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Women’s Basketball 2017-18: A Fan’s Journey

Reef is on board the WBB train. Come join him.

Team. Family. Cal.

Hi, I’m Reef, and you may know me around these parts as a guy who writes men's basketball recaps. That’s been a labor of love for me for four years on CGB, and years before that on various incarnations of other websites. I’ve never written a women's basketball article before. That’s about to change.

About a month ago the women’s team held an open practice in RSF, followed by a fan event out in front of Haas. I was blown away. First, as a basketball junkie, I loved seeing the team run a complete, for-real practice, hearing the players and coaches, watching the team work on schemes and fundamentals. It was pure basketball. Second, I was blown away by the talent. I’ve been a periodic WBB follower for more than a decade, but I’ve spent so much time studying, prepping, watching, and re-watching the men’s side that I’ve squeezed women’s hoop into the very thin margins. Actually having a few hours to sit and really watch and focus on our talent was a revelation. They are really good. Finally, the team was so overwhelmingly, unbelievably gracious. Coach Gottlieb opened and closed the practice by talking to fans. She answered some real-talk questions in an honest, straightforward way. She opened her entire practice process to us and explained everything along the way. Then afterward, the players were out there, among the fans, serving food, talking, having fun, being a part of the Cal community.

If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for Cal community. Unfortunately, a corresponding men’s open practice a week later did not leave me with the same feeling. This is not a criticism -- the men’s program lives within a different context and has different concerns. I respect that. But I did come away from the two experiences thinking, damn, the women’s team needs more love.

The Men Get All the Love. Let’s Spread It Around.

A galvanizing moment for me was watching a tape of the Pac-12 women’s basketball media day interviews. Coach Gottlieb started with an overview of her squad this year. A legit top 25 team, that could potentially be a LOT better, led by a player who is a candidate for national player of the year. And the first question she got from the media was about her baby.

Now, Nick pointed out to me that this is the kind of question Coach encourages, and she has been very open on social media celebrating her introduction to motherhood and promoting the team’s family atmosphere. That’s a part of the identity of this program. But I also think that never, in a million years, would the coach of a top 25 men’s basketball team get that question to open a season with their team on the verge of a breakthrough. Why do we treat women’s basketball differently than men’s?

There’s a CGB spreadsheet with a schedule for men’s basketball coverage. We’ve got three articles assigned for every game, planned out until the end of the season. There are 7 different writers listed on the spreadsheet. By contrast, our women’s coverage has been ably handled primarily by Nick for the better part of a decade, with some great support from Nik Jam in recent years. Nick told me they kind of coordinate on the fly, and figure out what they want to write about the week of the games. Sometimes.

This makes sense, because it’s hard to find folks to write about WBB; it’s hard to find the team consistently on TV; it’s hard to find good statistical information; and, in my world of hoops-junkie-I-want-to-read-everything, it’s just plain hard to find good coverage.

We have a great WBB program. I want to give them more love.

That said, I don’t have any real desire to do in depth game analysis. Frankly, it gets tiring after awhile. Instead, I want to try something a little different in this space. I’m a fan, and I’m jumping on the bandwagon this year. I’m going to watch as many games as they deign to put on TV. I’m going to Haas as much as my schedule will allow. This team has won me over and I’m so excited about the ride this year.

I want to write about that journey. Being a fan is different from being an analyst, in ways that are deeply satisfying to my soul. It’s why I’ve been part of Cal communities for my entire life. This will be my attempt to share some of that journey.

So. I’m calling this a weekly journal. I have no idea, in early November, what I’m going to write about each week. I’m going to record my experiences as a fan. I’m going to write about whatever strikes me. I’d like, in part, to share this journey with the dedicated (sometimes fanatical) WBB community that already exists, and in part I’d like to help expand that community. But mostly I’m keeping this journal because I love basketball and I love this team. We’re a blog, right, so I can do this sort of thing.

Let’s go.

These Freshmen

Oh my GOD, I am excited about our roster. In the preview I did with Nick, we discussed how much depth we have this year compared to past years, and how this is going to provide more scheme and matchup flexibility. We will rely heavily on Kristine, Asha, Nina, and Makayla as upperclass leaders, and our sophomores are already showing growth...but the new factor that has me giddy about our ceiling is watching two freshmen walk onto campus with such dynamic, college-ready skill sets

I love lead guards. The Jason Kidd era was my favorite in Cal history. On the 1997 team, Prentice McGruder was the point, Ed Gray scored the ball, but Randy Duck took charge down the stretch, and it was a joy to watch him take over games with his brain and his communication. Jerome Randle would dominate games by doing stuff Mike Montgomery never, ever would have allowed any of his other players to do. On our Final Four team, Brittany Boyd was the point, but Layshia Clarendon was everywhere down the stretch of games. I used to watch her play the best help defense I’d ever seen, shut down a possession, come back down the court and re-direct the offense, demand the ball, then throw daggers into opponents’ hearts. I’ve always loved lead guards.

My eyes and my gut tell me Kianna Smith is going to be a heck of a lead guard. You watch her play and you don’t see one particular skill stand out. She doesn’t blow you away with her quickness, her athleticism, her handle, her J. It’s all very good, but not spectacular. But there’s something about her demeanor on the court that makes me feel really good with the ball in her hands. Or when she’s guarding the other team’s point. At the end of the open practice, the team scrimmaged and she matched up against Asha. Right at the beginning I saw her get into her stance ready to pick up Asha full court and from my angle I got a look directly into her eyes. And I thought damn. Stone cold killer. With braces.

She’s gonna do some things.

I’m also a big fan of athletic wings. I came up watching Roy Fisher and Lamond Murray dunking over people and setting Harmon Gym on fire. Bird reminds me of that kind of player. Too long, too quick, too savvy to really be contained by an average college defender. She does drills with the bigs, but I really don’t know right now whether I think of her more as a wing or a big. But I know that so far, on the court, she is all over the damn place, and I know that I would not want to be the opposing coach trying to figure out how to guard her. Put her next to Kristine, and all of a sudden you’ve got havoc all over the front court. She’s gonna be hell to deal with.

St. Mary’s, 1-0

What I love about going to WBB games is the intimacy. It reminds me of Harmon Gym. This may seem like a backhanded way of saying “small crowds,” and yes, I’d love it if attendance were higher, but when I say intimacy I mean it is a GREAT fan experience. I spent half the game in the student section, yelling at referees (I know they heard me), and the other half in the first row of chairbacks with Nick and CalBear81, right in front of the players’ families. Both experiences were so...FUN.

When I was a student I was the guy in the first row always giving everyone an earful. It was probably obnoxious, but this is college basketball and I’m okay with that. I don’t get to do that very often anymore, but I do it at WBB games. When you’re in that spot, you feel like you’re a part of the action. Those are special memories.

Up in Section 15 is where the players’ families sit. We sat right in front of them. We could hear their commentary in our ears and, an unexpected delight, we could see how many times the players looked up to give a point, wink, or nod to someone behind us. It was cool to be around that. Like I said, intimate.

Nick already did a recap of the game, so I won’t be repetitive here. These are some of my personal highlights.

  • St. Mary’s is a good squad. They knew what they wanted to get and they had a pretty good sense of how to get it every time down. This was a quality win.

  • For Kristine to put up 17-4-2-2 on just 26 minutes, after being out several weeks and getting an early tough whistle was really impressive. Even more impressive was our new balance and ball movement. We started by trying to force the post early, but that turned into a lot of ball movement I’m not used to seeing, balanced scoring all over the lineup, and Kristine getting a lot of post looks late because St. Mary’s knew they had to guard all over the floor. I said in the preview that I’m not sure how our wings will mesh with having a dominant post. Early returns look good.

  • Speaking of the tough whistle, we deserve better than the officiating I saw on Friday night. It seems like too often in WBB, the officials are playing a game of “Can I find something in the rulebook to call?” rather than managing the flow of the game and taking away unfair advantages. Not all contact is a foul. We don’t have to dig out every violation. Let the game flow, please. Your job is to keep it fair. Thanks.

  • I had nightmares about St. Mary’s players running in transition to a wide open left or right corner on multiple occasions. D was good at times, but definitely not where it needs to be. Stay tuned.

  • There was a moment with about a minute left, up 3, when Kianna missed a three and CJ got the offensive board. She kicked it out to Asha who paused for a moment, held up her hand to indicate, “Calm down, reset,” then for half a second it looked like she got a little grin on her face. As if to say, yeah, we got this. I love veteran point guard moments, and I’m reassured by moments when it’s clear that, yeah, our players can handle this. They’re ready for this spot. Right then I felt, in the middle of a LOT of 4th quarter hand wringing, that yeah, we got this. And we did. Entry to Kristine. Bucket. Game.

This Year

A couple years ago Nate Parham came by here to talk about how bright the future was for this basketball team. For various reasons, we haven’t seen that come to fruition yet. I really think this could be the year. There are so many pieces to like on this squad, and just as importantly, there are so many people to like. I have a feeling this journey will be special.

Right after the final buzzer Coach Gottlieb got on the mic to thank the crowd and urge them to stay for the MBB game. It was genuine, and it felt like she was talking to every fan individually. Like I said, intimacy. She and her squad deserve the same appeal. Come out to Haas on November 24. Get on this train before you miss it. It’s gonna be a blast.

See you next week.