Pac-12 preview: the University of California, Berkeley

This is the tenth in an annual series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

Since program-changers Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray graduated in 2015, Cal has been in a sort of rebuilding mode. Last season they returned to form about halfway, and this year they are looking to make even more progress forward, with their 2013 Final Four appearance still on their minds.

The Bears began 2016-2017 well, finished 20-14 overall and earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament, where they lost in the second round. But in between those two ends they got beat up in Pac-12 play and ended with a 6-12 record, tied for seventh place. They won only two conference road games.

This season Cal has been picked to finish fifth in league, as they lost only one starter and return ten players. Key in the lineup will be star junior forward Kristine Anigwe (21 points, 9.3 rebounds per game); junior guard Asha Thomas (8.9 points, 3.32 assists per game); and senior forward Mikayla Cowling (8.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists per game). For Anigwe and Thomas in particular, the leap to upperclasswoman has come with greater expectation and responsibility. Anigwe said coach Lindsay Gottlieb approaches them differently now.

“I think her demeanor has changed as a coach because she expects us to just know what we’re doing,” Anigwe said. “She doesn’t give us the leeway of, oh, you’re learning. It’s like, you know this, do it. So I feel like that’s our motto going into the season. Like we’re older, we’re better.”

Gottlieb said she is excited to see the growth of her players.

“I don’t think we need to lose two or three games in a row to say we can be better,” Gottlieb said. “I think they’re able to self-assess in the moment, and that’s maturity.”

Part of the struggles of the Bears in 2015-2016 came from having no seniors. This year starting senior forward Penina Davidson (6.5 points, 5.3 rebounds per game) will help the other older players lead a still-young team. Thomas said they have all grown both on and off the court.

“We see different sides of our past, and we don’t want to go through that again,” Thomas said. “We don’t want our younger players to go through that. We want to lead them to a better view of where we want to go.”

Sophomore guard and key reserve Mi’Cole Cayton (5.6 points per game) returns, as does sophomore forwards Jaelyn Brown (4.8 points per game) and CJ West (3.3 points per game). Freshmen include guard/forward Alaysia Styles and guard Kianna Smith, both from Southern California, and guard Archer Olson, from the Bay Area.

Gottlieb said the desire of the Bears to improve has resulted in a short adjustment period and good cohesion.

“I feel very confident it’s the best team chemistry we’ve had since our Final Four team,” she said. “I can see it, I can feel it. Team chemistry doesn’t always mean the rah-rah, like each other. They do. But I think the team chemistry’s now there where they can hold each other accountable. They can raise their standards. They can get on someone to do better, but still be good off the court.”

“Our chemistry and cohesion is really good. That partly comes from returning most of our players, but it also comes from a concerted effort by the people in the program to say: we want more. We want to do better. I credit the upperclassmen with that. The freshmen have been great. They’ve been seamless personalities to integrate, and from a basketball standpoint, they’re very high IQ basketball.”

Anigwe can’t wait to begin playing.

“I’m just really excited for the season,” she said.