Welcome to the latest season of Cal women's basketball! After a warm up exhibition win over Vanguard, the level of competition takes a decidedly more difficult leap with a road game in Stockton against the University of the Pacific Tigers.
UOP women's basketball has recently had a solid 3 year run of mid-major contention that culminated with a Big West regular season title two years ago and a solid 3rd place finish in the WCC last year. The Tigers return a significant portion of the talent that allowed them to make the transition from the Big West to the WCC so smoothly, but there are some key absences.
Make no mistake: this is a tough opening game. UOP is one of the better teams in one of the better mid-major conference, and they are playing at home. It's a win that can't be assumed, even if a top 15 team is expected to earn the W. Luckily, Cal is probably catching the Tigers at the right time, as you'll read below.
Most obviously, UOP will be without leading scorer Kiki Moore, a player Cal faced three times with three different teams. She lead UOP in scoring, assists and steals. Just as damaging, however, is the temporary loss of center Kendall Kenyon with mononucleosis. That's 32 points and 16 rebounds that won't be on the floor this afternoon for the Tigers.
More directly for Cal fans, you might remember that Kenyon shredded Cal last year, to the tune of 29 points and 16 rebounds. She drew multiple fouls on Reshanda Gray and almost single-handedly dragged UOP to the upset before Cal prevailed in overtime. Without her you would think the Tigers would be hard-pressed to replicate the success they saw against Cal last year.
I'll assume that UOP is going to start the same 5 players that started their exhibition game:
Guard Kristina Johnson
Guard Madison Parrish
Guard Hallie Eackles
Forward Erin Butler
Forward Marjorie Heard
Without Moore or Kenyon, Parrish will likely be the go-to player on offense. Last year she was more of a pass-first guard with the ability to stretch defenses with 3 point shooting. She will likely have to take on more of a scoring burden, at least until Kenyon is well enough to play. Eackles and Butler will certainly get looks as well, and Butler in particular is a dead eye from 3 and will have to be closely watched.
You might recognize Marjorie Heard. The forward was with Washington for two years, but blew out her knee as a sophomore and eventually decided to transfer. She was certainly solid with the Huskies before her injury, so I wouldn't be surprised if she plays a major role against Cal.
Unique Coleman and Australian Emily Simons will likely be the first guards off the bench. UOP only lists three healthy forwards, so expect them to play 4 guards for most of the game. This will likely be a good opportunity for Cal to test out 4 guard lineups of their own.
Our Computer Overlords Predict
. . . nothing! This is the first game of the season and we have no data. It's the blind leading the blind for another few weeks around these parts.
Keys to the game
Feed the monster inside
UOP was a thin team in terms of size and bodies available inside before Kenyon got sick. Without her, I suspect they don't really have anybody that can defend Too-Tall. This is a clear opportunity to control the glass throughout.
Win the 4 guard matchup
The Tigers will play with four guards by necessity, and that's a lineup that could have given Cal trouble last year. This year, with Mikayla Cowling on hand and Courtney Range a year tougher and wiser? It should work more favor of the Bears.
Show us how tough the defense can be
We know what Cal will do on offense, for the most part: Boyd will facilitate, Gray will get looks inside, and everybody else will take the chances they get when defenses focus to heavily on the Big Two. But I'm excited to see what Cal does on defense with their new rangy, athletic freshmen. How miserable can the Bears make life for opposing guards? It's time to find out.