Cal Golden Bears hungry and motivated for 2016-17 with experience and talented youth
Back in early October when Cal hosted an open practice for fans, it was obvious to observers that each returning member of the squad worked hard over the summer to get in better shape and improve their skills. The U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2015-16 National Freshman of the Year, center Kristine Anigwe, clearly spent time in the gym becoming stronger. She even dunked, to the delight of fans, during the open practice.
“I would say that Kristine is probably the most improved player on the team,” said Gottlieb at Pac-12 Media Day in late October. “She’s a better offensive rebounder, in better shape, has better range on her shot, has matured.”
An All-Pac-12 honorable mention last season, senior forward Courtney Range will also be on tap to contribute heavily on both ends of the floor. Last season she averaged 13.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest.
“Courtney has done an incredible job of leading us,” said Gottlieb. “I think when you become a senior, you start to have that perspective of what does the team and program need from me, and she brings that mentality.”
As a first-year point guard and starter last season, Asha Thomas was thrown into the frying pan and tested under pressure as the team’s floor general. Thomas impressed many with her fearless play and leadership which helped her earn a Pac-12 All-Freshman Honorable Mention. She averaged 8.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in 2015-16.
“I mean, if Asha Thomas isn’t the most experienced sophomore point guard in the country, I don’t know who is,” said Gottlieb. “She’s a grown woman in a little person’s body sometimes. She is unbelievable. She’s a great teammate. She’s steady. She put a ton of work in in the summer. I’m surprised when she misses a shot.”
Seasoned veterans, junior forwards Mikayla Cowling and Penina Davison also logged crucial minutes last season and worked hard over the break. Cowling, the daughter of a Cal Hall of Fame track legend and member of an ultra-athletic family, showcased her offensive skills as she racked up 13.4 points per game.
Commenting on Cowling’s athleticism, Gottlieb raved “if Courtney can play four positions, Mikayla can play five.”
Davidson’s on-court steely demeanor helped Cal finish the season with a bang in the Pac-12 tournament with a career-high 17 points plus seven rebounds to upset ranked Arizona State in the quarterfinals, giving fans a glimpse of what is to come this season.
“When you see Nina, she looks she looks like a different person,” said Gottlieb. “She’s in terrific shape. She had a breakout several games, but I think that Arizona State game people were raving about her. I think she has a lot more confidence. She gives us a lot of versatility.”
This academic year Cal will add the talents of 6-7 sophomore center Chen Yue who missed much of last season with a broken foot and Mo Mosley who showed promise as a significant contributor in the 31 games she played.
“Mo is another classic kind of sophomore where all of a sudden you aren’t just trying to keep your head above water, you know what you can do and you try to do it well,” said Gottlieb, “She’s a terrific athlete, great offensive rebounder, really good defender.”
Senior forward KC Waters rounds out the returners as a stable presence for the squad.
Gottlieb is excited about Cal’s trio of freshmen: 5-9 guard Mi’cole Cayton, 6-1 guard Jaelyn Brown and 6-4 center Celeste “CJ” West.
“I think particularly in the backcourt, Jaelyn Brown and Mi’Cole Cayton both bring sort of a nasty and competitive nature on defense,” said Gottlieb, “which almost – we’ve been lacking sort of in some ways, like the kind of stuff that maybe a Brittany Boyd would bring….I feel like they bring that. I also feel like they bring the ability to get to the paint off the dribble, which is what we didn’t do enough of last year, so we definitely expect them to strengthen our backcourt.”
“And then C.J. West is our other freshman. She’s a very solid post player, strength inside, very smart. Just kind of in the right place all the time. We definitely expect them to contribute.”
Cal’s newcomers also include Australian guard Sara Anastasieska, a transfer from the Univesity of Texas at San Antonio who will sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules.
With the bevy of talent on the roster, Cal expects to best last season’s disappointing 15-17 record even as the Pac-12 Conference looks to be even more competitive this season. In fact, when asked if she could describe her squad in one word at the open practice, Gottlieb replied with “hungry,” a theme she revisited at media day.
“I think this team comes in with a unique perspective in that we didn’t accomplish the things we wanted to accomplish last year, and yet they tasted what we’re capable of,” she said. “A lot of teams don’t get that experience, and so I come back with a team that’s hungrier than any that I’ve ever had probably, more competitive, very driven. And even though we’re relatively young by national standards, we are far more experienced than we were last year with the same youthful energy, I think, that makes us exciting.”
Cal has something else to be excited about that could serve as a motivation. On Nov. 5 players received some exciting news when they learned that six-year Bears head coach Gottlieb was 13 weeks pregnant with her first child, due in early May 2017. She also received a contract extension through 2020-21 in late October.
The extra motivation will come in handy as Cal’s non-conference schedule includes tough opponents such as Saint Mary’s who beat Cal last year in Berkeley, Santa Clara who downed Stanford at home last season, Nebraska, Southern Miss, Big 12 stalwart Oklahoma and Arkansas State, a team that finished 2015-16 with a 27-6 record.