One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong. After four straight years of near constant national rankings, tournament appearances, and conference title contention, the Bears struggled. Even seeing it now, I find it hard to believe - Cal went 4-14 in the Pac-12 last year.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been a huge shock - the final members of the Final Four squad had finally graduated, and Cal was left with a young, inexperienced, shallow roster. But it was (and is!) a talented roster, and the depths of Cal’s struggles rattled a fan base that had grown quite accustomed to winning basketball.
Last weekend brought the annual debut of thisiscalbasketball.com, and the motto ‘bring it back’ sounds like a tacit acknowledgment that the 2016-17 season has to be a bounce back year. There was too much talent on last year’s roster to fall to 10th place in the Pac-12, and the addition of two more consensus top 100 recruits only makes that more true this year.
The pieces are there. You’ve got Asha Thomas, back and better for the experience of being thrown into the fire as a freshman. Courtney Range and Mikayla Cowling are both veterans now, ready to take full advantage of their athleticism and versatility. Mi’Cole Cayton and Jaelyn Brown add desperately needed depth to the guard rotation. And underpinning it all is the returning national freshman of the year, and perhaps the single best interior scorer in the nation: Kristine Anigwe.
Sounds great, right? So why then, did things go so far sideways on the court last year?
There wasn’t necessarily one fatal flaw, no single glaring error to be fixed. The Bears (outside of Anigwe) didn’t shoot the ball well. The defense struggled to defend with consistency. They generally had a negative turnover ratio. Rebounding was no longer a strength.
Looming over all of it was a short roster that forced the Bears to navigate all kinds of difficult situations. Due to injuries, player absences and starting the season with a small roster to begin with, the Bears played more than a few conference games with only 7 players dressed and only 6 with meaningful participation.
There might be rosters out there (say, Washington last year) that can navigate that kind of situation. Cal was not that team. Players were playing out of position. Freshmen were thrust into roles they probably weren’t prepared for. Veterans suffered from the toll of playing heavy minutes. The knock on effects were cumulative, and after a promising set of results in the first half of the season, the Bears collapsed in conference play.
Why might 2016-17 be different? Well, as noted above, Cal actually has roster depth now. There are 12 players on the roster, and 7 are guaranteed to be a regular part of the rotation, with 5 other players with the potential to force their way into the conversation.
It’s also worth noting that you could see flashes of the team Cal could have been last year. 10 of Cal’s 15 losses in conference came by 10 points or less, and the Bears were frequently competitive for 20 minutes before wearing down in the 2nd half. Cal recorded 3 wins over teams that earned top 4 seeds in the NCAA tournament (Louisville, UCLA, ASU) and played other competitive games with similar teams (Stanford, Washington, OSU).
Pac-12 coaches see that talent. The Bears were tabbed for 6th in the pre-season coaches’ poll, behind only the 5 Pac-12 teams that made the tournament last season. It’s a vote of confidence in the talent on hand and the past success of Lindsay Gottlieb that the Bears rate so highly after such a disastrous season.
Whether or not Cal can match or surpass those somewhat modest expectations will likely depend on the ability of this team to stay healthy and find cohesion before conference play starts. Some early keys to the season:
1. Find efficient scoring options after Anigwe - Mikayla Cowling and Penina Davidson had eFG percentages that approaches 50%, but pretty much everybody else on the roster was well under the mark. To a certain extent, Cal just needs to shoot better, but the Bears need to improve at getting players into high percentage scoring positions as well.
2. How ready are the freshmen? Mi’Cole Cayton pretty much has to be ready to play heavy minutes, because she’s likely to be Cal’s back-up point guard and get heavy minutes at the 2. Jaelyn Brown and C.J. West might have more room to take things slow depending on how much the rest of the roster has developed, but positive contributions from both or either would go a long way on a team that needs depth.
3. How much better can Anigwe get? To a certain extent, Anigwe hit the freshman wall (or, more accurately, the wall of constant suffocating double teams from experienced Pac-12 defenders). Gottlieb called Anigwe her most improved player entering the season, a claim that should scare conference rivals. I don’t know how much more she can add to her offensive burden, but if she added better rebounding and defense to her game then she’ll push Kelsey Plum for conference player of the year.
We’ll have a more in depth look at Cal’s roster and their standing within the Pac-12 over the next few weeks as we move closer to the start of the season.