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WBB Conversations: Wrapping up non-conference play as the Pac-12 Looms

Recapping the end of non-conference play highlighted by a close loss to top 15 Kentucky

Creighton v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Reef, December 15

The team is now a somewhat surprising 7-2, after reeling off yet another home victory last night over Santa Clara. While I was out of town, you got your first live look at the new squad. Impressions?

Nick, December 18

My main impression is that this team is ACTIVE. Most of the time, that’s good. Good on defense, where the Bears are no longer one of the worst teams in the country at forcing turnovers. Good on offense, where the Bears have been earning offensive rebounds at a rate entirely disproportionate to their front line size. Useful on both ends, because Cal drew a ton of free throws by being aggressive while Cal’s fouls tended to be fouls of aggressive rather than desperation. The team just felt full of energy, and it was energizing to watch them, even on a sleepy, rainy afternoon against a low draw opponent, when most everybody else was holiday shopping rather than coming out to Haas.

The star of the game was Jaelyn Brown and Evelien Schipholt, and both are worth further discussion. Jaelyn has really taken over as an on-court leader, after only playing the 5th most minutes on the team last year. Honestly, I’m not sure I really saw her as a lead scorer type player and figured that Cal would be much of an offense-by-committee kind of team this year, but she looks so much more fluid and composed as a ball dominant wing calling her own number than I ever would have expected. I’d like to see her trade some of her long jumpers for drives, but they did the trick against Santa Clara.

But the player who really stood out was Evelien. Admittedly, nobody is going to mistake Santa Clara’s front line for a Pac-12 roster, but she looked so comfortable attacking the basket, whether it was a straight post up or more of a face up from somewhere around the free throw line. She seems to have this natural instinct for getting shots up and over a defender, and her quickness and athleticism for a post player really stood out.

Brown and Schipholt (and really, all of the post players) carried the Bears when the guards outside of Brown just couldn’t get anything going offensively. This was a game that Cal won thanks to drive and athleticism, and it’s kinda crazy that the Bears only won by 3 points despite attempting 10 more shots and 17 more free throws. Hopefully Cal’s 0-10 three point shooting performance was an anomaly, because as active as these Bears are, most Pac-12 opponents won’t be as easily overwhelmed athletically as the Broncos were.

Reef, December 20

I’m glad you brought up Jaelyn, because in our last conversation we spent so much time getting excited about the freshmen, that we hardly mentioned the senior who’s taken over as the heart of this team so far.

Normally we worship at the altar of efficiency, and rightfully so. Teams want to score on as many possessions as they can. So I wouldn’t normally be lauding a player whose eFG% has dipped from 54.4% to 49.5% in her senior year. But these aren’t ordinary circumstances. With the loss of basically all our primary scoring options coming into the season, we were all wondering who was going to step up to fill the void. Because sometimes, you just need an alpha who goes out and gets you a bucket. Turns out our alpha is Jaelyn Brown. Her usage has gone from 16.3% to 24.4%. She attempted 6 field goals a game last year, and now she’s up to 12. And simply put, in big moments, she’s the one who steps up. I’m normally not going to weigh counting stats very heavily, but Cal has needed her 15 points and 7 boards desperately this season, because there’s nobody else on the roster who can deliver those numbers.

In the open practice, Charmin seemed to be riding her just a little harder...really trying to get her to pay attention to all the details. I suspect that’s because she saw what we did not: the potential for her to explode this year. And explode she has. The 30 point game vs Arkansas, our biggest win of the year, was all about Jaelyn not letting us lose that day. Her heart and commitment are HUGE, and I’m glad she’s got this year to shine.

Regarding your Evelien observations, what should particularly scare to the rest of the Pac-12 is we’ve already got one talented big (or maybe big wing) developing in Berkeley, and we’re adding three more next season. You want room for error in your recruiting, and how we’ve got potentially 4 high level front court players to fill 2-3 positions. There will be no shortage of front court talent at Haas in the coming years.

Finally, on your “activity” point, my impression is what you’re seeing is a direct result of how Charmin prefers to practice, and the high standards she pushes her team toward. A lot of coaches preach energy and intensity <cough, men’s basketball, cough>, but it’s another thing altogether get your players to deliver it consistently. Charmin Smith has repeatedly promised the fans that, regardless of outcome, her teams are going to play hard. I think the early returns show her delivering on that promise.

7-2 and optimistic is about as good as I could have hoped for given all the circumstances. I was not expecting our early conversations to be so positive. Any chance we’re beating Kentucky on Saturday?

Nick, December 20

I’ve been trying to decide what I think the Vegas line would be if such a thing existed for WBB. Kentucky just suffered their first loss of the season . . . by one point to a top 10 Louisville team that has beaten Oregon. That tells you something about the level of talent the Wildcats can bring to bear. But beyond that game against Louisville Kentucky’s schedule has been pretty light, and they struggled to beat a pretty mediocre Virginia team on Virginia’s home court. A cross country trip to play Cal isn’t exactly easy pickings.

Probably the biggest question of the game is whether or not Cal’s young guards can hold up to Kentucky’s defensive pressure. Schedule strength caveats apply, but the Wildcats are currently 2nd in the nation in opponent turnover rate. Considering all of the freshmen Cal plays, the Bears have been pretty good about taking care of the ball (52nd in turnover rate nationally) but Leilani and company haven’t faced a test like Kentucky yet. But if Cal can manage that pressure they might be able to hang with a team that doesn’t appear to have the offensive fire power to run away from another good team.

I’d say Kentucky is probably something like a 70% favorite, which is to say that they are certainly the more likely winner, but that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Cal hung close and stole a win late. Most of the advanced stat rankings I’ve seen so far have Kentucky as a team ranking in the teens, with Cal hovering in the 45-50 range, and if that’s a fair representation this early in the season . . . well, top 50 teams upset top 20 teams on their home courts all the time. The Bears will have to shoot the ball like like the Santa Clara game and more like the Arkansas game, but that’s not asking for anything too weird (I hope).

Reef, post-Kentucky

Yes and no. Cal ended up shooting very poorly. 21-52 from the field. 4-18 from deep. 15-25 from the line. (Ugh.)

Somehow that was enough to take a Sweet-16 level Kentucky team down to the last possession. Go figure.

I’m going to get out of my analytical head for a bit and get emotional for a second. What a joy it was to be there in person to see that game, and what a joy this team is, each and every time out. I can’t quantify fight. I can’t quantify heart. I can’t quantify what it feels like when I see an overmatched team scratch and claw and dig and work in unison to somehow turn a rock fight into a legitimate chance to pull a big upset. I can’t quantify what it means to build a new foundation for a program by getting every single player on the team to pull in the same direction.

What I can bear witness to, though, is how that all comes together on the floor to give us a team that is really, really fun to root for. I tweeted this after the game, and after having some time to ruminate, I believe it even more strongly:

Charmin was a little more thoughtful about it after the game, and there will be plenty of time this season to break down exactly what we’re seeing between the lines. I still anticipate a tough year in the conference. We’re going to need time to build up our experience and our talent base, and for our new coach to find her full footing. But damn. I think it’s important to pause and appreciate that this is no longer about what this program will be in a year or two. I am so overwhelmingly proud of what this program is NOW. If our reason for being sports fans is entertainment, and pride in our university, this team is giving it to us in spades. We are squeezing every single ounce of what we can be so far this season. Go back to that presser and watch how the players talk about this team. I’m just...wow. It’s worth honoring that, and it’s certainly worth watching us take take this journey, regardless of what the Win/Loss record ends up looking like.

How about you? Thoughts on Kentucky?

Nick, post Kentucky & Grand Canyon

I think we all learned about the level of toughness and mental focus that this team is capable of. Charmin mentioned that there were points in the game when a lesser team would have given in, and I think that’s entirely accurate - I think there were 3 or 4 times while I watched where Kentucky hit a big shot, or something swung against us, where I thought to myself, “Well, good effort, but this game is over.” But every time that happened the Bears responded - with a bucket, or a stop, or some kind of play that kept Kentucky within reach, and then all of sudden the game is tied with 10 seconds left.

And I think it’s important to distinguish between toughness and mental focus. Most of the Cal teams I’ve followed of recent vintage have had toughness, but maybe not this level of mental toughness, attention to detail. Pure effort is a foundational piece a team needs, but that alone won’t actually get you that far. This team has shown that focus, and it has allowed them to compete with teams that are ostensibly more talented than they are. It’s that attention that allowed them to hold down Kentucky’s offense and get stops, and that allowed them to execute plays at the end of the game to get buckets when they absolutely had to have them. Sure, it’s a bummer that Kentucky hit a tough shot to deny the Bears overtime, and it’s a bummer that a few too many missed 3s and free throws probably cost Cal the win in regulation, but the Bears are showing us the progress that we were hoping to see.

And then they followed up the encouraging disappointment that was the Kentucky game by handling Grand Canyon in business-like fashion, leading by 6 after 1 quarter, 12 after 2 quarters, and 20 after 3 quarters. No fuss, no drama, eight players on the scoreboard, let’s gear up for Pac-12 play.

Here we are, with Pac-12 play kicking off just hours after this post will go up on CGB. Cal starts the conference grind with a relatively easy start: Washington and Washington State at home.

7:00 pm Friday vs. Washington, Pac-12 Networks
Noon Sunday vs. Washington State, Pac-12 Networks

UW and WSU are, along with Utah, probably among the worst teams in the conference. But worst in this conference is still a dangerous team. But at home and with four straight games against top five teams afterwards, the Bears need to get these two wins in the bank. Let the marathon begin.