We've been talking all off-season about the challenge of replacing three seniors who combined to log 83 minutes a game last year. Based on recruiting reports, coaching interviews and plain old fashioned guess work, here's the current state of the Cal roster and the likely rotation that will defend the 2012-13 conference championship:
Projected Starter: Brittany Boyd
Back-ups: Hind Ben Abdelkader and Avigiel Cohen
Now an unquestioned team leader, Brittany Boyd will be asked to shoulder a heavier burden on the offensive end. That might mean more shooting, or it just might mean that the ball will be in her hands with greater frequency. How she handles that increased responsibility will be a major storyline throughout the season.
Although Boyd was the undisputed point guard last year, Layshia Clarendon could act as a primary ball handler and create her own offense. And while Eliza Pierre wasn't a big offensive threat, she could capably initiate the offense. Both of those players are gone, and as a result there is uncertainty behind Boyd. Cohen is the only player on the roster who has played point guard behind Boyd, but in very limited minutes. Abdelkader is a combo guard, and I'm not even entirely sure if Coach G envisions her as a point guard in the offense. Considering the lack of obvious depth at back-up point guard, I'm thinking she and Cohen will compete for minutes at a back-up.
The bottom line is that Brittany Boyd needs to stay healthy and out of foul trouble. Her gambler's instinct on defense is important for Cal, but she might need to reign that in just a bit to make sure she stays on the floor when Cal needs her. The fewer games in which Brittany has four fouls midway through the 2nd half, the better.
Projected Starters: Afure Jemerigbe and Courtney Range
Back-ups: Brittany Shine, Mercedes Jefflo and Mikayla Lyles
Last year, Layshia Clarendon played essentially every single competitive minute at the 2 guard spot. Afure Jemerigbe was Cal's best 3 guard, but there isn't an obvious 2 guard replacement and Courtney Range is perhaps the best wing recruit in Cal history. So if Afure can slide over to 2 guard, I think that's the lineup that makes most sense. That leaves Mikayla Lyles as a back-up that can spell either Jemerigbe or Range, along with the unknown quantities of Brittany Shine and Mercedes Jefflo.
This is a big year for Afure. She's been able to pick her spots on offense and defense and defer to last year's senior leaders in terms of taking shots. This year she'll have to assert herself more, particularly early in the season when Cal will be lacking interior depth and the new players are getting used to playing with everybody else in Coach G's system. At the pre-season tip-off evenf, the coaching staff seemed very confident that she is ready to do just that.
It's hard to know what the rotation amongst back-up guards will be, but I would guess that Mikayla Lyles will get more minutes than Brittany Shine, who will get more minutes than Mercedes Jefflo. It might still be the case that Mikayla will be a 3 point specialist who will enter the game against teams playing zone or packing the paint, but she showed herself to be a bit more versatile last year and that could earn her more playing time as a senior.
Projected Starters: Reshanda Gray and Gennifer Brandon
Back-ups: Kyra Dunn, Justine Hartman and KC Waters
The Bears will actually start the season with some depth issues. It's reasonably likely that Cal will be missing Gennifer Brandon for the first few games as she recovers from a stress fracture, and Kyra Dunn will not be eligible for the first month or so of the season as she sits out the required time for transfers.
Until Dunn and Brandon are both available, I would assume that Justine Hartman will start alongside Reshanda Gray, with KC Waters getting plenty of time off the bench. There is also a strong possibility that Cal will play small with Courtney Range at forward, allowing the Bears to use their overflowing abundance of depth on the wing. Either way, Range should present a mismatch, and her versatility will be particularly important should Cal have to deal with any injuries further into the season.
But if/when Gray and Brandon are playing together, you've got what I would assume to be the best interior combination in the Pac-12, and their combined skills should give everybody else fits. And if both Dunn and Waters are capable of playing at a high level immediately, then depth shouldn't be a concern.
The biggest concern for Reshanda will be the transition to playing as a starter. In the past, knowing that she had about 20 minutes off the bench to make an impact, fouls were less of a concern. Her defense could be suitably rugged as a result. But if the coaches are going to want 30 minutes out of her this year, she's going to have to learn to play the same high level defense, but with fewer fouls.
I suspect that the first post player off the bench will have more to do with game strategy and situation than anything else. Hartman would probably be the choice if you want offense, and Dunn the choice if you want defense, and Waters might be the pick if you need rebounds. Gennifer Brandon's absence should allow the back-ups a chance to show the coaches what they can do, and although it might be a tough way to start the season it could pay dividends in March.