Cal went 1-1 last weekend, and the single loss to USC will rankle all year. The Bears felt like they gave one away, and it's hard to disagree. Yet oddly, after failing to earn a home sweep, I'm as optimistic as I've been about this season since before losing to George Washington. Why? Because I think Cal finally embraced their new offensive identity last week.
Let me explain. Last year, Cal had an elite offense. It may not have always been pretty, but the Bears could score. 17th in the entire country in points/possession, to be precise. There were many reasons Cal was so deadly on offense, but two of the biggest reasons are gone. Last year, Cal could count on Layshia Clarendon to create her own shot, and last year Cal was perhaps the best offensive rebounding team in the country. Often, those abilities worked beautifully in concert. Late in the game, with the score close, Cal could hand the ball off to Layshia, who would work to get off a good mid-range look. She'd make those shots a lot, and if she missed, Gennifer Brandon or Talia Caldwell were getting the rebound and scoring themselves.
I don't need to remind you that Layshia and Talia are gone, and that Gen isn't playing as many minutes as last year. The 2013-14 Bears needed to find different ways to score, and they simply have fewer options than last year's team. It has taken time.
Consequently, Cal has struggled offensively. Somewhat surprisingly, Cal has been better defensively this year (relative to the rest of the country, in an improved environment for offense) although the improvement is marginal. But Cal's decline from scoring almost exactly a point/possession last year to .9 points/possession this year has been precipitous, and is largely to blame for Cal's relative struggles.
For about 60 minutes this weekend, I saw an offense that finally found itself. Cal pounded the ball inside relentlessly for major stretches against USC, and constantly, relentlessly against UCLA. Cal ‘settled' for just nine three pointers against UCLA, and it hardly mattered (Cal hitting a few of their open threes was the difference between a good offensive outing, and the best offensive outing against any Pac-12 team this season.) As it was, Cal had a great offensive showing against one of the better defenses in the conference.
And what is Cal's offense good at? Getting the ball to Reshanda Gray, and letting Brittany Boyd attack the basket. Everything else should be secondary, either a back-up plan or a play that happens as a result of an opponent's (over) reaction to the first two options. It sounds simple, and I don't doubt that the coaching staff has been drilling that strategy all year long. But it still takes time to learn how to do it well. How do you get the ball to Gray when every opponent knows that it's exactly what you want to do? How do you commit to attacking the basket, when there's so much space to shoot, and you've been working on your jump shot all off-season?
But why does Cal need to attack the basket? It's more than just acknowledging that they're not a great jump shooting team. It's about free throws. Cal attempted 32 free throws against USC and 24 against UCLA, and that's without the benefit of intentional fouling in either game. Those numbers really reflect the different mentality that Cal brought into both games. This team should be shooting significantly more free throws than their opponents most of the time. And thankfully, both Boyd and Gray have improved their free throw shooting to the point that they can really punish other teams at the line.
Unfortunately, Cal got away from their ideal offense a bit too much in the 2nd half against USC, and allowed Ariya Crook to go off on defense. But as frustrating as that was, Cal's performance (a near triple-double from Boyd, a double-double from Gen, double digits from Afure Jemerigbe, a typical Reshanda night) would lead to wins most of the time, against pretty much any team other than Stanford. If you believe in process over results, you have to be happy with this weekend.
Ace is Ace
In case you hadn't already heard, Cal's own Avigiel Cohen is a nominee for the 2014 Allstate Women's Basketball Coaches Association Good Works Team, better known as the AWBCAGWT for short. 84 players nationwide have been nominated, and in February 10 finalists will be announced.
What has Ace done to get nominated, one might ask? I'm glad you did!
· Serving on the board of the Cal Athlete Gay Straight Alliance (CALSAGSA).
· Remaining active in the Jewish community both in Berkeley and across the entire UC system. She is currently one of three students to serve on the 20-person board of the Berkeley Hillel.
· Establishing the system-wide UC Jewish Alumni Group, and one of the first reunions was held at the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv in July.
I cannot express how happy I am to see how women's basketball players have embraced LGBT causes over the past few years. Unfortunately, there is no fan vote portion to this award, so no twitter campaign this year. I guess we'll have to explore more clandestine ways to influence the decision making process.
Congrats Avigiel! (Would a mazel tov be cliché?)
This is your opportunity, Cal women's basketball fans. The Super Bowl begins at 3:30 pm, PT. Cal/Stanford at Haas Pavilion tips at 1:00 pm. The game will be over before Denver vs. Seattle kicks off. If you can't be at Haas on Sunday, you know what your duty is. When you attend your Super Bowl party, you must take control of the remote, tell your celebrity-loving uncle or pre-game show addict friend that Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd are infinitely more entertaining than whichever awful pop acts and inane talking heads that the Super Bowl will inundate us with during pre-game.
OK, Stanford. Let's start with the easy part: Chiney Ogwumike is the single most important, most productive player in the country.
Note that I didn't say ‘best.' I happen to think she's the best player in the country too, but that's a subjective thing. Maybe one of the UConn players could do what Chiney does if they had the opportunity to be the absolute focal point of their team on both ends of the floor. But they aren't asked to do that. Chiney is. And Chiney has proven she can do it, and that's why she's the single most important, productive player in the country.
I could go on and on about Chiney - her insane usage percentage that somehow doesn't impact her efficiency, her impeccable interior defense, her rebounding . . . but that's an awful lot of time spent praising somebody on Stanford. Where's the fun in that? You already know that she's good, and you already know that she's off to the WNBA in a few months.
I mentioned above that Cal's defense has been marginally improved this year, and I suspect that some of that is because Reshanda Gray's playing time has increased. You'll recall that her defense on Chiney played a major role in Cal's win at Maples. The battle between Reshanda and Chiney (and between Reshanda and foul trouble) will be a major storyline.
Everybody other Stanford player on the roster is a role player, at least for now. Nobody else is averaging double figures. Amber Orrange is a good second banana and capably initiates the offense. Mikaela Ruef provides rebounding and some muscle inside. Pretty much everybody else exists to shoot the ball and space things out for Chiney. It works really really well.
Keys to the game(s)
Effectively single cover Chiney: The eternal debate - one or two defenders on an Ogwumike? If you double team her, Stanford rains down 3s, and Chiney tends to get her points anyway. If you single team her, she really gets her points. I think that Cal will single cover Chiney with Reshanda, and double team her when Reshanda sits. If Reshanda sits. Sub-key to the game: Reshanda needs to stay out of foul trouble and play at least 35 minutes. But still play tough defense. No easy task.
Shooting variance: Remember when Mikayla Lyles went off from downtown last year? And nobody from Stanford went off from outside? Something like that needs to happen again. Cal seems to hit either one or six 3s every game. Hope for the later, and hope that the Samuelson sisters are cold.
Take smart shots: Stanford's defense isn't designed to force turnovers. They want you to take one bad contested shot before they grab the defensive rebound. The onus is on Cal to be patient without getting stagnant, and to take high quality looks as often as possible.
The conference title may not be a realistic goal (Cal would have to sweep to have a solid shot) but beating Stanford is still incredibly satisfying and makes a world of difference come March. If there's any team in the Pac-12 that can do it, it's probably Cal.