On Monday, Cal beat Old Dominion decisively. In fact, they were doubling up the Monarchs for the first 30 minutes of the game. It was an unremarkable win, except for one key factor:
Cal hadn't won a game in 26 days, and it felt like an eternity.
Granted, this was an unusual circumstance. Cal had only played three games between wins over Sacramento St. and Old Dominion thanks to finals and holidays. Two of the three losses were on the road and the other was against top 10 Louisville. Two came without Courtney Range, and another came with a hobbled Mikayla Cowling.
So it's probably not the best idea to overreact to those games - there were tons of mitigating circumstances. Still, the first three game losing streak of the Lindsay Gottlieb era (really rather remarkable) caused plenty of hand-wringing because long suspected weaknesses were revealed and exploited on the court.
Because Cal has two seniors who have meant so much on and off the court for four years, it's understandable that we fans want to see them leave on as high a note as possible. But with a roster that is otherwise still very young, patience will have to be a virtue. It's nice to get a win out of the way so that we can turn to conference play with a little more optimism.
Cal 79, Old Dominion 59
Cal led at the half by 44-20, and that lead grew all the way to 34 before Cal let up a bit on the gas. I'm not going to argue that Old Dominion is a great team, but neither are they a complete pushover - they're somewhere around the 100th best team in the country, probably better than two or three Pac-12 teams. If nothing else, this game was a reminder that, whatever Cal's weaknesses, these Bears also have plenty of strengths.
One of those strengths is simple, pure athleticism. When teams don't have the talent or discipline to match it, the Bears look very, very good. When it happens, they do things like record 25 assists on 33 made field goals and have five players finish with double digit scoring.
The optimist will argue that the Bears are learning to play with each other, that the freshmen are beginning to better adapt themselves to college basketball and their own teammates. The pessimist will argue that the improved performance was simply a matter of weaker opposition.
As you might expect, put me down for a little of both. Gabby Green, Mikayla Cowling and particularly Penina Davidson all looked significantly more comfortable in what they were doing on the court, and the stats match the eye test. The trio combined for 30 points on 13-25 shooting, with 9 assists and 16 rebounds. Granted, anybody is going to look more comfortable going up against Old Dominion rather than Louisville, but that's why you play top teams. It's going to be easier facing Utah and Colorado having gone against a Jeff Walz defense.
Mercedes Jefflo was in the middle of an offensive performance that could reasonably be described as Clarendon-esque (hooray for mid-range jumpers!) when she hurt her ankle putting in a 2nd chance basket. Cal was up by 29 points at the time, so there was absolutely no reason to keep her in the game. She later came back to the bench wearing an ice pack and a smile, which leads me to believe that Cal's training staff wasn't particularly concerned about the injury. I would expect her to play this weekend.
Meanwhile, the announcers mentioned during the broadcast that Courtney Range was back practicing. I don't know if that means she's just busy taking set shots, or if she's really pushing her knee with agility drills and scrimmage work, but the news is undoubtedly positive. I don't know what a realistic return estimate would be, but if the announcers were accurate you wouldn't think it would be too long. Another week or two? Maybe that's just me hoping.
Thoughts on the beginning of conference play
Oof, it's tough. Washington blew out top 10 Texas A&M by 21 points. Wazzu has already beaten two ranked teams. Oregon State smashed North Carolina. Arizona State took only one loss from a tough non-con schedule. Stanford isn't Stanford but they are still Stanford. Nine Pac-12 schools are in the RPI top 80. This is almost certainly the deepest the conference has ever been, and I would think that at least five teams will earn a tournament spot, if not six or seven.
The good news for Cal? They enter Pac-12 play with an excellent, top 25 RPI, and they start conference play with the kindest first weekend possible. Pretty much every single pairing in league play contains at least one scary team, with the exception of Colorado and Utah, who are coming to Haas for games on Saturday and Monday.
If the Bears are lucky, they will use this weekend to grab two wins and hopefully get 100% healthy before travelling to the Washington schools.
We'll have more detailed previews of Colorado and Utah closer to gametime. Suffice to say that these are games Cal has to win, both because PROTECT THIS HAAS and because Cal is simply the better team regardless of venue.