleticism of Cal's forwards.
Also, apropos of nothing - Cal is currently 8th in the nation in field goal percentage of 2 point shots and 313th in field percentage from 3.
Waikiki Beach Marriott Rainbow Wahine Showdown
Well, that's certainly a mouthful. The Bears will be playing Hawaii, Texas and Virginia on Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively. Many of us will likely miss the Hawaii game, which happens at the same time as our footballers take on Arizona St. But that's OK - Hawaii is the least interesting match-up. If you're interested, a paid stream will be available for the Hawaii game. All games will have a free audio stream (presumably Dave Lewis on Cal radio).
The Rainbow Warriors were just 11-19 last year and have struggled out of the gate with back-to-back losses to Portland and San Diego State by 18 and 27 points respectively despite playing both in Honolulu. They are unlikely to pose a major threat to any of the other three teams in the round-robin.
Player to Watch: Sophomore Kamilah Jackson leads Hawaii in both scoring and rebounding, and she’s been getting to the line at an impressive clip so far this season. As a 5’11’’ forward she’ll have a huge challenge against Cal’s front line.
Biggest Strength: Getting to the foul line. UH has shot 100 free throws already this year, good for 25/game. That’s a whole ton of free throws. They’ve made 73 of them, which . . . hold on . . . carry the nine . . . equals 73%! If they are as good at drawing fouls as the numbers indicate it will be a good test for our occasionally foul prone bigs.
Biggest Weakness: Size. UH has only player in the rotation taller than 6’0’’, and that player only averages 14 minutes a game. As such they’ve been badly outrebounded by a couple of mid-majors. When Cal comes out with their four big posts . . . look out.
This was supposed to be the toughest opponent of the weekend, but then Virginia upset Tennessee, throwing some doubt on the matter. The Longhorns are 2-1 with wins over small conference schools and a 13 point loss to Stanford, who was playing without the elder Ogwumike. They are currently a fringe top 25 team
Player to Watch: Yvonne Anderson is the engine that makes Texas go. The senior point guard leads the team in scoring (16.7) and assists (7) per game. She's also a defensive pest, which means she'll be a huge test on both ends for Brittany Boyd and Eliza Pierre.
Biggest Strength: Three point shooting - I think. Last year Texas bombed away from behind the arc and ended up making nearly 37%, and averaged 19 attempts/game. Texas has started cold from behind the arc, which might have something to do with an apparent slow start to the season.
Biggest Weakness: Forcing turnovers. Both last year and to start this year, Texas has had a low opponent turnover percentage. Hallelujah!
I wasn't expecting much from Virginia this year - Joanne Boyle inherited a team that struggled in ACC play last year before bowing out in the 4th round of the NIT. But if a shocking upset of #3 Tennessee is any indication, Coach Boyle has taught Virginia to win the way Cal used to in her early tenure: A bruising, disciplined defense and just enough offense in a grind-it-out slug-fest. I really want this win because I'm still not thrilled with how things went down last year, but I'm also really not looking forward to this game because it's probably not going to be a pretty contest.
Player to Watch: It's difficult to narrow down because they have a such a balanced offense, but how about Chelsea Shine, a 6'2'' senior forward? She played 45 minutes against Tennessee, scored 18 points on just 15 shots and didn't turn the ball over once! She looks to be a good defensive test for Cal's post players.
Biggest Strength: Defense in general, and especially an impressive ability to force turnovers. That should send a chill down the spines of Cal fans. Forcing 22 turnovers a game is impressive enough, but especially when you slow the game down. 31% of their opponent's possession end in turnovers. Look forward to excruciating basketball against Coach Boyle.
Biggest Weakness: Shooting, generally speaking. Virginia's offense has been successful this year because they haven't been turning the ball over and have rebounded reasonably well. But they won't be winning games by shooting the nets off.