At first glance, Texas seems like a terrifying five seed. The Longhorns started the season 13-0, with wins vs. Tennessee and at Stanford and Texas A&M. But in the middle of the season their best player (Nneka Enemkpali) and a key rotation member (Nekia Jones) both sustained knee injuries.
Texas just hasn't been the same team since. They went 9-9 in Big-12 play, surrounded in the standings by teams like Oklahoma St. and Iowa St. that have already been eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Texas is almost certainly the weakest 5 seed in the tournament, and their struggles to put away a woefully undersized, under-athletic Western Kentucky team is proof enough. But Texas did beat Oklahoma twice after their injury troubles began, and they do present certain challenges that any team would have trouble dealing with. Just because Texas is a wounded animal doesn't mean that this is a game Cal can waltz through.
PG Brady Sanders, 5'11'' Jr.
G Empress Davenport, 5'7'' Jr.
G Celina Rodrigo, 5'8'' Jr.
G Ariel Atkins, 5'11'' Fr.
C Imani McGee-Stafford, 6'7'' Jr.
C Kelsey Lang, 6'5'' So.
G Brooke McCarty, 5'4'' Fr.
G Brianna Taylor, 5'9'' So.
For what it's worth, I have no clue who will start for Texas. Head coach Karen Aston seems to pick her starting lineups somewhat randomly; 10 different players have been given starts this year and nobody has started every game. The eight players listed above are the eight players who are always key contributors. A couple other players may or may not pick up a few spot minutes here or there but are very unlikely to have a measurable impact.
It's a weird lineup. You've got Lang and McGee-Stafford, who are both taller than every single player on Cal's roster, and then you've got six players who are shorter than nearly every single player in Cal's rotation. The two bigs are the key to everything Texas does - both are monster rebounders and rim protectors. The things that Texas is good at - Rebounding, 2 point defense - stem from Lang and McGee Stafford.
Nobody else around those two particularly stand out. Sanders is a decent if unspectacular distributor. McCarty is a passable 3 point shooter (and the best on the team). Just about everybody is a solid on-ball defender, but no other player will really impress you with their offensive arsenal.
Our Computer Overlords Predict
Sagarin Predictor: Cal by .5 points
Our computer overlords are nigh useless because their data treats all those games when Texas was healthy just as strongly as the more important, more recent games.
Texas was 14-2 with a healthy Enemkpali, and 9-8 without her. Granted, Texas would have been worse during that stretch regardless, because the Big 12 schedule was going to be tougher than Texas' non-conference schedule.
If you think that Texas without their best player would be more comparable to other roughly .500 teams in the Big 12, then Cal should be favorites by somewhere around 5 or 6 points. Texas is probably comparable to a team like, say, Washington - Cal should be expected to win, but it's hardly a guarantee.
Keys to the Game
Gray vs. McGee-Stafford and Lang: Texas has one very clear advantage: They have two interchangeable centers, and neither play huge minutes. If one gets in foul trouble, just bring in the other. Cal obviously does not have that luxury.
The good news is that neither Texas tower is particularly mobile or quick, and neither draw a ton of fouls (Gray has attempted twice as many free throws as both Texas centers combined). Perhaps the more relevant question is how much success will Gray have scoring and rebounding over them. Where Gray is vulnerable in terms of fouls is fighting for boards down low.
If Gray fights the duo to a standstill - particularly on the glass - then Cal's advantages on the perimeter will likely carry the Bears to victory.
Can Texas pierce Cal's perimeter defense? Against Western Kentucky, Texas had extreme difficulty simply initiating their offense. When they did manage to do so things usually ended with a solid look for McGee-Stafford either directly or on a put back, but Texas turned the ball over 27% of the time.
Against Cal, Texas will be facing an even better defense in terms of perimeter ball pressure, and it should be much harder to dominate the offensive glass. For Cal, keeping the ball away from the bigs and forcing turnovers that can lead to transition opportunities will likely be a major focus.
Will either team bring solid outside shooting? Believe it or not, but Cal will be playing an NCAA tournament game as the better outside shooting team.
On the season, Texas has shot 30.2% from three point range, 209th in the country. Cal's 31.4 isn't much better, true, but the Bears have used the three to decent effect every once in a while. The continued growth in confidence from Mercedes Jefflo has added a dimension that defenses now have to account for.
Neither team will want to settle for 3s, but I think Cal can afford to do so a bit more often.
Team effort on the glass - Against Wichita State, I said that if Cal stayed more or less even in turnovers, they would probably win without too much trouble. And sure enough, the turnover battle was close (-2 for Cal) and the Bears won, because Wichita State doesn't win without turnovers.
Texas doesn't win without lots of rebounds. They needed to pull down nearly half of the available offensive rebounds (16/35) just to barely beat Western Kentucky. If Cal can stay within shouting distance on the boards, Texas probably doesn't have the shooting and ball-handling to win in a different way.
A word on Senior Day
I don't believe it's being officially treated as such, but this will be the final game at Haas Pavilion to feature Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray.
Cal women's basketball has 11 total wins in program history. Boyd and Gray played in 7 of those wins. This isn't quite the time yet to get nostalgic and retrospective, but it's very hard to overstate what this duo has meant to Cal basketball.
They deserve to end their home career with one more win. More than that, they deserve to end their home career with one more big crowd of loud fans. Let's help make it a special day, Bear fans.
We're playing for a spot in the Sweet 16. Against a tough TX squad. And it's here, in Haas! Fans, we need you tmrw! pic.twitter.com/UgmEAzN0LJ— Lindsay Gottlieb (@CalCoachG) March 22, 2015