Cal enters season with cautious optimism, fueled by talented youth
When Lindsay Gottlieb took over as head coach of Cal in the spring of 2011, there were no rising seniors in the program for her inaugural campaign. However, the team finished the year 25-10 after reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament.
For the next three seasons, she did not have a shortage of senior leadership and the upperclassmen were instrumental in making sure the Bears continued a streak of 20-plus win seasons, including 2013’s appearance in the Final Four with a program-record 32 wins.
As Gottlieb enters her fifth season at Berkeley, the roster makeup of the team is reminiscent of her first year. No seniors. Furthermore, there are only two juniors along with three sophomores and four freshmen.
For the head coach, the lack of older players does not mean that Cal has lowered its expectations.
“I think we have a young group that wants to say ‘this is just the beginning and we haven’t gotten yet to where Cal can go.’ And that’s been their mentality every day in practice. I think they know it’s a work in progress. They understand that we’re young and that there are challenges in front of us but I think they’re dialed in and locked in to meeting those challenges and being better than what people expect us to be.”
At the end of the summer, the team had 11 players including junior Mercedes Jefflo and freshman Breanna Cavanaugh. Jefflo was dismissed from the squad in mid-September and Cavanaugh is on a leave of absence in order to recover from a concussion. However, even with just nine active players, the team returns three student-athletes who stepped up last season in crucial moments scoring in double-digits multiple times: junior forward Courtney Range, sophomore forward Mikayla Cowling and sophomore guard Gabby Green.
Carving out success with a limited roster is not unfamiliar territory for Cal.
“When we went to the Final Four we had 10 players so that worked for us,” said Gottlieb during Pac-12 Media Day last month about the roster. “We’ve done it.”
Last season the program had just 10 players yet still managed to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament and finish with a 24-10 record. However, that squad had the leadership of point guard Brittany Boyd and center Reshanda Gray, players that entered Cal during Gottlieb’s first season at the helm.
Overall, the outcome of 2015-16 largely depends upon whether or not Range, Cowling and Green can step into the role of being effective team leaders.
In addition, sophomore forward Penina Davidson, who is more toned and stronger than last season, has international experience under her belt that will serve the team well this season.
Davidson competed in the FIBA Oceania Championships in August against Australia, one of the best national teams in the world, and was the tournament’s leading rebounder at 10.5 caroms per game. Her time with the Tall Ferns also included tournaments with games against Japan, South Korea, Chinese Taipei and a USA Select squad.
Junior forward KC Waters can also contribute in the paint for the Bears and help to develop steady leadership for the young squad.
“It’s a versatile group,” according to Gottlieb. “We’re youthful, got kids who can play multiple positions, so it’s going to challenge me, it’s going to challenge them and hopefully the results will be something special.”
Pac-12 coaches and media put Cal in the top five in the preseason conference rankings. The coaches’ votes placed the Bears in a tie for fourth place with UCLA. The media tally has the Bears in fourth place in the Pac-12.
Nationally, Cal is unranked but the team received 14 votes in the Associated Press poll and 28 in the USA Today Coaches poll.
While there is an air of cautious optimism about Cal’s 2015-16 prospects, the team proved during an exhibition match vs. Westmont on Sunday, that at the very least, it has the ingredients for a future deep run in the NCAA tournament, possibly to a Final Four.
After shaking off the jitters of being in competition for the first time, Cal routed its NAIA opponent 91-39 with four players in double figures led by freshman.
Forward Kristine Anigwe finished with 19 points plus six rebounds and guard Asha Thomas scored 18 points and dished out seven assists. Range and Davidson each contributed 13 points. Range also pulled down five rebounds and Davidson grabbed four.
“We have a young group and I was really just focused on their energy level and how hard we played today.,” said Gottlieb postgame. “I thought we passed that test. I think you saw what we want Cal basketball to be, which is sharing the ball. 20 assists, multiple people scoring, our length on defense. We clearly still have a lot of work to do and that’s my job to watch the film but I’m really proud of the start.”
Meet The Freshmen
Cal’s collection of freshman landed at No. 8 in ESPN’s class rankings as of last spring. With Cavanaugh out, the first years include a forward, two guards and a center.
- Asha Thomas – The 5-4 guard, a product of Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School, is an explosive athlete with excellent court vision. Her performance during the game vs. Westmont indicated she will have no steep learning curve jumping into the mix sharing point guard duties with Green. According to Gottlieb Thomas is “very heady.” “She’s like a freshman going on 35 with her mindset. She just has a real mature demeanor.”
- MaAne’ Mosley – Another Oakland product, the 5-11 guard Mosley was a prep teammate of Cowling and Green at Saint Mary’s College High School. She was rated nationally as the No. 16 prep wing by ESPN and scored seven points vs. Westmont.
- Kristin Anigwe – A 6-4 forward from Phoenix, Anigwe is the most heralded freshman for Cal with a long list of accolades in her basketball biography. “I think she is the most athletic player we’ve ever had,” said Gottlieb about Anigwe in October. The 2015 McDonald’s All-American was the only female to compete in the dunking contest during the event last spring. Gottlieb predicts that Anigwe will dunk in a game before she leaves Cal. Her USA Basketball resume includes winning gold this past summer in the FIBA U19 World Championship.
- Chen Yue – The 6-7 center from Beijing has a sports background that includes parents that played basketball plus participation in international tournaments. While Yue can be a force in the paint for the Bears she also showcased her outside shooting and passing skills during the exhibition game. Her trajectory for Cal can be phenomenal.
Non-conference Schedule Overview
The Bears begin the regular season Nov. 13 with a road contest at Austin Peay in Clarksville, TN. The Bears and the Governors have never faced each other.
The road trip continues with a game at No. 8 Louisville on Sunday, Nov. 15. at 2 p.m. ET. The matchup will be broadcast on ESPN 3. The Bears are 0-2 vs. the Cardinals.
The non-conference schedule also includes games against No. 13 Texas A&M, Nebraska and a rare non-league showdown against WNIT champion UCLA. The game will not count towards the teams’ conference record.
- Nov. 13 – Austin Peay (Clarksville, Tenn.)
- Nov. 15 – Louisville (Louisville, Ky.)
- Nov. 20 – School Haas Rock: UC Riverside (Berkeley)
- Nov. 22 – Cal Poly (Berkeley)
- Nov. 27 –South Point Shootout: Texas A&M (Las Vegas, Nev.)
- Nov. 28 – South Point Shootout: Liberty (Las Vegas, Nev.)
- Dec. 5 – Cal Classic: Saint Mary’s (Berkeley)
- Dec. 6 – Cal Classic: Sacramento State or Villanova (Berkeley)
- Dec. 12 – Nebraska (Berkeley)
- Dec. 21 – UCLA (Berkeley)
- Dec. 30 – Cal State Northridge (Berkeley)