A Devastating Injury
Week 2 of the season started rocky. About an hour after I posted my first ever(!) WBB article, the athletic department released the news that Mi’Cole Cayton has a torn ACL and will be out for the season. She went down in a heap underneath the north basket in the 2nd half of the St. Mary’s game. She was down for awhile and it looked bad, but I didn’t even mention it in my game observations because she was at the MBB game a few hours later and she seemed in good spirits (albeit with a huge brace on her right leg). Turns out that’s just because she’s a good spirited person, not because the injury wasn’t serious.
I can’t even imagine what it’s like for a student athlete to lose their season after one game. Mi’Cole’s twitter was a stream of positivity this week, so we can feel confident she’s gonna kill the rehab, but dang. This still has to be emotionally challenging.
This is not the best news for us on the court. We’ve been talking a lot about the increased depth and flexibility this season, so losing a key rotation player is a heck of an opening game development. Mi’Cole is the team’s best perimeter defender. After she was moved into the starting lineup in the middle of the conference season last year, she became a constant source of disruption, eventually finishing second on the team in steal rate. Although she struggled offensively as a freshman, early signs showed an improving offensive repertoire: 3-9 from deep against St. Mary’s resulting from increased confidence and aggressiveness.
But the numbers have a hard time capturing the energy she brings on the floor. In the one practice and two games I saw this year, I think I tweeted “Mi’Cole is everywhere” about five times. She really was. Clapping, getting locked into her stance, jumping into passing lanes. Mi’Cole kind of skips (yeah skips) around on the floor when she’s out there, and the way she does it gives off this crazy hyped energy vibe that pulses through the team. I don’t know how to quantify that. I know we’re going to miss it. Keep your head up, Mi’Cole. You got this. We’ll miss you this year.
As far as rotation goes, we go from some nice flexibility, to Asha + Kianna probably having to shoulder big minutes. At least that’s what I thought initially. On the East Coast trip I learned we’ve got a little more depth in the backcourt than I initially thought. More on that later.
I rushed home to watch the UConn game on Friday afternoon. In fact, I made up an excuse to leave work a little early (don’t tell anyone) so I could make sure my ESPN3 connection was up and ready go by game time. It’s a different experience for me, as a men’s basketball fan and a Warriors fan, not to be able to plop myself down on the couch, hit the remote, and turn to the station we’re playing on. I’m still figuring on the rhythms of this WBB thing.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. I haven’t lived in a cave—I understand on a macro level how good UConn is. Coincidentally, I was at Maples in November 2014 for the last UConn loss before this year’s national semifinals. I know that winning 111 games in a row in modern college basketball is both inconceivable and unsurprising for Geno’s juggernaut. But I think somehow I was simultaneously expecting us to get blown out and be competitive at the same time. Does that even make sense? UConn is such a strange measuring stick.
Anyway, gametime arrived, my WiFi was strong and steady, and we came out with a nice play bringing Mikayla all the way around the perimeter through multiple screens for a layup. We started with three strong offensive possessions and briefly held a one point lead. Then the UConn thing happened. Lots of impossibly long UConn arms in the passing lanes, a flurry of turnovers, a hailstorm of threes. I’ve watched that first quarter twice, and I’m still not sure what happened. Honestly, I didn’t watch it and think damn, we’re playing awful. I mean, we weren’t playing elite basketball by any means, but I also saw lots and lots of UConn players in passing lanes I’d never seen anyone get into before. They were contesting passes TO THE WING--getting steals and layups out of them. Not entry passes, but simple passes from the top to the wing. Who does that? UConn, I guess. In a postgame interview Gabby Williams said they had scouted our offense and knew where the passing lanes were. I guess they did. Wow.
All of a sudden we were down by 19 at the end of the first quarter, and the game was effectively over. Just like that. This gave me plenty of time to think about a question that came up on Cal twitter on Friday night. Am I actually enjoying this? Is UConn good for this sport?
The 3rd rail of WBB discussion— Nicolas Kranz (@NorCalNickCGB) November 18, 2017
Facing a Juggernaut
That was a weird kind of basketball game to watch. We are pretty good -- a legit top 20 team, and we couldn’t stay within shouting distance of them. Same thing happened when I watched UConn play Maryland (another top 20 team) on Sunday. A gap so wide it looked like a men’s Pac-12 team playing a team from the SWAC. Except this isn’t the way it’s supposed to go when ranked teams meet.
I found some time to complain about this on Twitter, but I also tried to use my time productively to figure out how they do this. I wanted to blame it on a wide talent gap, and there is some of that. In my mind I thought, well, if you always get the Maya Moores and Diana Taurasis and Breanna Stewarts of the world, then of course you dominate. So I took a look. This is how UConn has constructed their current roster:
Class of 2014 - Williams #14 recruit, Stevens, #23, Nurse #33
Class of 2015 - Samuelson #1, Collier #6,
Class of 2016 - Dangerfield #3
Class of 2017 - Walker #1, Coombs #13, Espinoza-Hunter #16
Frankly, I was expecting to see a whole lots of 1s, 2s, and 3s when I did that research, but it’s not quite that simple. It never is when you’re touching the third rail.
The thing is, what I learned on Friday, after really watching intently, is that not only does UConn start with a lot of raw talent -- Geno does some incredible work with that talent.
Bearly Legal pointed out to me that:
And looking at what he’s done since starting with a 12-15 record in 1985, that’s clearly the case. I think this is exemplified by those hands on our passes to the wing, and players crediting their film study with causing 29 turnovers. I’m not sure I enjoyed watching it, and I think a team doing that 111 straight times does not necessarily indicate a healthy competitive balance. But there’s also something fascinating about collective excellence that’s so thorough, so overwhelming, that it produces basketball at such a high level.
I’m not sure if a juggernaut this gigantic is “good” for the game. I don’t know how to measure that. But I appreciated Coach Gottlieb’s explanation for why we’re playing them for 4 years. Like it or not, UConn is the best. If you aspire toward excellence, you have to get on the court with the best. That’s what the Bears did on Friday night. The looked frazzled, rushed, out of sorts. Some possessions they could barely get the ball across half court, or struggled to get into any kind of organized offense. But at least now we know what it’s like. Hopefully this pays dividends down the line.
My post-Big Game depression hangover was heavy upon my soul when the alarm went off on Sunday morning. I didn’t even think I had to wake up, because calbears.com had initially listed no TV for the Brown game. Luckily, I got this Tweet on Friday.
Ivy league network... but you may need to pay.— pmarti111 (@pmarti111) November 18, 2017
This is what it’s going to be like this year, huh? Community coming together to figure out how to watch women’s basketball.
So I created a new account and bought a day pass for Ivy League network. It cost me twice as much as a $5 ticket to Haas costs. (Remind me again why you aren’t coming out to Haas this week.)
After Friday, it was nice to see basketball within my normal frame of reference. It also turned out to be good way to wash the stench of Palo Alto and a Big Game loss off my soul. Here are a few takeaways I jotted down while watching the game on my little laptop screen.
- Cal had a major advantage inside, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to take advantage of it. We’ve had moments of tearing our hair out the last few years watching teams collapse on Kristine and the rest of the team struggle to get her the ball. This was not the case on Sunday. Early this season we look much better using movement to get Kristine into good spots, and finding great angles for post entries. And our guards/wings -- Asha, Kianna, Mikayla, Jaelyn -- are dropping some serious dimes. Cal didn’t put up a 100+ Offensive Rating in the last month of last season, so to start off 106.1 then 115.6 in two of the first three games is encouraging. And fun to watch.
- It says something about the greatness of Kristine Anigwe that I watched her give a 28 point, 25 board performance and kind of took it for granted. For the record, she thoroughly dominated the paint, got to everything that was in her rebounding area and a few that weren’t, and ultimately Brown had no answer. Nina was also really good, both with her tenacity and poise inside, but also with her sense of spacing and ball movement.
- Sara Anastasieska got some run in both the UConn and Brown games. She had to play important minutes down the stretch on Sunday with Kianna on the bench with 4 fouls. The best description I have right now is solid. She’s making sound plays on both ends, and with a wealth of talent around her, this is what we need to try to fill some of the gap created by Mi’Cole’s injury.
- Jaelyn and Kianna were both aggressive offensively, especially in the first half before the Kristine show took over. Lots and lots of scoring options for the Bears this year. Asha was an uncharacteristic 0-6 from deep on a bunch of open looks, but I think we’d be happy if teams keep giving her those shots this year.
- Bay Area product Shayna Mehta of Brown went nuclear on us in the first half, shooting 7-10 from 3p range and scoring 25 points. It’s always an interesting question what or whom to blame when a player goes off like that. On the one hand, her previous career high was 29 points against Binghamton, so there was an element of her being unusually hot (very unusually hot) in the first half. On the other hand, regardless of how weird a 7-10 3p shooting performance is, this is a player who’s a 41% career 3p shooter, she’s getting looks, and if you want to win the game, you’re going to have to guard her. I was thinking this as Brown continued to hang around in the 2nd half:
This game is a good lesson in the mental toughness it's going to take to shut teams down defensively. Now they just gotta get it done.— ReefCGB (@ReefCGB) November 19, 2017
- And to my eye, that’s what happened. Brown ran a lot of stuff all over the floor, shared the ball, and in many instances challenged us to defend through the whole shot clock. We played what looked like a lot more man down the stretch, got into shooters, and ultimately shut down the Brown offense. Mehta scored only 8 in the 2nd half, got no good looks down the stretch after sitting with foul trouble, and ultimately the margin was a semi-comfortable 10 points.
So, the Bears return home with a split, exactly what we were expecting when they left. They’re settling in for a month of basketball in the Bay Area, starting with two games at Haas on Friday and Saturday. The Friday contest vs Manhattan tips at 2pm, five and a half hours before Cal football clinches their bowl bid at UCLA, so there’s no reason not to come out to Haas and watch this team in person.
Happy Thanksgiving. See you on Friday at Haas.