If you're so inclined, you can watch highlights of Cal's loss to Washington St. here, and Washington here. It's all a bit repetitive, since it happened in a similar fashion just a month ago. So rather than spending a few hundred words re-rehashing two painful losses, let’s just cut to the chase: Cal unfathomably has been swept by both Washington and Washington St., and something is wrong. True, both the Huskies and Cougars have clearly improved from their typical level of play over the last decade plus. But at the same time, if you remove their wins over Cal from their conference record, WSU would stand at 4-7, UW at 3-8. That’s not the profile of world beaters. Theses are teams Cal should be beating, particularly at home.
So, what’s the problem? Well, that’s a complicated question. But there is one issue that’s become quite clear: Cal can’t beat teams that slow the game down. Think about this: The Bears have won four games against Pac-10 teams in which their losing opponents scored 60 points or more. Meanwhile, Cal has lost three games in which their opponent scores 60 points or less. It’s no longer a coincidence that Cal looks so good against Arizona, Oregon and USC but looks so bad against Washington, Washington St. and Arizona St. The first three teams push the ball, run in transition and take early shots. The last three teams slow things down, focus on the half court set on both ends and do everything they can to stop their opponents from running.
And that makes sense. Cal looks so good running the floor. Layshia Clarendon and Eliza Pierre are quick and confident. Lindsay Sherbert seems to get one uncontested layup a game sneaking down the wing when nobody’s paying attention. And DeNesha Stallworth is one of the most mobile post players in the conference. For all of the trouble Cal has with ball-handling, they seem to have a particular flair for the 50 foot outlet pass.
But as soon as they have to beat a defense with all five players set? Everything seems to fall apart. Stallworth and Talia Caldwell have to work tirelessly just for the smallest window for an entry pass, and guards miss that window half the time. Penetration is rare and often comes with no plan. Players attack the baseline and get trapped with no one to pass to. Our three point shooters aren’t consistent enough to force teams to respect it as a threat.
Intuitively it makes sense that when they’re not required to play in any kind of structure a group of top recruits would show their inherent talent. When you’re running a fast break it’s all about speed, instinct, vision, and other abilities that don’t need to be coached up. But in the half-court set you need to add experience, execution and team cohesion to the equation. That hasn’t happened yet and it ultimately falls on the coaching staff.
There’s been a good deal of criticism aimed towards the Cal coaching staff over Cal’s struggles. And I’d guess that Joanne Boyle would accept that blame. But we must also be fair: Coach Boyle and her staff have already proven the ability to coach up a class of recruits. True, Alexis Gray-Lawson, Ashley Walker and Devanei Hampton were well-regarded prospects. But they also improved their play over their respective careers. Ashley Walker in particular transformed from a solid supporting cast member into a full blown star that could carry a team. And it’s not like they struggled as freshman, either – after all, the Bears made the NCAA tournament that year.
So did the coaching staff suddenly lose their ability to maximize talent and teach good defense and offense? I doubt it. Clearly Cal’s struggles are more complicated than that. Let’s discuss some of the challenges facing this team, and how much blame the coaching staff deserves for each:
No true point guard
Eliza Pierre, Layshia Clarendon and Mikayla Lyles are all solid combo guards, but none of the three are ideal at the point. It was a problem last year as well, but it was masked much of the time by Alexis Gray-Lawson. AGL wasn’t a true point-guard either, but Cal could always just give her the ball and let her create if nothing else on offense was working. Unfortunately for the development of last year’s freshmen, I think AGL became a crutch against slower paced teams like Oregon St. and Washington.
To their credit, Joanne Boyle found Avigiel Cohen out of Israel and she very well could have become Cal’s point guard this year (though it’s always tough to project how quickly international players can prepare for the college game). But she reinjured her knee, so there’s no way of knowing if she might have solved Cal’s problem. The good news is that in addition to presumably getting Cohen back, Brittany Boyd is coming in as a very highly ranked true point guard recruit.
Lack of depth
If everybody on the roster was healthy (excepting Tierra Rogers, of course) Cal would have 11 scholarship players. But because of season-ending injuries to Cohen and Gennifer Brandon that number is down to 9. Cal is particularly thin in the front court, with just Talia Caldwell, DeNesha Stallworth and Rama N’Diaye available as post players. Joanne Boyle has received some criticism for not bringing in more players. It’s been a conscious decision to not bring in a ton of players to avoid playing-time related transfers. But it does leave the team vulnerable to the type of injuries that are inherent to the women’s game. I suppose their might be some value in having a few walk-ons on the roster, but realistically they would be getting very limited minutes (if any at all) over players like Clarendon and Stallworth.
Part of the problem is that with the transfers and the graduation of Boyle’s first recruits, Cal’s class balance was compromised. The coaching staff could have brought in six or seven players last year, but it would result in a continuation of the same up-and-down cycle of experienced and inexperienced teams. That should finally be more or less correct next year when the Bears will have the following roster:
Juniors: Talia Caldwell, Layshia Clarendon, Eliza Pierre, DeNesha Stallworth
Sophomores: Gennifer Brandon (medical redshirt), Afure Jemerigbe, Mikayla Lyles, Lindsay Sherbert
Freshmen: Avigiel Cohen (medical redshirt), Brittany Boyd , Reshanda Gray, Erika Johnson
Sure, having zero seniors is a little weird, but at least there isn't a 7 or 8 player class that will leave a gaping hole upon graduation.
What does this mean for next year?
Assuming everybody is healthy (a big assumption) the pressure is going to be on to compete at the top of the conference. Cal will have back-to-back-to-back top 10 recruiting classes and 12 highly rated recruits on the roster. Simply put, the Bears will be too talented for anything less than an NCAA tournament appearance to be considered a success. Arguably, sights could be set even higher.
Success won’t be guaranteed, however. There will likely be lots of pressure on Brittany Boyd, Avigiel Cohen, or both if either end up starting at point guard. But the addition of Reshanda Gray and the return of Gennifer Brandon to the front line should give Cal a group of bruisers that can mix it up inside with any team in the conference, even Stanford, who will finally be losing 9 year senior Kayla Pedersen.
My major concern is that Cal will have to start from scratch on offense while new freshman who demand playing time learn the offense. Hopefully we'll have enough returning players that any kinks can be worked out in the non-conference schedule. Meanwhile, the Pac-10 has purged some of its least successful coaches, and it appears that we may be running out of sub-par opponents that amount to guaranteed wins. The 2011-12 Bears will likely have to bring it every night.