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WBB Conversations: Early Returns from the Charmin Smith Era

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After 7 games and with Pac-12 play less than a month away, what have the new look Bears showed to start the 2019-20 season?

Dallas Wings v New York Liberty Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Note - this was posted just prior to Cal’s game against Boston University. If you’re reading this before or during the 2:00 PT game being live streamed, go watch!

Reef

We’ve been neglecting women’s basketball this season. Amid Big Game Axe things, and new men’s basketball regime things, and general life holiday busy-ness things, it’s been hard to make the time. However, the rousing win over Arkansas, that nicely punctuated our trip to Palo Alto last weekend, was a bit of a wake up call for me. This team deserves some love.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I want to make sure I don’t completely neglect the open practice that was my first exposure to Charmin Smith. You know from our discussions off line how impressed I was that afternoon. I saw a coach implementing a clear, firm vision of what this program should be -- holding her players to high expectations while relentlessly supporting them with teaching and encouragement. Her very precise demands during every minute of that practice, and her ability to be seemingly in 3 places at once...her boundless energy, her authenticity, her frank honesty with the fans afterward...I was blown away by everything. I wish I had written about it at the time, because the moment is lost and it deserved more than we have room for here. Nevertheless, I want to get a marker down that I was overwhelmed by the force of nature that is Charmin Smith, and I have a strong instinct that we hired the right person for the job.

Okay. That said, we have the matter of starting a new basketball season, with a new head coach, in what is clearly a rebuilding year. Take yourself back a few weeks. What were your overall thoughts and feelings heading into this season? What were your expectations?

Nick

Boy, expectations . . . I’m not sure I really had any at all. I knew that we were going to get an unusual roster that had six pretty well established juniors and seniors who where known quantities, and four freshman with only minimal recruiting buzz, with some potentially serious positional and skill set gaps. My expectation was that Cal would generally struggle, particularly on offense, and that a ~.500 overall record and a 6-7 win Pac-12 season would have been an OK/understandable result.

My HOPE was that, as Charmin was forced to overhaul the roster, that one or two of the freshmen would emerge players with the potential to be Pac-12 starter-level contributors or better, to combine with Cal’s much more heralded recruiting class arriving next fall. Meanwhile, I also hoped to see signs that Charmin Smith was her own coach with her own ideas capable of shaking up the stagnancy that set in during the last 2-3 years, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

I haven’t been able to watch nearly as much of this team as I’ve wanted, but based on what little I’ve seen and based on the stats, the Bears are playing vastly better defense already, which outside of recruiting was probably going to be the single best early tenure indication that Charmin Smith might have what it takes to get Cal back towards the top of the conference. The Bears have successfully smothered bad offensive teams like Harvard and SDSU, and have even managed to slow down an elite offense (UConn). And while there have been plenty of ups and downs, the freshmen have popped up with some intriguing contributions.

Which is maybe the question I’m most interested in asking you, since I know you’ve seen much more of this team than I have: Cal brought in four recruits, none of whom made the ESPN top 100 and only one of which was even deemed worthy of an ESPN recruiting profile, yet all four are already contributing to Cal’s better-than-expected start. What are your impressions of Leilani McIntosh, Cailyn Crocker, Jazlen Green, and Evelien Schipholt?

Reef

Okay, now you’ve got me excited. There has been a lot of hype, and justifiably so, about Charmin immediately pulling one of the best WBB recruiting classes we’ve ever had. I’m sure we’ll talk plenty about that as we head into next season. But the class of 2019 came in with not much fanfare, and I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised at how strong a foundation they provide for rebuilding this program.

-- Leilani was was an off the radar recruit, Charmin’s first signing after being hired, and she has started immediately at point guard. She deserves that spot. Quick, savvy, fearless...she looks right at home at the D1 level with the ball in her hands. She already has the handle and instincts to play PG at this level, and is fast getting up the court in transition. She takes threes without hesitation, and has a nice stroke. But probably her biggest standout ability is as a disruptor. On defense, she has a preternatural ability to get her hands on balls and generate steals without fouling in a way that’s eye popping. At 5-5, she will have to find ways to keep from being exploited by bigger guards, and she still has a lot of work to do in learning to run an offense and finish her shots, but with a wide range of inside talent developing now or coming in next year, it’s nice to have confidence that we have found our PG for the foreseeable future.

-- Cailyn is a combo guard with a lot of versatility in her game. She’s played a lot of off guard, but has also been backing up the point. She can take it to the hole, but is also comfortable shooting from deep. She’s probably a plus passer. Her defense waxes and wanes -- she’s a freshman -- but there are some tools there to stay in front of folks. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention her two effortless clutch FTs to put away the Arkansas win. (I’m guessing we’ll talk about that later.)

-- We’ve seen a little less of Jazzy because she was out to start the year (I believe with a concussion), but she’s more of a true off-guard than Cailyn. She’s a little bigger, and to my eye she’s got the best stroke on the team. I’m looking for her to develop as the off-ball outside threat the Bears will need as they cultivate a lot of inside talent the next few years. She certainly has shown flashes of the potential to be that player.

So the guards are all young, all developing, but are (perhaps surprisingly) all clearly D1 caliber players who should be able to contribute for four years. That is a big big deal as we build toward a new era. I’m keeping an eye on how well they meet Charmin’s defensive standards, and probably most of all, how their shooting looks as the year goes on. We are probably still in the realm of small sample size theater, but right now Leilani shooting 29%, Cailyn 27%, and Jazlen 25% from deep is not going to be good enough. It’s possible that nobody is a plus shooter, and we just have to live with it. But because it’s early days, I hope for more.

-- I am excited about Evelien. She’s a dynamic big with a LOT of dimensions to her game...she’s quick and decisive inside, has a nose for getting boards, and can also take folks off the bounce from the wing. She’s way more athletic than I saw on film in Europe, and (this is probably the most exciting part), the ball skills she was showing in practice while just messing around indicate a lot of ceiling in her offensive development. Her defense has been rough at times -- she’ll get out of position or in the air far too often -- but I’ve already seen growth in her ability to hold her ground and let her length be the disruptor. I think she projects to be a plus Pac-12 starter in time, which is particularly exciting given how much additional front court talent is coming in.

I kind of want to rave about how well the freshman, and really the whole team, played against Arkansas (hi Jaelyn Brown), but let me throw it back to you first. We’re currently 3-2. Have you gotten a chance to watch us at all, and if so what have your impressions been?

Nick

I’ve managed to see bits and pieces of various games, so my impressions are mostly broad brushes. An obvious improvement in defensive discipline. A sensibly deep rotation of players as Charmin tries to figure out which combinations of players work, and which players deserve playing time. And a team without (with the possible exception of Jaelyn Brown) a go-to scorer. After four years of the Kristine Anigwe show, it’s been a bit disorienting to watch a team play where you don’t know exactly what they’re trying to do on offense, and exactly where they want to go with the ball.

Even in my limited viewing, Leilani’s defense has stood out, and it’s been great seeing her spearhead a defense that dictates terms more that the style of defense Cal played under Lindsay Gottlieb. We had been begging for Cal to create more pressure and turnovers as a major defensive strategy, and so far that appears to be something Charmin has embraced to positive effect. Even better, so far Cal’s increased disruptivity hasn’t yet let to problems with allowing easy shots or offensive rebounds (though, unsurprisingly for a young team, the Bears could stand to foul a bit less).

Can you tell that when I’ve watched most of my attention went to the defensive side of the ball? It had been a glaring weakness for so long that Charmin’s ability to overhaul and improve Cal’s defense was going to be possibly the first sign that she might have what it takes rebuild the program.

With just 7 games under our belt and with such a deep rotation with so many new faces, do you feel like you can say much of anything with confidence about Charmin’s offense?

Reef

In a word, no.

But I never limit myself to just one word, so I’ll expand on that. After the open practice, Charmin noted that there would have to be significant adjustments to playing style with Kristine gone. We are seeing that play out before our eyes. We’ve seen a variety of sets and game plans, some perimeter oriented, some low post oriented. We’ve seen slow tempo’d games at 65 possessions, and up tempo games at 78 possessions.

In the first game vs Harvard, 8 players got between 5-8 shot attempts, an even distribution that you’ll rarely see. Then Sara got 21 vs UConn, 9 more than anyone else. Then Leilani got 12 and Jazzy got 10 vs Riverside. Then Jaelyn got 13 and Bird got 12 vs SDSU. You get the point. We seem to be feeling out who we are and where we want to get buckets, and that is entirely appropriate given the state of the program. It will also be kind of fun to observe as the season goes on and we will learn a lot about Charmin as we see this progression.

I’ll note on that front that I was pretty critical of Charmin on Twitter during the Harvard game, because I thought the offense was mismanaged down the stretch. She went to her seniors, especially Sara, whom I did not think was up to the challenge of a defense geared to stop her. I’ve also been critical at times of the insistence on entering the post, even when the opposition is geared to stop us. Some of the maddening legacy of forced interior passing (and turnovers), seems to have carried over from the Gottlieb/Anigwe era.

But I also want to acknowledge and respect the fact that it’s only been 7 games, with a new coach, and basically a new team. In recent games Charmin has seemed to trust her freshmen more, and gotten them in good spots to score the basketball, an approach I prefer, because developing our young players is key to the long term maturation of the program.

A few other statistical notes about where we are so far. First, we are averaging 17 turnovers a game, 4 more than last season, and just far too high. This might be understandable given the newness of...everything, but it’s an area that has to improve. Second, since I last wrote, we’ve gone on a bit of a 3p shooting hot streak, and are 38% as a team. In particular, Jazzy is at 44% and Cailyn is up to 33%, and as I mentioned before, if our freshmen guards/wings can shoot, we have reason to be very excited about the future.

That’s a bit of a fruit salad, but I’m enjoying watching it unfold, and trying to appreciate the journey of a young team that seems to be purposeful and headed in the right direction. Upcoming are three Saturdays in a row, two games that should be easily winnable against Boston U and Santa Clara, then another good test at Haas vs a strong Kentucky team. If we can duplicate our effort against Arkansas in a couple weeks against the Wildcats, then forget future years...I’m going to start getting excited about right now.