Pac-12 preview: the University of California

This is the third in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams for the upcoming season.

This is Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s fourth season at the helm of the program, which has been punctuated so far by the Bears’ trip to the 2013 Final Four. But this year may be the most challenging yet for the East coast native and her team, as personnel have become fewer and younger.

Gone is Afure Jemerigbe (12.1 points per game), Gennifer Brandon (8.2 points, 8.5 rebounds per game), Hind Ben Abdelkader (4.9 points per game) and Mikayla Lyles (4.2 points per game), leaving ten players on this season’s roster.

That slate includes four seniors, three sophomores and three freshmen – a youthful team not unlike the one Gottlieb inherited her first year in Berkeley. These Bears are all hers, however, having played for her their entire careers, or transferring to play for her.

A light roster means no one can take a night off. The young group will also have to learn fast.

Gottlieb was the Pac-12 coach of the year in 2013, and has lead Cal to a tie with Stanford for the conference title each of the last two seasons. She is a master of utilizing the resources she has, and her plan for this year looks to be much the same.

“I think championship teams are built less by stockpiling as many players as you can, and more by putting the right pieces together and then working to make sure they fit in a cohesive way,” Gottlieb said. “You have to work at chemistry, you have to build trust, and you have to drill what cohesion looks and feels like on the court.”

The good news for the Bears is that top scoring senior duo Reshanda Gray (16.8 points, 8.8 rebounds per game) and Brittany Boyd (14.7 points, 6 assists per game) return. Both broke the 1,000-point mark last season and both were named to the all-Pac-12 team. The chemistry between them has become better each year, and both have matured into team leaders.

Justine Hartman and Brittany Shine both return for their last year, as well. Hartman switched her initial verbal and Shine transferred to Cal to play for Gottlieb and her staff, which includes associate head coach Charmin Smith and Kai Felton, who are well-regarded by players.

Another bright spot is sophomore forward Courtney Range (5.6 points, 6.2 rebounds per game), who turned heads last season and was an honorable mention on both the Pac-12 team and freshman team.

The newcomers may hold the key to the future for Cal. Two are from their own backyard, and come with chemistry already built between them.

Mikayla Cowling is a forward/guard from Saint Mary’s College High School, who was ranked eleventh in her class. Guard Gabby Green, ranked twelfth, played with Cowling at the same school. The third freshman, Penina Davidson, comes from New Zealand, where she played on that country’s national team.

Gottlieb said she likes the look of her squad, which consists of all California natives, except for Davidson.

“I love our mix of players: we have seniors that understand leadership and toughness, sophomores that have taken the next step in their skill and preparedness, and freshman that have the luxury to just come in and make plays will a solid foundation of veterans lifting them up,” Gottlieb said.

The growth of the conference doesn’t leave much time for a learning curve, however.

“The Pac-12 is as dynamic and talented as it has ever been in my tenure on the West Coast,” Gottlieb said. “There is talent and good coaching all across the board. It will certainly be a challenge to finish at the top, but that’s what the goal is for Cal Basketball.”

The Bears host their own tournament on Thanksgiving weekend. They also play Kansas, Louisville and Old Dominion before beginning conference play Jan. 3, against Utah at home.