One third of the way through the conference season and we are back, trying to put a finger on the pulse of where this team is with 17 games under their belt. I’m not a big fan of national rankings, and I will almost never mention them in any serious analysis. There are far better objective ways of evaluating where teams are relative to national competition. But at this point in the year I want to note that the Golden Bears are at #21 in the AP Top 25. The week before they were #24. For each of the 11 weeks of the AP survey this season, the Bears have polled at between #20 and #25 in the nation. Which would seem to indicate, if you take rankings seriously, that Cal has performed like a fringe Top 25 squad that beats inferior teams, but is not beating elite competition.
And guess what?
Cal has performed like a fringe Top 25 squad that beats inferior teams but has not yet beaten elite competition.
Let’s take a quick look at the major takeaways from the series we’ve played since we last checked in.
The LA Schools at Home: 1-1, 10-3
USC looked like a mid-tier Pac-12 team, talented and dangerous, but one we should handle at home. And that is, in fact, what happened in the Haas Pac-12 opener. I know I’m supposed to say that all conference games are a battle and all wins are good wins, and there’s an element of this cliche that’s true, but if Cal had aspirations of competing at the top of the conference, USC was a team they should beat at home. They did so by a reasonably comfortable 10 points -- the points of interest being Kristine’s eye opening 3 for 3 from deep (she had been 1-5 in her career to that point) and the workmanlike way Cal’s backcourt of Asha and Kianna salted the game away in the last 5 minutes.
UCLA came in as the 11th ranked team in the country and one of the favorites to win the Pac-12. They also came in as one of the most disruptive teams in the nation, relying on athleticism and heavy ball pressure to take teams out of their comfort zone.
The Bears never were comfortable, in a deflating game that the Bruins dominated for the last 3 quarters. They forced 24 Cal turnovers, continually made the Bears uncomfortable inside, forced the Bears into shooting 29% from the field, and ultimately held us to a shocking .597 points per possession. Yikes.
The Bears were doubled up on the scoreboard for long stretches of the 2nd half, and the question hung in the air in a stunned Haas Pavilion: can the Bears beat elite competition?
Road Trip to Arizona: 1-1, 11-4
The game at ASU was a chance for Cal to prove that it could, in fact, beat a top tier team. ASU is another squad that will compete with the best teams in the Pac-12 and that will be a force come March. The game resembled Missouri in rhythm and flow. The Bears did not open sharp on offense and struggled to score early in the game. They carried an 8 point deficit into the locker room at halftime, and although their 2nd half offensive adjustments and execution were outstanding, it was too late. ASU decided to make a ton of jumpers in the 2nd half, and the slow start was too much to overcome. And again we wondered: how good is this team? Can they beat elite competition?
The game against Arizona was not against elite competition, but with Asha sitting out under the concussion protocol, it felt like it. The game started at 11:00 am and the Bears were barely out of bed by noon. Fortunately, Mikayla put us on her back and carried us to a sleepy, sloppy win. We’ll chalk that up as a one-off.
The Washington Schools at Home: 2-0, 13-4
Cal then came home against the Washington schools, needing a home sweep to solidify their standing in the conference, heading into a tough three week stretch of basketball. They got the sweep.
The Huskies came in 0-4 but were scrappy. The Bears, however, were big and had Kristine Anigwe. As Nick described in his recap, that was enough. While the Huskies kept themselves in the game, in the end the routine beastiness of Kristine (12-18 FG and 26 points), ample help from Nina (8-10 FG and 18) points, and some late, clutch buckets from Asha gave Cal a 9 point win.
And it was nice to be back home at Haas Pavilion, for the most fun atmosphere in college sports.
You can look at the WSU game two ways. First option, the Bears were in a tight battle down to the last minute against a team with only one conference win, and that had not given the good teams in the conference much of a fight. Second option, WSU came in with a top 50 RPI and sweeping any weekend in conference is an accomplishment.
This was a game we could easily have lost last year. The Bears did what they needed to do to win.
Where are we now?
So now we head into a three week stretch that will probably tell us where we stand in the Pac-12 conference. Two games in LA, a visit from ASU, and a trip up to Oregon. There is a clear divide between the top and bottom of the conference, and six teams figure to be strong competition: Oregon at the top at 6-0, followed by Stanford at 5-1, then the cluster of OSU, UCLA, ASU, and Cal at 4-2. In the next three weeks, only the Arizona game is against a team that does not figure to challenge the heck out of us.
There’s no shame in being a fringe top 25 team. There’s no shame finishing 5th in the conference and bringing a 6 seed into the NCAA tournament. That’s the way we’ve played so far this season, and if that’s where we end up, it would be a solid step in the evolution of this program.
But that’s not what this team aspires to be or can be.
These are the questions for the next stretch of conference play. Is Cal who they appear to be? Or are we more than that? Will we start putting together complete stretches of sharp execution from the start of the game all the way through to the end? Will the ballyhooed scoring balance we saw in the early season, but that has been missing in recent weeks, reappear for this critical gauntlet? Will inside finishes fall with more regularity? Will outside jumpers start to fall more consistently? Will they pick up their defensive intensity and get stops in big moments?
The exciting part is we don’t know. And the scary part is we don’t know.
So far I have been mildly disappointed that this squad has not been able to put up a signature win. But really, if we assume UConn was going to beat us, then we are talking about a small sample of three games: Missouri, UCLA, and ASU, in which we’ve had an opportunity to show we are a high end squad. Two of those games were winnable. A small handful of possessions can turn the tide in games like that. One entry pass that isn’t thrown away. One box out. One fast break conversion.
I see Asha Thomas and Kianna Smith and Mikayla Cowling and Penina Davidson and of course Kristine Anigwe step out on the court, and I see a team that has as much talent as anybody. I do not lose any confidence when I see Jaelyn Brown or CJ West or Alaysia Styles or even Mo Mosley at the scorer’s table. The ceiling on this squad is high. Will they play to that ceiling?
In the next three weeks, the Bears have four more opportunities against the cream of the crop, as well as a difficult test versus USC. Is the past prologue for growth and redemption, or for the inevitability of a continuing pattern? What story will we write for this season?
This is why they play, and why we watch. For these tests. To see what the answer is.
Buckle up. Let’s see what this team is made of.