Finally, we have reached the Promised Land. Eight months and five preview articles later, basketball begins again on Sunday in Stockton. I will be there in the Spanos Center, cheering along.
We have already taken a twirl through Cal's roster, looking at Boyd and Gray, the supporting seniors and juniors, and this year's crop of freshmen. But when you mix it all together, what exactly should we expect from this season?
Well, that's hard to say. There is a strong level of certainty regarding what Cal can expect from Boyd and Gray. But when 60% of the roster is made up of underclassmen, uncertainty becomes the norm. Here, then, are the four biggest questions for the 2014-15 Bears:
How big will the sophomore leap be for Courtney Range, Mercedes Jefflo, and K.C. Waters?
Last year, Courtney Range and Mercedes Jefflo were solid role players who contributed in specific areas (rebounding and defense, respectively) and occasionally offered a bit more depending on matchups. K.C. Waters spent the year learning and developing.
So, how much more can we expect this year? Can Range and Jefflo expand their games and become better all-around players? And can Waters grow into a role player who can contribute in specific situations?
Eyes will in particular be on Range, who has all of the requisite measurements and skill-set to be a major contributor on both ends. If she can be more aggressive on both ends, she could be a very valuable 3rd best player on the team.
How quickly can Gabby Green, Mikayla Cowling and Penina Davidson contribute on both ends?
Exhibition returns are encouraging, but ultimately not very predictive. Freshmen will do freshmen things, and have freshmen slumps. But Cowling and Green are, at least from a recruiting rankings perspective, the best duo ever recruited to Cal in a single class. If you could ever expect two players to immediately look comfortable, it would be them.
Cal's non-conference schedule isn't quite as punishing as earlier versions, so all three will have time to grow into whichever role ends up best suiting their abilities in year one. Even better, they will be playing alongside two senior players who warp a defense just by being on the floor. This is an exciting combination of talent, opportunity, and attention that could result in special things.
Can this team shoot well enough to achieve their goals?
Right now, I would guess that the only Cal players who shoot better than average for their position would be Reshanda Gray. If scouting reports are accurate, Penina Davidson will also make that list, and potentially Green and Cowling as well.
Still, the loss of Mikayla Lyles and Afure Jemerigbe hurts. There isn't an obvious 3 point threat on the roster, yet. Brittany Boyd worked on her jumper in the off-season. Perhaps Courtney Range rediscovered confidence in her jumper late last year. Perhaps one or more of the freshmen will show off unexpected range.
Or, perhaps, Cal will be so athletic, so adept at getting to the basket, pulling down rebounds, and drawing fouls, that they can make up for an obvious weakness in other areas of the game. But ideally, they will be able to shoot enough to at least keep the defense honest.
What happens if somebody gets hurt?
Obviously, this is not a deep team, because there are literally only 10 players on the roster. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as many other teams have 15 player rosters, but if the last 5 players on the bench are forced to contribute, the team would be sunk anyway. Lindsay Gottlieb will typically play a 7/8 player rotation anyway, so it's not like she will want to make a substitution, look down the bench, and find an empty chair.
On the other hand, just a few serious injuries could stretch this team dangerously at any one position. There's a decent amount of positional flexibility built into the roster that should help.
And I don't even want to spend a second contemplating it, but the Bears obviously need Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd
If every single one of the questions above is answered positively, then this team has the upside of the 2012-13 co-Pac-12 champions, Final Four squad. If they are all answered in the negative, then this is a team that could limp into a March seed much lower than expected. Obviously, neither end of the bell curve is particularly likely. But I think in a Pac-12 lacking obviously great teams, that Cal can realistically compete for the conference crown and a top 4 seed in March so that we can host some NCAA tournament action in Berkeley.
We'll learn a little bit about this team early in the 2nd game of the Cal Classic (against either Cincinnati or Creighton), but for the most part Cal's non-conference schedule is back-loaded, with a road game against Kansas and then a home game against Louisville after finals. Cal's conference schedule is similarly back-loaded, with the only games against Stanford and Oregon State all in February. If Cal can get by the Washington and So-Cal roadies, they should stay near the top of the conference standings late into the year.
Having the schedule mostly back-loaded should help for a team integrating new players and new roles. This team has the talent and the time necessary to put together another very special season. Now it's time to cheer and enjoy. Thank Oski for that!