For 2017-18, Cal eyes a return to top of the Pac-12 and a deep NCAA tourney run
BERKELEY, Calif. – Like many other programs around the country, Cal held an open practice for fans in early October, marking the beginning of official practices for Division I women’s basketball.
Die-hard Golden Bears fans who showed up last Saturday afternoon at the team’s practice facility were able to get an early glimpse of a squad that includes three promising freshmen, three sophomores, four seasoned juniors, two seniors plus a redshirt sophomore. After the practice, the team treated fans to an outdoor party in front of Haas Pavilion with food, games and a chance to mix and mingle with players and staff.
With perfect weather, Cal cheerleaders, and a stream of passersby stopping by to check out the fest, athletes and coaches were happy to talk about the upcoming campaign and plans to take the program deeper into the NCAA tournament next spring.
Last season, Cal’s season ended in a tough 86-46 loss to top-seeded Baylor in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Baylor’s home court in Waco, Texas. For senior forward Mikayla Cowling, that type of ending for 2017-18 will not be acceptable. Along with her teammates, she took that loss to heart as motivation for putting in long hours in the gym over the summer. In her words, the hard work is necessary for “making sure this year is a different result from last year” because “getting killed by 40, I never want that to happen again.”
Last season, Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb described the team as “hungry” at the onset of the season. The team lived up to that adjective for much of the 2016-17, starting off on a 13-game winning streak that ended in an overtime victory at Arizona State on New Year’s Day.
This year, Gottlieb said that one word was not adequate as an all-encompassing descriptor. She included hungry but had a bit more to say to define the 2017-18 squad.
“I think this team is at a different level,” said Gottlieb mentioning cohesion and togetherness as well.
“They just are focused on being better than we’ve been. I think they’re really hungry to be back at the top of the conference.”
Going from how the team interacted in open practice and as close buddies during the outdoor festival, it is evident that this year’s Bears do enjoy being around each other and have developed good chemistry already.
Starting Off With the Bar Set High
In addition to their skills, the Bears are going to need that chemistry to help them perform well in a schedule that that sees them traveling to the East Coast in the first week of the season to take on powerhouse Connecticut. The contest against UConn will be the beginning of a series between the two teams. The idea for the series was the brainchild of Huskies’ head coach Geno Auriemma.
“Geno texted me a couple of years ago and said, ‘You want to start a series?’ and my first instinct was ‘sure,’” said Gottlieb. “He even asked for a four-year series and ‘I was like wow.’”
Gottlieb indicated that playing the toughest teams early in the season is key to helping her team stay sharp and focused.
“We want to be at the highest possible level, I want our players to play on the biggest stage, I want them to compete at the highest level,” said Gottlieb.
The game at UConn is Friday, Nov. 17 at 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET and will be shown on SNY and ESPN 3.
“I’m not afraid to put them on a plane and go experience that,” said Gottlieb of the challenge of playing the Huskies on their home court as the first away game for her Bears. “UConn will come back next year and that will be good for our whole community so we’re going to go out there and compete.”
Another Pac-12 school, Stanford will also face UConn early in the season. The Cardinal are set to play the Huskies Nov. 12 during the four-team “Countdown to Columbus” competition in Ohio.
Ivy League Connection
The trip out East will also include a contest at Gottlieb’s alma mater, Ivy League Conference member Brown.
“To be able to take them to Brown, for me, it’ll be neat to show them the libraries that I studied in…but more importantly what my college experience meant to me. I didn’t play very much. I wasn’t the star and yet it is still very much a very meaningful place in my heart and for them to meet some of my teammates and you know the program that was so influential to me, it’s going to be very special.”
Last season, the Ivy League saw four teams earn postseason bids with Penn nearly defeating the SEC’s Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“I’m a big fan of Ivy League athletics,” Gottlieb said when asked about the conference’s success in recent years.
“It’s a great chance to have a world-class and life-changing education while still playing basketball at a high level. So, a lot of those coaches in that league are my friends. We feel like at Cal we have Ivy League academics with basketball at its highest level but I also feel like the Ivy experience is unique and special.”
“I think that the basketball has only gotten better especially since my time has passed,” she joked. “they play at a higher level now.”
Additional Non-conference Challenges
In addition to UConn and Brown, the Bears’ schedule is filled with competitive teams from California and surrounding states, many from the West Coast Conference including BYU. In addition, Missouri will compete in the Cal Classic over the Thanksgiving holidays and a game at Kentucky will mark the end of non-conference play.
“We always try to be strategic with our non-conference schedule, to play great teams and go to interesting places, but you also want to be able to play the best local teams that are not Pac-12,” Gottlieb said. “There’s a lot of good basketball in the state of California…and a lot of the WCC schools and it’s great competition. I mean BYU has been one of the best non-Power Five schools in the last ten years by far. We have Missouri coming here, who I know they’re talking about that being the best Missouri team in the history of the program, so we have a really tough non-conference schedule.”
The 2017-18 Big Picture
When Gottlieb took time to address fans Saturday afternoon from the steps of Haas Pavilion, she was effusive and sincere in thanking them for their support over the years telling them “there’s something special about this program.”
She gave them her view of 2017-18: “We are focused on making another deep NCAA run and getting back to the top of the Pac-12 conference. It is the best women’s basketball conference in the country now but we have our sights set on winning. We don’t want to just be in it, we want to win and that’s what we’re working towards every day so we appreciate you guys begin there with us.”
Cal plays Vanguard in an exhibition game Thursday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. PT. The Bears open the season at home against Saint Mary’s Friday, Nov. 10 at 5 p.m PT.
Cal’s 2017-18 Roster
- The annual Cal Classic is Nov. 24 and Nov. 25. The slate includes Manhattan, Coppin State and Missouri.
- The rest of Cal’s non-conference opponents: Saint Mary’s, UConn, Brown, Seattle, Santa Clara, San Diego, Pacific, BYU and Kentucky.
- Cal will have a new look this season with uniforms designed by Under Armour. The school and the athletic apparel company are in a 10-year deal that begins this season. Nike was the school’s previous athletic gear partner. Pac-12 school Utah also has an Under Armour deal.
- Cal visited New Zealand and Australia this past summer. It was a homecoming trip for Penina Davidson and Sara Anastasieska. Davidson grew up in Auckland, New Zealnd and has been a member of the country’s national team. Anastasieska is from Sydney, Australia.
- The program includes two new young additions. Coach Gottlieb and assistant coach Kai Felton both gave birth to sons this year. Gottlieb’s son arrived in early May and Felton delivered about a month later.