Pac-12 preview: the University of California

This is the third of an annual series previewing the Pac-12 teams

Cal came up with quite a recipe for its basketball program.

They took one group of talented players, added a brand new head coach and an energetic assistant coaching staff, and got some amazing results in year two: a top ten team, a co-holder of the conference title and a trip to the Final Four. So what does coach Lindsay Gottlieb do for an encore in her third year? She acknowledges that things have changed in Berkeley.

“I’d be lying if I said that the bar hasn’t been raised around Haas Pavilion,” Gottlieb said of Cal’s home court. “It has, and that’s a good thing. I think Cal players now, and future Cal players forever, will aim for championships (and) for deep NCAA Tournament runs. Higher expectations means that we’ve established a championship culture.”

But the upbeat Gottlieb stays true to her “one day at a time” philosophy.

“That being said, the way you win championships is by getting better today, and tomorrow, and the day after that,” she said. “We focus on the process and little things, so that huge things become possible. So in terms of our goals, yes, we want to be Pac-12 champions again, but more will be said in our locker room about how we want to play, who we want to be, and the level we need to strive for each day in practice.”

The Bears have to begin by filling some big shoes – especially those of dynamic guard Layshia Clarendon (16.4 ppg), who lead the team to the Final Four before being drafted into the WNBA. Other major losses are center Talia Caldwell (9.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and guard Eliza Pierre (2.6 ppg, 3 rpg). The good news for Cal is that seven players return, and four freshmen and two transfers step in.

Junior point guard Brittany Boyd is poised to run the show, as she averaged 12.5 ppg last year and made the All-Pac 12 team. Senior forward Gennifer Brandon (12.3 ppg, 11.1 rpg) will likely handle most of the post duties, along with junior forward Reshanda Gray (8.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Senior guard Afure Jemerigbe (7.4 ppg, 3 rpg) also returns, as does senior guard Mikayla Lyles, junior forward Justine Hartman and senior guard Avigiel Cohen.

Cal’s freshman class was ranked 12th. They include Mercedes Jefflo, ranked 29th among guards for the class; forward Courtney Range, ranked 38th overall; KC Waters, a forward ranked 54th overall; and Hind Ben Abdelkadar, a guard from Belgium.

Two highly-regarded transfers will also suit up this season. Brittany Shine is a 5-foot-10 guard from the University of Florida, and Kyra Dunn is a 6-foot-3 forward from the University of Pittsburgh. Gottlieb is excited about the mixture of veterans and newcomers on the team.

“We had a magical year last season, one that no one will ever forget, but we don’t wish for a ‘do-over,'” Gottlieb said. “We are excited for where this Cal Basketball program is headed next. I can’t wait to see the new people step in and the veterans step up.”

“We have six dynamic new players in the program. They all bring something a little bit different in terms of skill set, but they will help to maintain and uplift the exciting and positive culture we have here. I think Cal fans will enjoy seeing them in blue and gold.”

Truth be told, the Bears have made many new fans, in addition to the old ones, since Gottlieb took the helm. Her resonance with young people and her ability to motivate them and help them believe in themselves has resulted in a hard-working squad that never gives up. Even fans of other teams found themselves rooting for Cal as they reached the stage in New Orleans last April.

What’s more, the Bears might be ready to wrest the long-held top spot in the Pac-12 from Stanford’s grasp, if their tie with them for the conference title last year is any indication. Even with six newcomers, it is not safe to bet against the “can-do” Bears.

Cal is not shying away from challenges in pre-conference play. They will face Duke, George Washington, Georgetown and Northwestern in November, and Connecticut in December. They begin conference play Jan. 3 at home.