Pac-12 preview: The University of California, Berkeley

This is the first of a 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

It might seem odd to say that a team returning seven players is going to have an exquisitely fresh start this year. But Cal’s five freshmen were one of the highest-ranked recruiting classes in the nation, and to steer this ship is a new head coach and two new assistants. It’s not just a breath of fresh air – it’s a windstorm.

Thanks to a weak pre-season schedule last season, the Bears had a strong record going into conference play at 8-3. In the Pac-10, however, their weaknesses started showing. By February they had a complete breakdown, winning only two out of eight games that they played that month.

Cal made it to the semifinals of the Pac-10 Tournament before losing to UCLA. They went on to play two rounds in the WNIT before being knocked out by Colorado.

At the press conference after the Pac-10 Tournament loss, former Coach Joanne Boyle seemed resigned, like she’d given up on the team. She talked about the “lack of participation” of players and the need to play a game hard for 40 minutes. Less than a month later she was gone, having taken the head coaching job at Virginia.

Enter Lindsay Gottlieb, a former associate head coach to Boyle, who had spent the last three years at the helm of the UC Santa Barbara program. While there, she guided the Gauchos to two Big West Conference championships and two post-season berths. Charmin Smith, assistant to Boyle for the past four years, stayed at Cal. Most of the players and staff seemed to feel comfortable.

Forward DeNesha Stallworth left the program, but all of the 2011 recruits elected to stay. Brea Olinda’s Justine Hartman, who had signed with UCLA before their head coach departed, came to Cal after the Bruins granted her release.

Gottlieb then added Kai Felton, who had been an assistant and USC and Oregon, and Daron Park, an assistant at Maryland. Gottlieb says she and her staff are all on the same page.

Whatever that page consists of on the court remains to be seen, but off-court, it looks like some solid player-coaches bonding is occurring. The four coaches did a rap performance for players last month at an informal gathering. This past weekend, two of the freshmen visited Gottlieb and Smith at a tournament where they were scouting possible future players.

Elbert Kinnebrew, the club ball coach of freshman Reshanda Gray, said “this girl is happy to be a Bear.”

Gray, from Los Angeles, finished out her high school career in sterling fashion, helping the USA U18 team capture a gold medal in 2010. She was also a McDonald’s All-American last winter. A center/forward, Gray was ranked 22nd in the class of 2011.

Freshman Brittany Boyd, a point guard from Berkeley, was ranked ninth in her position. Six-foot-one wing Erika Johnson from Seattle was ranked 21st overall and third at her position. A guard from Israel, Avigiel Cohen was a member of the Israel National Team for four years. Hartman, a highly-regarded and ranked post, helped Brea Olinda stay atop the national rankings throughout her high school career.

Stallworth was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13.3 points per game. But Cal’s other four starters return.

Layshia Clarendon, a junior guard, averaged 13.2 ppg last season. Talia Caldwell, a junior center, had 9.6 ppg and 8.6 rebounds per game. Sophomore guard Lindsay Sherbert (8.1 ppg) and junior guard Eliza Pierre (6.4) round out the lineup.

Also returning are Gennifer Brandon, Afure Jemerigbe and Mikayla Lyles.

Cal will have a slightly tougher pre-season schedule this year, as they take on Texas, Virginia and Ohio State. Pac-12 play begins Dec. 29, as the Bears travel to Los Angeles to take on UCLA and USC.

If the enthusiasm of the coaches is any indication, this year’s Cal Bears team should be a very exciting one to watch.