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Monday Unexpected Bye Week Miscellany

Scattered thoughts on WBB and Cal football after a weird week of AQI delays

California v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Women’s Basketball starts the season 4–0

An inherent challenge in women’s basketball: contextualizing early season performances.

Each of Cal’s four wins have pretty much followed a similar pattern, wherein the Bears start the game a bit flat with turnover issues, gradually work their way into a rhythm, then pull away for a solid-but-not-dominating victory. Cal’s average margin of victory has been 12 points despite the fact that the Bears have trailed at some point in the second half in every game of the season.

But how good exactly are Houston, Penn State, BYU, and Pacific? Houston was a WNIT team returning most of their production. Penn State is likely to be a lower-end Big 10 team. BYU and UOP are decent, but unspectacular WCC teams. These are teams that the Bears are supposed to beat—and they have.

The problem is that Cal’s non-conference schedule is, with one gigantic exception, composed of more good-but-not-great teams like BYU and Penn State. So, barring some sort of amazing performance against UConn, we’re likely to enter Pac-12 play knowing that Cal is better than a bunch of teams that aren’t likely to make the NCAA tournament.

So what CAN we say? For the first time this season, I was actually able to watch a game in its entirety—and only a few hundred people saw it with me. Sunday’s relocated game against UOP was—as noted above—a pretty typical Cal performance. The Bears, at times, struggled to find defensive consistency and turned the ball over too much, but those occasional problems were more than compensated for by Kristine Anigwe’s dominant skill and athleticism, to say nothing of Cal’s sudden depth at guard and wing. It was only a matter of time until Cal’s outside shots started falling sufficiently to allow the Bears to pull away. But here are a few early thoughts:

  • If you’re looking for potential ways in which 2018–19 might be different than 2017–18, Kristine Anigwe’s defense might be one place to look. She was noticeably more active and vocal on that side of the ball. In years past, Anigwe wasn’t as dominant on that end—perhaps due to conditioning (saving herself for the immense energy she has to expend on offense) or perhaps due to the need to protect herself from foul trouble. She collected five blocks and two steals and altered a bunch of other shots with her length. Doing that against Oregon or USC is different than doing it against UOP, but it’s a development to watch.
  • Kianna Smith looks plenty confident with her shot and started reminding me of Layshia Clarendon with her lack of hesitation with mid-range shots.
  • If you’re looking for reasons that the offense might improve from their early performances, look towards Recee Caldwell. The senior transfer has been asked to play a surprisingly big role in facilitating the offense—and will likely need time to learn schemes and build chemistry with the rest of the roster. But there’s no doubt that the talent is there.

Cal football 10,000-foot view: program trajectory and recruiting

The winds of change are blowing in the Pac-12. Mike MacIntyre has been fired—and Clay Helton may very well follow him in a week. Five other Pac-12 head coaches are about to wrap up their debut seasons. For the first time in awhile, the Pac-12 pecking order feels unsettled—which means that there is opportunity for somebody to step into the void.

This makes Big Game feel particularly important this year. If Cal beats Stanford, the following things become true:

  • Stanford’s eight-game winning streak over Cal ends.
  • Stanford’s nine-year streak of finishing ahead of Cal in the Pac-12 standings ends.
  • Stanford would need to beat UCLA and win their bowl game just to tie for the worst record sustained under David Shaw.

Conversely, if Stanford wins the Big Game, then all of those awful streaks continue and Stanford can credibly argue that perhaps their weakest team in a decade still beat perhaps our best team in a decade.

Suffice to say that the result of the Big Game will have a huge impact on the narratives of each program and the rivalry itself. Narrative is not destiny . . . but in a recruiting landscape in which Cal and Stanford are more directly competing for the same recruits*, the narrative is pretty damned important.

(BTW, if this feels like I’m overlooking Colorado it’s because I kinda am—because I’ve had Big Game on my mind for a week and because in 12 days whatever feeling you had about Cal’s game against Colorado will be entirely swept away by either euphoria or despair.)

Which brings us to recruiting. While the season has of course been filled with recruiting visits both official and unofficial, actual news has been limited. Cal hasn’t seen a new commitment since mid-September, but that news isn’t necessarily surprising since Cal already has 20 commitments in their class of 2019—second most in the entire conference.

As has been discussed heavily, Cal’s 20 commits are entirely 3-star prospects per the 247 composite. It’s very much in line with the level of recruiting seen at Cal since Dykes stabilized the program—middle-of-the-conference rankings and 3-star-heavy. For fans hoping to see signs that Cal’s recruiting might pick up alongside Cal’s on-field fortunes, returns have been scanty.

Which makes the last three games feel particularly important. Cal has a few more open slots to fill and they are potential finalists for a number of high end California recruits. The Bears could still finish this season 9–4 with wins over USC and Stanford (and with many of their closest recruiting rivals in turmoil) or 6–7.

Of course, Cal could easily win some key recruiting battles even if they lose out—or miss out on key players despite finishing the season strong. But I think we all know which version allows for the strongest closing argument. And even if on-field results don’t pay immediate dividends with the class of 2019, recruiting is a never-ending cycle. The class of 2020 is just around the corner . . .

*Stanford has four different 4-star commits from the state of California, all of whom were offered by Cal—an example of the type of recruiting battles Cal has almost entirely lost over the last decade.

Hey, are we actually going to get those wins?

Well, let’s start with the easy one. Cal is a double-digit favorite against a team that has lost five six games in a row, just fired their coach, and has collected a combined seven road wins over their last six seasons. They have a pretty good senior quarterback who is also hurt to go along with a host of other injuries that have played some part in Colorado’s rapid season collapse.

If the Vegas spread is in fact a fair representation of pre-game expectations, then Cal should be expected to win this game somewhere around 75% of the time. For a team with an offense that struggled to get into the high teens, that’s about as good as you’re ever going to get against a major conference opponent. If Cal loses to Colorado, that either means Steven Montez got unexpectedly healthy very fast or Cal’s offense single-handedly loses the game. Neither of those possibilities can be completely dismissed, but neither are super likely—hence the 75% chance of victory.

Which leaves Stanford. As has been discussed by fans on both sides at length, both teams have a number of key players trying to get healthy in time for the game—largely on the offensive side of the ball. Stanford’s walking wounded are better players generally (Bryce Love, Kaden Smith, Nate Herbig, and JJ Arcega Whiteside would/will all get picked in the 2019 NFL draft), but Stanford probably has better depth at those positions. We’ll all get a free preview on Saturday to see which players are healthy enough to go against UCLA and Colorado, respectively.

The bottom line is that while Stanford will be slightly favored, the most likely scenario is another low-scoring, single-possession Big Game that goes right down to the final possession—just like 2017.

I can’t wait/oh God, please have mercy on our souls.