As someone who aspires to be able to analyze sports with 100% dispassionate logic*, I try to view each game in isolation, with the only variables being Cal's opposition and the random chance built into any sort of competitive exercise.
From that angle, one might conclude that the Bears played poorly and were perhaps lucky to escape with a win against presumably inferior competition. But that's almost certainly not a fair way to look at this game.
Three issues combined to plague the Bears: 1. Eliza Pierre was unavailable due to illness (and I wonder if other players who did see the court were under the weather, since winter bugs rarely seem to confine themselves to one person.) 2. The referees called the game very tightly 3. Cal was playing two thousand miles away, with a tip time roughly equivalent to when my alarm went off when I was living in the dorms in Berkeley.
My game preview was optimistic (probably bordering on hubris) because I anticipated that Northwestern would still be missing a number of key contributors and Cal wouldn't. As it turned out, 6'5'' Dannielle Diamant was back in the lineup, and she was Northwestern's best player, contributing a double double.
Meanwhile, without Eliza Pierre, Brittany Boyd and Afure Jemerigbe were both forced to play nearly the entire game despite foul trouble. Here's the thing: Cal has great depth in the sense that they have 10 players better than the best 10 players you could pick from nearly any other team in the nation. But 10 players isn't really a very deep team. That means that if somebody is hurt, or sick, or otherwise unable to play, Cal can turn from a deep team into a shallow team shockingly fast.
Now, Brittany Boyd playing 38 minutes isn't a bad thing in isolation. After all, she's good at playing the bouncy hoops. But Brittany Boyd playing 38 minutes at 9:00 am on the road with the refs calling things as tightly as possible? Not ideal.
So what's my takeaway from Monday's weirdness? Cal got a whole bunch of unusual things thrown at them, and the combination would have given many teams a pretty good excuse for losing. They still won.
The Bears have now twice shown tenacity in pulling out road wins when they weren't at their best. Hopefully that experience will prove valuable in a few weeks when they head to the mountains to start Pac-12 play on the road. But before that happens, they've got to get by top 25 foe Kansas.
Cal vs. Kansas
There's a bit of a gap between what the humans say about Kansas and what the computers say about Kansas. The human pollsters see a team that is 8-1 with their only loss coming to a good Arkansas team on a neutral court. The computers see a team that has played a relatively weak schedule (118th in the country), has occasionally struggled to put away iffy competition, and hasn't won a single game away from home.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Kansas is clearly a good team - last year's run to the Sweet 16 is proof enough. The Jayhawks lost only one major contributor from last year's tournament squad, but that player (Aishah Sutherland) nearly averaged a double double, so it's a pretty major loss. They're relatively untested so far this year and Cal will be their big test before conference play, but this team has some great veteran players used to the rugged Big 12. They're not afraid of Cal.
Players to Watch
Carolyn Davis: The senior forward is averaging 17 points per game on the strength of 60% shooting from the field. That she is scoring so much is even more impressive when you consider that she only averages 24 minutes per game (I'm guessing she's playing limited minutes in blowouts so that Kansas can develop younger players?) She has scored at least 12 points in every game, except one - she only scored 6 points in 34 minutes in Kansas' only loss. Perhaps an indication that the Wildcats depend on Davis' scoring?
Angel Goodrich: Another senior, Goodrich is a diminutive point guard doing a great job balancing scoring (13.2 points/game) and distributing (6.4 assists). Those numbers are Boyd-esque, so you know she's legit. She's an all Big-12 2nd teamer, received various All-American honorable mentions, and is generally a very, very good point guard.
Keys To The Game
Pound it inside: Last year, Kansas was a pretty good rebounding team, though not quite as good as Cal. But that was with Sutherland gobbling up rebounds. Without her, can the Jayhawks control the glass as much as they did last year? I'd love for Cal to find out by putting the ball in the hands of the bigs early. I expect Kansas to play a rotation of just 3 forwards, which means that Cal can gain an advantage by getting them in foul trouble. Either way, I suspect that offensive rebounds might be available.
Hound Davis: As mentioned above, the Jayhawks need points from their veteran leader. I'm not going to pretend to know who would be the ideal defender - Talia Caldwell's fundamental positioning or Gennifer Brandon's athleticism are nice options to choose from - but the occasional well-timed double team and guard help could make a huge difference in bothering the player Kansas most needs. Deny her the ball, force her to pass out of the block - whatever it takes.
Ball Pressure on Goodrich: She's too good to hold down for the entire game, but she's also mistake prone. If she hits a 3 or makes a spectacular pass, no need to fret. The key is to force the occasional mistake to balance out the points she's sure to create. She averages 4 turnovers per game and had 7 when Kansas lost to Arkansas. Hopefully Eliza Pierre is back in the lineup, which would give Cal another option to chase her around the court.
Win this one and Cal will almost certainly enter conference play with a top 10 RPI, a very strong computer profile, confidence and momentum. And that will be important, because it will be just in time to play five ranked teams in their first seven conference games!
*An impossible goal for anybody, let alone a weirdo who doesn't wear red and frequently curses in the general direction of the TV.