Pac-10 preview: the University of California, Berkeley

This is the fourth of a 10-part series previewing the Pac-10 basketball teams

The Cal Bears certainly were over-achievers last year. No one expected them to do much with almost an entirely new team that included six freshmen – especially after one (Tierra Rogers) was found to have a heart condition that ended her playing career before it had even begun at Cal.

But the Bears hung in there, grew, and ended up 24-13 overall and fourth in the Pac-10. While it wasn’t good enough for an NCAA bid, it was fine for the WNIT, and Cal ended up winning the championship.

What they lost in the graduation of Alexis Gray-Lawson was not only their high scorer at 17.8 points per game, but their team leader. Now it seems that title, among the four sophomore returning starters, is up for grabs. If one or two players step up to fill it, the Bears will probably return to their winning ways.

If a team leader is decided on scoring, then the new title belongs to sophomore DeNesha Stallworth. The Northern California native averaged 12.9 points per game last year with a ferocious consistency that included a 30-point explosion at USC on Jan. 10.

A case could also be made for sophomore Layshia Clarendon, who put up 8.9 points per game and was the fourth-leading rebounder on the team, despite being 5-foot-9. She is used to carrying teams on her back from her high school days at Cajon, where she consistently guided her team into the state playoffs.

Other candidates are sophomores Gennifer Brandon (7.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and Talia Caldwell (5.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg).

Or maybe it will be one of Cal’s super freshman class who will step up. Afure Jamerigbe of Stockton, Calif., was ranked 15th in the 2010 class; Lindsay Sherbert of Temecula, Calif, was ranked 29th; and guard Mikayla Lyles of Plesanton, Calif. was ranked 45th at her position.

The bench is loaded, and with a team full of underclasswomen, the field is wide open.

Then again, maybe the Bears’ lone OG – Senior Rama N’diaye – will take the leadership spot. N’diaye, who was out last season with an injury, was always a Cal fan favorite, and the newcomers could truly benefit from her experience and wisdom.

I wish I could have made this preview more in-depth, but neither Coach Joanne Boyle nor one of her assistants would respond to my emails asking these questions:

– Did anyone (especially among the frosh) surprise you last year?
– What are the best things about each of the four newcomers?
– What maturity have you seen in the team from last year, when so many freshmen were on the squad?
– What are your goals and strategies for the year?

If anyone knows the answers to these questions, please post them. This rising Cal team intrigues me, as does the possibility of a Stanford-UCLA-USC-Cal-Oregon log jam at the top of the Pac-10 within a few years. I think this conference is on the edge of going to the next level.

Cal media guide, including cool pictures.