Pac-12 preview: Cal

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

Cal had a unique situation last year: they had no seniors. This has turned into an equally original situation this season: they have no eligible newcomers. Translation? The Bears are poised to be dangerous.

Second-year Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said the team’s continuity has allowed an already-tight group to marinate together even more fully.

“First off, our chemistry is amazing. These players value and respect one another, and they genuinely like each other,” Gottlieb said. “There is a built-in trust, and a commitment to want to play for the person next to you.”

“Secondly, it’s allowed us to push forward at a fast pace this fall. Not having to get freshmen ‘up to speed’ has meant that this group can work to take steps forward from where we finished last season.”

Gottlieb took a team last year, which included three freshmen and four sophomores, to the Pac-12 title game and to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to eventual semifinalist Notre Dame. Both Gottlieb and her passionate players made quite an impression, and Cal is picked to go second again in the conference this year. She said their tournament experience last year was a true confidence-builder.

“I’ve told several people that the experience we had in South Bend last year in the NCAA tourney was about as positive an end to the season as you can have without actually winning your last game,” Gottlieb said.

“What I mean is that we battled a great team in Notre Dame, on their home floor. We hung with them, we gave them some problems. Ultimately we lost, but it left our players with a sense that we can achieve that next level, that we can become one of the nation’s elite teams IF we are willing to work. Our players used that experience as positive motivation, and that’s why it was such a good experience.”

And indeed, that is Cal’s next goal: to become an elite program. Gottlieb has set the standard.

“We want to reach the next level, we want to be ‘elite,'” she said. “The goal is to win a championship this year. I don’t take that statement lightly: we know how hard it is to win a championship, and we know how strong Stanford is, and how good the rest of the conference is this year. But the goals have changed from last year, as they should.”

“Last year we wanted to re-establish Cal Basketball. We wanted to earn a bye in the Pac12 Tourney and get back to the NCAA Tourney. We did both of those things, so we’ve raised the bar. This team doesn’t want to be ‘close’ anymore, they want to be ‘elite.’ They want to be champions.”

Returning Bear starters are senior guard Layshia Clarendon (12.8 ppg); sophomore forward Reshanda Gray (10.5 ppg, 6 rpg); sophomore guard Brittany Boyd (10.2 ppg); junior forward Gennifer Brandon (8.9 ppg, 9.9 rpg); senior center Talia Caldwell (8.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg).

Key returning reserves are junior guard Afure Jemerigbe (5 ppg); senior guard Eliza Pierre (4.1 ppg); and sophomore forward Justine Hartman (3 ppg).

Cal did lose one sometimes-starter – forward Lindsay Sherbert (5.2 ppg) – who transferred at the end of last season. In her place they gained guard Brittany Shine, a transfer from Florida who will sit out this year as per NCAA transfer rules.

Gottlieb has a new assistant coach this season in former WNBA forward Katy Steding. Assistant coach Charmin Smith was promoted to associate head coach, and Kai Felton rounds out the returning staff.

The Bears worked hard over the summer to get better, according to Gottlieb, and she has seen improvement in each athlete. She has a feeling about two players in particular.

“The person who maybe has surprised me the most is Gen Brandon,” Gottlieb said. “Remember, she was out for 16 months prior to last year (with an injury). She looks more comfortable now than ever before. I also think Afure will go from role player to serious piece of the puzzle.”

Cal will see some tough competition in preseason, as they take on Old Dominion, Duke, Northwestern, Kansas and George Washington University. Gottlieb said the Bears have to stay focused.

“We are excited for the opportunities this year, but at the same time I appreciate how tenuous it is to build a successful season,” she said. “We need to stay healthy, we need to keep getting better, we need to play like there’s something out there that we want but we don’t have yet. If those things come together, it could be special.”