Reef: Let's set some context here. I'm coming on board to write a bit of women's hoops this year. You've been on this beat for years and probably follow our women's program as closely as anyone, so as we open a new season full of hope and promise, this is a good time get on the same page.
To be honest, I haven't followed the WBB team as obsessively as I've followed the men in the last several years. I probably watched a dozen games from start to finish last year, and saw parts of other games. So I'm working more from a general impression than from a complete knowledge base. But that impression tells me that last year was not entirely satisfying. 20-14 (6-12) with a 7th place conference finish felt on the low end of what this team was capable of given their talent level. The ceiling seemed significantly higher. Is this a fair impression? How satisfied were you with last season?
Nick: It's hard to separate Cal's season from the reality that was perhaps the greatest season in Pac-12 women's basketball history, but I would still say that last year was a mild disappointment. It's just so hard to get past that glaring 6-12 number, even while knowing in your head that Cal was also 13-1 against non Pac-12 teams. That Cal also struggled against the six Pac-12 tournament teams (a collective 2-9 record) meant that there was a pretty clearly defined ceiling to what last year's team seemed capable of achieving. This was a team that everybody hoped would compete with top 25 type talent, but ended up settling in the 'also-receiving'-votes' category, and that was a bummer.
On the other hand, Cal didn't have a roster ready made to compete with the type of talent the upper half of the Pac-12 brought to the table last year - unless all three freshmen were going to come out gangbusters. Basically the entire bench was those freshmen. With senior Courtney Range regressing with her shot, there just weren't many experienced, consistent offensive options against the few teams capable of slowing down Kristine Anigwe or smart enough to not let Asha Thomas get off 3 pointers. And when your rotation is 75% freshmen and sophomores, defensive lapses probably aren't a huge surprise either. I don't think Cal reached their potential last year, but they weren't as far off as their conference record would indicate.
Reef: Can we break that down a little more? How good was Cal, relatively speaking compared to its competition? It sounds like you think 7th in a historically good Pac-12 was about right. What does that mean in terms of quality of play nationwide? About 30th?
And digging further, what were our relative strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the ball? You alluded to shooting, which has historically been the knock on Lindsay Gottlieb's squads: not quite enough distance shooting and FT shooting to take advantage of dominant bigs. The stats would seem to bear that out--statistically Cal was very good from 2p range (50.8%), 2nd in the Pac-12, on the strength of Kristine Anigwe's formidable offensive talent, but mediocre from deep (31%), 7th in the conference, and abysmal from the line (66.7%), second to last in the conference. Was this consistent with what you saw in games, and do you think there's something systemic about Gottlieb's style that leads to her teams continually ending up with this offensive profile? What was our tempo last year and do you think it affected offensive results?
You also alluded to defense, which we have discussed in the past. My general impression last year was this was a team that struggled to communicate and get defensive stops. Is that impression correct? What did we do well on defense and where did we struggle?
Nick: Yeah, about 30th is my best guess. That's about where Sagarin ranked the Bears, and about the best extrapolation from their non-conference wins over Oklahoma, Nebraska, and LSU.
Offensively, yeah, it was two point shooting, mostly led by Kristine. Really, the most consistent offensive strength under Gottlieb has been the ability to create consistent high value 2 point shot attempts. You could probably have a long debate about whether or not credit should go to scheme, or simply to Cal's often overwhelming interior scoring talent, but that trait has been there for Gottlieb's entire tenure, even as other skills (offensive rebounding, turnover percentage, etc.) fluctuate based on personnel. When I watch Cal play offense, what I see is an offensive scheme and skill development that is laser focused on getting the ball to Cal's posts in high value, deep post positions. One thing any fan should do for a half or a game is to watch the sheer amount of effort Kristine Anigwe (and Reshanda Gray before her, and Talia Caldwell before her) put into working their defenders for position and trying to receive passes, and how frequently Cal's guards look to feed them. People complain about the turnovers that result from crazy entry passes, but the results speak for themselves.
Tempo is perhaps the biggest red herring of the Gottlieb era. Lindsay WANTS to play high tempo . . . but Cal has never been great about dictating tempo to their opponents. Cal was actually 7th in the Pac-12 in tempo last year. Really, Cal is only successful pushing tempo when they full court press, and they just haven't pulled out the full court press that frequently. That might be because the roster has been consistently thin since the Final 4 season and Cal hasn't had the depth to press. Meanwhile, other teams know that Cal wants to push tempo, and so they don't let Cal leak out often.
Cal's defensive profile is tough to figure out because they tried so many different defenses over the course of the season . . . and even within games. Obviously there's the fact that Cal typically played player-to-player and zone defenses in each game. But then you have to consider that Cal played (to my occasionally lyin' eyes) at least 3 different types of zone (3-2, 2-3, 1-3-1) to say nothing of their full court press schemes, and you get a ton of different looks. Throw all those different schemes into the blender and you get a team defense that had the following Pac-12 rankings in the four factors:
Defensive eFG%: 5th
Defensive rebounding %: 6th
Defensive turnover %: 10th
Defensive FTA/FGA: 4th
So Cal was good but not great at everything but forcing turnovers . . . which brings you back to the tempo question. One of the reasons Cal couldn't control tempo was because they couldn't force turnovers in the half court set (Cal was last in steals in the conference). Cal's defense was never bad . . . but with Cal's speed and athleticism you can't help but think that the Bears should be capable of more. The Final 4 teams hung their defensive hats on never allowing 2nd chance opportunities. I'm not sure what this team wants to hang their hat on, and I'd be curious to hear your thoughts based on what you saw in open practice.
Reef: It took a few minutes for me to pick myself off the floor after thinking about being last in steals in the conference. On paper this is a roster that should be able to apply all kinds of ball pressure. Asha Thomas is a bit undersized, but on the wing we've got Mi'Cole Cayton, Jaelyn Brown, Mikayla Cowling, Alaysia Styles (Bird), and Kianna Smith--all in the mold of long, quick, versatile defenders who should be able to create havoc all over the floor. This is something they drilled extensively in the open practice, and used regularly in the 2nd half of the Vanguard exhibition (when they got their full roster on the floor). I don't have the slightest idea why last year's roster couldn't create turnovers, but it seems like this year's squad almost has to be better by default. If we're looking for a place where we pick up some easy ground on last year, it seems like that's the place to start. In addition, one would imagine that as the roster transitions into a more veteran squad, the entire defense should uptick slightly. This is all theoretical, and I'm looking forward to actually watching games to see what's really going on, but I think if you're asking a team to play multiple looks...well...experience matters.
One of the trade-offs behind multiple, changing defenses is that your players know what they're doing while the offense has to read and adjust, reducing offensive efficiency enough to more than make up for an inevitable drop off because your squad does not get used to playing one defense really well. My hypothesis was that we actually lost that trade more than we won it last year, but my evidence is anecdotal. I want to pay more attention to the effect of changing defenses this year, and whether that results in more stop or more breakdowns.
Offensively, it makes a ton of sense to pound the ball inside. You saw us doing it in the exhibition even with Kristine out, because the core of our half court is clearly going to be finding ways to make good entry passes. In an ideal world there would be a few more shooters to put around Kristine, but regardless...if you have the best post player in the nation, you ride her. Our personnel are mismatched to an extent, because it's hard to construct an offense around, on the one hand, a dominant post, and, on the other hand, a bunch of athletic wings who are not terrific spot up shooters. We would be helped tremendously if we could use some of our wing strength in transition, which goes back to the turnover+tempo issue. This is a recording.
It's worth noting that, along with the maturation of our sophomores, we've added two dynamic freshmen that I think will help on both fronts. Bird is a hybrid wing/big who is long and athletic. Her length alone is going to help her fill the lane and score inside. Kianna looks like she's going to be used as a lead guard, and if she can learn to run the offense, Asha's going to be able to spot up more, which will open up a lot of options.
The development of depth the last several years means we have more options this year than we're used to seeing lately. What do you think? Is our depth of talent as good as we've had since the Final Four year?
Nick: Easily. Just glancing at the stats from the last few years, here's the total number of trusted rotation players (defined as players who play in every game presuming they are healthy and eligible) from each season, post Final 4:
2016-17 - Eight, but the entire bench were freshmen.
2015-16 - Seven, but one was a freshman forced into action sooner than the coaches wanted due to depth issues, so it was really six.
2014-15 - Seven
2013-14 - Eight after the mid-season transfer of Hind Ben Abdelkader.
I think we're all anticipating a rotation of nine players in 2017-18. Cal is bringing back seven players who functionally played in every game possible. None of those seven players were playing because minutes had to go to somebody - they are all talented, and they are all integrated into the program. Throw in two more talented freshmen recruits plus four other players on the roster and this is the deepest and most experienced team Cal has had in years.
The most obvious plus here is that this team is better positioned to weather personnel issues than in years past. If somebody gets injured, Cal won't have to force a player into action that isn't ready to contribute. But I'm hoping for more than that. I'm hoping that players can be kept fresher and play at a higher intensity level when on the court, particularly on defense. I'm hoping that we can play match ups a little bit more. I'm hoping that we have a little bit more diversity in skill sets that lends itself to better production on both ends of the floor.
Questions I have entering the season:
1) Can Cal make a leap from playing mediocre defense to above average defense? There are all kinds of components that go into that, but that's the grand unification question.
2) Cal Cal develop consistent offensive threats after Anigwe and Thomas? Is there a 2nd or 3rd shooter on the roster?
3) How big a leap will the sophomores makes, and are the freshmen ready to compete at a Pac-12 level?
Reef: I'd add a 4th question: Is Kristine Anigwe healthy? I love the concept of depth. I also hate the concept that our best player has missed significant practice time with a knee injury. If we are healthy for the bulk of the season, I share your hope that added depth allows for a lot more flexibility and ultimately a lot more effectiveness. I don't know what Lindsay is going to do with her lineups, but I am excited by the fact that she has the flexibility to try a lot of different combos.
In any event, now that we know what we're looking for, let's wrap up our season outlook by looking at our competition. We know UConn is on the schedule, which is simultaneously exciting and deeply frightening. What do you think of the rest of the non-conference slate? Do you have any reason to believe the Pac-12 will be any less a murderer's row than it was last year?
Nick: It's one of Cal's more challenging non-conference schedules I can recall. Obviously, just having UConn on the schedule gets you off to a crazy start. But Cal will presumably be playing top 25 Missouri (picked 3rd in the SEC behind two Final Four teams from last year) in the Cal Classic, borderline top 25 Kentucky on the road, and two solid WCC programs in St. Mary's and BYU.
That's five games out of eleven that I could imagine Cal losing, which is a pretty high number for a top 25 team. Cal with a healthy Kristine Anigwe would be solid (but not overwhelming) favorites at home vs. St. Mary's and BYU, but those two teams are talented enough to give Cal a tough game even with Anigwe on the court. If Kristine is healthy and plays at something approaching 100%, a 9-2 record entering Pac-12 play would be a spectacular result. Without her, things get much murkier in terms of expectations.
The Pac-12 will almost certainly not be as strong as last year . . . but it will still be pretty good. The entire core that made Washington a national power for a few years is gone, along with their coach. Stanford and Oregon State both lost critical, multi-year starters. Washington will almost surely take a gigantic step backwards (picked last in the pre-season coaches' poll!), but I wouldn't be surprised at all if Stanford and OSU don't miss much of a beat because their coaches are so damned good and because they're bringing in top 25 classes. Meanwhile, Oregon is on a clear upward swing, UCLA is still full of really talented players with iffy coaching, and Arizona has finally decided to try to field a competitive team. I'm expecting a bit more parity this year as some of the weaker programs catch up a bit.
So do the coaches have it right placing Cal 5th (behind UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, and Oregon State) in their poll? I think it passes the sniff test.
Reef: What intrigues me about this year’s team is their ceiling. This is where we’re starting, but for the first time in several years, there’s a strong possibility we can be better. Maybe we can be much, much better. If your key questions are answered affirmatively, there is a talent + experience foundation that could compete at the top of the conference. It’ll be fun to take this journey with them. I’m incredibly excited to see how we look on the floor tonight.
Nick: Get (stay?) healthy Kristine!