Pac-12 preview: California

This is the ninth in an annual season preview series of the Pac-12 teams.

After graduating program greats Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd in 2015, the Cal Bears knew they were in for a rebuilding season the following year. Coach Lindsay Gottlieb characterized it as a year of lessons.

“We started well and ended well, but were disappointing in the middle,” she said.

Cal went 15-17 overall and 4-14 in the Pac-12 for a tenth-place finish. They made it to the semifinals of the conference tournament, but lost to UCLA in overtime. They didn’t receive an NCAA Tournament bid.

The good news for the Bears this fall is that they return all but one player, and add three talented freshmen to the mix.

Pac-12 freshman of the year Kristine Anigwe (20.5, 9.3 rebounds per game) is back, and the bad news for opponents is that she’s even better.

“She’s our most-improved player,” Gottlieb said. “I’ve never had a kid who loved basketball so much and worked so hard.”

Senior guard Courtney Range (13.4 points, 9.3 rebounds per game), junior forward Mikayla Cowling (11.4 points, 4.5 rebounds per game) and sophomore guard Asha Thomas (8.3 points per game) round out the returning starters. Also back is junior forward Penina Davidson (5.7 points per game) and three reserve players.

Freshmen include forward Jaelyn Brown, the 54th best player in the nation in the 2016 class; Mi’Cole Cayton, who was ranked 78th overall and No. 17 among guards; and forward CJ West, the 15th-best post player. Gottlieb is excited about all three.

“Brown and Cayton are both tenacious defenders,” she said. “West is both physical and smart.”

The optimistic Gottlieb has seen many different scenarios in her five years as Bears coach. Last season was another where freshmen and sophomores dominated the roster. This year the team is more experienced and very familiar with each other.

“Our sophomores, juniors and seniors have been through a lot of battles and won’t rely on the freshmen as we’ve had to in the past,” she said. “The freshmen will get a chance to be freshmen.”

Gottlieb said Cal is excited going into the season.

“We’re hungry and competitive,” she said. “Our male practice players are making us better, too.”

The Bears will take on San Francisco, Nebraska and Oklahoma before beginning Pac-12 play Dec. 29 at Arizona.