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WBB conversations: Reviewing Harvard, Previewing UCLA and USC

Our authors react to a shock loss to Harvard before turning towards the looming Pac-12 schedule

@calwbball twitter

Welcome to a new experiment in Cal Women’s Basketball coverage on CGB. Women’s Basketball is currently, in our completely objective opinion, the best team sport to follow on campus, but it doesn’t get nearly the coverage it deserves. We do an occasional story here and there, especially after big games, but the men’s team gets a much wider breadth and depth of coverage--sometimes when there’s not a whole lot to say. It’s challenging, with our respective duties around here and in real life, to cover WBB as well as we’d like, but one thing we realized is, we talk a lot about this team already. On Twitter and in DMs and by text and in person. Nick and Reef are hoops geeks by nature, and this is a really fun team to talk about.

So what we decided to do is create a record of our conversations, publish them every week, and hopefully provide a modicum of insight, and a written record, of what we are hoping will be a magical season.

There won’t necessarily be a set format or topics for our weekly discussion. We’re just gonna follow our noses, and see where Cal Women’s Basketball, the Pac-12 season, and the magic beyond, take us. If there are any questions you want answered, or any topics you are interested in hearing about, please let us know in the comments. And so, without further ado, here’s Nick and Reef talking women’s hoop.


Reef, Sunday, December 30, 12:30pm

We’re known for being stat geeks, but I want to start us off with something completely different.

I f******g love this team. It is particularly striking to me right now, as I sit in MLK an hour and a half before Harvard tip off, psyched to be on campus early and just anticipating watching our Golden Bears. The stench of having to cobble together a recap on the Seattle game was still all over my clothes, and my psyche, when I woke up this morning. It’s a challenging and discouraging time for that part of my job around here.

But when I think about watching our women’s hoop, my soul feels...*better*. I love Coach Gottlieb and the complete, sincere integrity she uses to guide her program. I love the overwhelming force of toughness and attitude and heart that Asha brings to the court every single game. I love how much Kristine has grown and matured this year. It’s hard to completely grasp, because she’s always been damn good, but I think this year you can really see her transformation from raw, not quite bridled talent, to team leader and All-American. She just knows what to do now. I love all the options on the wing with Kianna and Jaelyn and Recee and Kenzie. I love how sturdy and solid and reliable CJ and Bird have been off the bench.

It’s just plain fun to watch this squad. It brings me joy. And joy should be why we do this, after all. Given how senior heavy we are, I think it’s important to put these thoughts in writing, before the moment is gone.

Nick, Monday, December 31

I, of course, heartily agree. I think we both have questions about little basketball things here and there - defensive cohesion, offensive decision making - but the effort and mentality of the team don’t need to be questioned.

Which is why losses hit so hard, because as a fan you want the best for this team. We didn’t expect to be talking about a loss in our first exchange of e-mails. We gathered in Berkeley to enjoy the final tune-up of the season, and ended up watching a painful lesson in basketball frustration. Harvard 85, Cal 79.

To some extent this is a win that can be explained away. Harvard shot crazy well from 3 all game long, and ended up 13-24. That’s on Cal for allowing too many open looks for a team that wants to shoot lots of 3s, but also falls into the category of weird, bad luck things that happen. Kristine Anigwe missed a bunch of 2 point shots and free throws that are normally not a problem. That’s on her, but also falls into the category of weird, bad luck things that happen. The problem is that both things happened, and Cal just isn’t good enough in other areas to overcome a night where a confluence of weird things happen.

So there’s your quickie summary of why we lost. Or, if you prefer, you can go with Coach G’s summary: “Just not what the expectations are for this group . . . Harvard outplayed us.” And: “We can’t give up 85 points.”

Sigh. This is a bummer. If we’re looking for positives to focus on, there’s the game that Kenzie Forbes just dropped: 22 points in just 13 shots and 23 minutes. I’m going to try to think about that as we stew on this game and wait for UCLA on Friday night.

Reef, Monday, December 31

Sigh. Well that brought me down from the high I was writing from yesterday. I haven’t taken a Cal sports loss this hard in...I don’t even remember how long. Years. I think that’s a reflection of both how much I’ve grown emotionally attached to this particular squad, and because I really was buying into heightened expectations this season. Now I’ve got a many things that worry me.

--Avi said he thought we were “unusually passive” on defense. I agree with the passive part, but I don’t think this is at all unusual. Lindsay Gottlieb’s teams have never been known for their high pressure, or their defensive energy. My general impression is that our defense have gotten progressively less intense over the years. At least during the Final Four Days (TM) we’d see Brittany producing ridiculous on-ball pressure and Layshia+Eliza in opponents’ faces on the perimeter. So I looked it up, and our ability to create turnovers has gotten progressively worse in each of the last four seasons. Currently we are in the bottom 3% in the nation in steal rate and bottom 6% in causing turnovers. I get that this is in part a stylistic choice and in part just what coach probably feels fits our personnel best, but damn. Talk about passive. You and I have discussed Cal’s inability to be a top defense in the conference in the past, and how they just aren’t as stifling, at their best, as other great Pac-12 teams. I wonder how much of our passive mentality and style leads directly into a team like Harvard feeling way too comfortable on our home court, and therefore settling into way too easy a shooting rhythm. [This also seems like a good time to give a shout to Mi’Cole, who could very well have made a difference in making Harvard uncomfortable on the perimeter. Come back strong next year--we need you.]

--I was perhaps a little too optimistic after an unexpectedly strong UConn performance, that this team was going to compete with Oregon, OSU, and Stanford at the top of the conference. When I take a step back, especially after losing to Harvard, I wonder whether we really know anything about whether this team is better than last year’s version. Our unadjusted efficiency numbers are better on both sides of the ball, but we haven’t really been tested against NCAA tournament level competition yet (except UConn), and we haven’t blown by inferior competition in a way that suggests we’re in the top 3 in this conference. On the less quantifiable side, I feel like on paper there’s a higher ceiling for this year’s team, but I’m waiting to see a spark, a swagger...some kind of mojo that passes the elite eye test for me.

--How does Harvard have 5 shooters who can hit for better than 30% from deep, while we only have 2? We are never going to find our theoretical offensive ceiling, and be the offensive juggernaut we were hoping for this year, with Kianna, Recee, and Jaelyn all shooting in the mid to low 20% range. Can we have nice things? Do we have enough data yet to decide that we’re not a great shooting team?

Boy, that’s a lot of questions heading into a suddenly fraught first weekend of conference play.

Nick, Tuesday, January 1

Well, we’re going to start getting immediate answers in Pac-12 play. Friday night brings UCLA to Haas before USC visits on Sunday afternoon (both games on Pac-12 Bay Area). UCLA and USC are both probably mid-tier Pac-12 teams - below the presumed NCAA tournament quality teams, but a step above the Mountain schools and Washington schools. And we have one data point in the form of UCLA’s mildly surprising 7 point road win over the Trojans.

Let’s start with UCLA. The Bruins are partially rebuilding after the departures of Jordin Canada and Monique Billings but certainly aren’t lacking in raw recruiting talent. They’re only 8-5, but that’s in part down to a typically challenging schedule put together by Cori Close. Four of UCLA’s five losses came by single digits . . . while another was by 34 points to an unranked North Carolina. Go figure?

UCLA compensates for pretty abysmal jump shooting (25% from 3) with athleticism that allows them to get to the rim, draw fouls, and grab offensive boards. Cal’s ability to avoid turnovers in the face of UCLA’s ball pressure and what should be an always impressive athletic battle on the boards will be areas to watch.

On Sunday, it’s a slightly different challenge against the defensively oriented Trojans. Against an admittedly weak schedule, USC opponents are shooting just 40% on 2 point shots while turning the ball over more than 18 times a game. Is USC’s defense a schedule strength mirage, or will the Bears struggle to get points in the paint?

These are two games that Cal will be solid favorites in, and games that Cal can’t really afford to drop if they want to reach higher end goals like hosting NCAA tournament games or contending with Stanford and the Oregon schools. It’s a great barometer for the Pac-12 season.