That was unexpected.
Sure, we knew that Cal might lose to excellent teams like Louisville or Stanford or Oregon State. We knew that Cal might drop close games against solid teams like Washington or Arizona State, or even Kansas. But none of us saw that type of blowout defeat coming.
Thus, the question is how much fans will need to recalibrate their expectation?
That's a complicated question, with lots of smaller questions attached. Is Courtney Range going to be healthy? Where are the freshmen on the development curve? And just how tough is the Pac-12 going to be this year?
Some of those questions can be answered, others less so. I don't really want to speculate on Range's injury and the potential consequences at this point, so let's put that question aside. Let's assume that Cal's freshmen continue on a typical developmental curve (and hope that they never hit the perhaps mythical freshman wall). Based on how the rest of the Pac-12 has performed this year, where might Cal fit in?
The Looming Boogeyman of Seasons Past
The Cardinal beat UConn, then lost to two other teams that are probably very good, but also Not UConn. Unless and until Tara VanDerveer retires or they have fewer than five players healthy enough to play, they are a legitimate conference title contender. I still think they are significantly more vulnerable this year in part because they are a little more reliant on having good 3 point shooting, and will probably drop a few games when the outside shots don't fall. But they are still the favorites on a night-in, night-out basis. Same as it ever freakin' was.
Teams that can beat Cal, even if the Bears are playing decently
Oregon State, Washington, Arizona State, Washington State
This is the scariest category, and an indication of just how much the Pac-12 has grown over the past few years. Three of these teams were absolute doormats as recently as two years ago, and all four have seen tough times of varying degrees.
Arizona State can beat Cal because they always control tempo, and they always make life miserable in the half court set. Washington can beat Cal because Kelsey Plum (every Cal fan's Great White Recruiting Whale) is shooting the nets off the rim. Oregon State can beat Cal because they are at least the 3rd best team in the conference, with great interior defense, multiple shooters, and a great coach. Washington State can beat Cal because they have already beaten two ranked teams this year, and their guard play is excellent.
Cal will play seven games against these teams.
Teams that can beat Cal when the Bears are playing poorly
Colorado, USC, Oregon, UCLA, Utah
All of these teams have flaws, but they also have enough talent and/or coaching to take Cal down if the Bears play anything like they did against Kansas.
Colorado and Utah are both teams that, at least against Cal, will slow the game down as much as humanly possible and try to drive Cal crazy in the half court set. It would be a pretty big upset, but both teams can make it happen on the right day. Thankfully, Cal doesn't have to make the mountain road trip this year.
Oregon is something of a wildcard thanks to their new head coach. But I can imagine a scenario in which Jillian Alleyne draws a couple fouls on Reshanda Gray, and Cal struggles as a result.
UCLA and USC are two teams full of young talent. They're both kinda like Cal, if you replaced Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray with a couple of average seniors rather than world-beating seniors. If their freshmen put it all together in time for games later this year against Cal, they could be very, very dangerous.
Teams that probably just can't beat Cal
In years past, if Cal had as much talent as they do in 2014, there would be 4 to 6 teams in the Pac-12 that they could beat just by waking up and rolling out of bed. Now, there is only one. Arizona has already lost to Cal State Bakersfield and Toledo, and they are coming off a 1-17 season.
What does this all mean?
The Pac-12 is going to be an absolute dogfight this year. Thanks to Stanford, we're used to seeing a conference champion with 1 or 2 losses every year. But it's possible that we'll see a 4 or even 5 loss champ if things fall right*. Six or seven teams look on track for NCAA tournament spots. The good news is that Cal can actually lose a few games and it won't be the end of the world like it has been in years past. The bad news is that Cal cannot afford to have off nights and get away with it like other years.
The goal for the season remains the same: compete for the conference crown and a top 4 NCAA seed so that Haas Pavilion is hosting an NCAA tournament pod. The Kansas loss doesn't change that goal, but it does reduce some of the margin for error.
Stay tuned for information on Courtney Range's injury, as that's probably the most significant factor in determining how far this team can go in conference play.With conference play quickly approaching, we check in with the rest of the Pac-12 to see where Cal stands in the pecking order.
*It's also possible that Stanford goes 16-2 again and I release a primal scream of eternal frustration!