Since Cal’s loss to Notre Dame last week, I’ve been observing the rest of the NCAA tournament through my usual blue and gold lens, and what I see leaves me both impressed and wistful. Through four rounds, there have been sixteen games involving 1 seeds. The 1 seeds have won every game by an average margin of 24.5 points.* Cal’s 11 point loss stands as the smallest margin of victory for any 1 seed, and only one or two teams can claim to have pushed one of the top four teams as hard as Cal did. I think we can all agree that it's absolutely not hyperbole to say that Cal has clearly proven they are the 5th best team in the country. It's simple math, people!
It’s gratifying that Cal played as well as they did – an entire season of improvement and effort was strongly validated. But it’s also a lesson on how every game in the season is important. The Bears were clearly underseeded as an 8 in terms of their true talent level, but they were perhaps only marginally underseeded in terms of what they achieved according to the schedule. Had Cal won a couple of their 6 close losses they would have earned a higher seed, and I firmly believe would have at least reached the Sweet 16. Perhaps even further if they received a nice draw match-up-wise.
So when I look back at the 2011-12 Bears, I’ll see a team that exceeded every expectation fans had prior to the season . . . so much so that they created new expectations within the same season. Suddenly, just making the tourney, or even earning one win seemed like insultingly low hopes and dreams. Fortunately, the Bears more or less reached the new expectations they created, or at least they did as much as their NCAA tournament draw allowed.
A year widely expected to be a transition year for sensible reasons - a new coach, three freshmen with significant playing time - transitioned in ways that few were anticipating. True, the transition from Joanne Boyle to Lindsay Gottlieb was as successful as most expected. But perhaps not all Cal fans expected such a dramatic transition of expectations. Coaches can talk all they want about competing for conference titles and being relevant nationally, but ultimately it's the on-court results that speak for themselves. Cal's on court results indicate that national relevance is a baseline expectation next year.
*This is where I'm going to boast about how
I totally called the computers I trust totally called that the #1 seeds are a step above every other team in the tournament.
So now we must bid adieu to 2011-12, but not without fondly remembering the best the season had to offer and turning towards next year.
Defining Game of the Year
It has to be Cal’s overtime loss to Stanford at Maples, because it validated Cal’s ambitions to compete against the nation’s best in any location. It does say something about the peculiar hierarchy of west coast basketball that playing Stanford basket-for-basket for 43 minutes is more impressive than most wins. But until somebody else wins the Pac-12 it’s the reality we’re forced to live in. The Bears staked their claim as Stanford's chief rival in the Pac-12 standings and perhaps lessened their aura of invincibility.
Layshia Clarendon, for numerous reasons. She doesn't necessarily play with the flash of Brittany Boyd, and she'll always be overlooked because of Cal's attention grabbing collection of post talent, but she's still the heart and soul of the team. Amongst a deep group of players, she averaged 33.8 minutes/game when nobody else played more than 25.3. On an occasionally turnover prone team, she has the highest assist/turnover ratio. And on a team with incredibly balanced scoring, she always seemed to be the player taking (and making) shots when it mattered most - when the opponent was on a run, or when the game was close in the last few minutes.
Best single game performance
Gennifer Brandon's 24 point, 24 rebound effort against Ohio State. Only one other player recorded more rebounds in a single game than Gen's 24 against the Buckeyes, but that player didn't also score 24 points, and she didn't do it against an eventual tourney team that spent the entire season in the top 25. It was a jaw-dropping performance.
Things I am looking forward to in 2012
-Seeing Cal’s non-conference schedule, which I’m sure will be full of high-profile opponents, hopefully both in Berkeley and on the road. The Bears concluded home-and-home series with Illinois and Rutgers this year, but I’m guessing a trip to Ohio State might be on the docket.
-The Bears fighting it out in an even better Pac-12 next year. With talented coaches in places like Oregon State and Washington and lots of returning talent, most teams should be as good if not better in 2012.
-The sophomore leap: Generally speaking, players see their greatest improvement between their freshmen and sophomore seasons. It may not be quite so pronounced for players like Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd who got so much playing time last year, but both should be even more consistent. And Justine Hartman will be completely healthy, confident and ready to show exactly why she was so highly touted as a recruit.
Consider what all three can do with a year to improve the weaker points of their game. Imagine Brittany Boyd doing everything she did this year, but with fewer turnovers. Imagine Reshanda Gray continuing to control her athleticism and reducing her fouls (In case you didn’t know, Reshanda actually led the team in points per minute on the floor, but also led the team in fouls committed) and playing more minutes as a result. Imagine Hartman’s money elbow jumper along with the confidence to bang bodies down low.
-The final campaign: Layshia Clarendon, Talia Caldwell and Eliza Pierre will close out their Cal careers with everything in place for a special final season.