The past few months have been heady days of optimism for the Golden Bear women's basketball program. First, the incoming freshman class lived up to the hype by helping their East Bay team win the Bay Area ProAm championship. Then there was the excitement of the recruiting wars, which despite a few near-misses, seemed to validate new head coach Joanne Boyle's rebuilding efforts.
Then, as the leaves started to fall on the Cal campus, the 2005-2006 Golden Bears were hit with a couple of doses of reality.
First, despite the infusion of talent, the Bears were still picked by both the Pac-10 coaches and the media to finish no higher than eighth.
And, just as the season was about to start, the Bears learned that they would be without the services (for the season) of conference All-Freshman center Jessica Lawson; Lawson had been expected to help anchor Cal's inside game. Lawson is not the only player the Bears will miss; they lost two-thirds of their team (10 of 15 players) from last season.
|Leigh Gregory||11.2||4.1||11th in points scored (1,136) in Cal history|
|Kristin Iwanaga||10.3||3.6||Led the nation in FT% (93.4), and the Pac-10 in three-point % (53.4)|
|Kiki Williams||8.4||3.1||Pac-10 All-Academic First Team|
|Khadijah Coakley||3.5||3.1||Voted team's Most Improved Player|
|Jacqueline Sanchez||1.9||1.4||Two-time All Academic Team (Honorable Mention)|
|Jessica Lawson||10.6||5||Lost for season with ACL injury|
|Seda Erdogan||1.8||0.8||Lost eligibility|
|Aminata Soumare||--||--||Injuries ended Cal career before it really began|
|Kelly O'Connell||--||--||Redshirt Freshman, out for the second year|
Taken together, the Bears lost 69 % of their scoring and 70% of their rebounding from last year.
Looking to step up and fill the void will be five returning players.
|5-11 F Renee Wright||7.5||4.1||Tied for 2nd on team with 118 boards last year|
|5-7 G Sarah Pool||4.1||2.4||4th in Pac-10 with 4.17 assists/game|
|6-0 F Krista Foster||4.5||1.9||Scored career high of 13 vs. USC|
|5-10 G Keanna Levy||1.5||1.1||Made all 6 free throws and missed all 6 treys attempted last year|
|6-2 F/C Emmelie Geraedts||2.8||1.1||Doubled scoring and rebounding averages from previous year|
Renee Wright played in all 29 games last season, starting the first eight. As the only senior on this year's squad, Wright will be counted on to provide leadership to the young players. She got an early start in this task by leading the young Bears in the Bay Area ProAm summer league. Due to the team's short bench, Wright has played a lot of minutes early this season and has responded with tremendous performances, especially on the boards.
Look for Wright to add variety to her game by driving to the basket more this season. Wright will also be expected to continue her strong rebounding and to improve her assists total (37 last season).
Also in her fourth year in the Bear program, Sarah Pool is a redshirt junior. She returned from back surgery last year and proved to be a consistent performer. She started all 29 games at point guard and led the team in steals with 36. Pool noticeably seems to be in better shape this year and is looking to lead the Bears in a more fast-paced transition game. She will alternate ball-handling duties with frosh Alexis Gray-Lawson. Pool will look to be a reliable spot-up shooter from long distance.
Sophomore Krista Foster is the lone returning player from last season's class of six newcomers. Foster became an immediate fan favorite last year due to her intensity and effort, and she was named the team's Defensive Player of the Year. She is a captain this year (along with Wright and Pool). Look for Foster's rebounding numbers to increase this year as she will play more in the paint where she will be able to use her strength to box out taller players. She has also improved her range and will showcase a more consistent mid-range baseline jumper. Foster will need to improve on her 1:3 (16 to 48) assists to turnovers ratio.
Juniors Keanna Levy and Emmelie Geraedts will be adding depth to the Bears line-up. Full of potential, both players also have some weaknesses that have limited their playing time. While Geraedts is fundamentally sound, which might be sufficient on such a young team, she has simply not been strong enough to match up physically with most post players.
In the first two games, matched-up against some similar-sized posts, Geraedts did not make much of an impression; she failed to finish on a couple of lay-ups and looked tentative. Levy, on the other hand, seemed to play within herself during the exhibition against Bay Area ProAm. While she turned the ball over on consecutive possessions, Levy also led the team with 7 assists. While it's unclear as this is written how much she has improved her shooting and ball handling this year, Levy did seem more confident taking the ball to the basket.
|5-8 G Alexis Gray-Lawson||McDonald's All-American|
|6-3 F/C Devanei Hampton||McDonald's All-American|
|5-9 G Jene Morris||San Francisco Chronicle Regional Player of the Year|
|6-0 F Shantrell Sneed||First team All-ANG Newspapers honors|
|6-0 F Ashley Walker||Three time Modesto Bee Player of the Year|
Alexis Gray-Lawson, the All-America guard from Oakland Tech, opened some eyes in the season-opening exhibition game. Her line: 25 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists in 38 minutes. Gray-Lawson showed that she was able to direct the team from the point when Pool was saddled with fouls. She also shot 56% (9 of 16, including 3 of 5 threes) from the field.
Perhaps her only negatives were her five turnovers and struggling from the charity stripe (4 of 8). She followed that up with another strong game against Eastern Washington. Perhaps the best indicator of Gray-Lawson's potential is her ability to adjust during the game – she often manages a breakout second half after struggling in the opening stanza.
Matching Gray-Lawson's offensive production in the first couple of games was Ashley Walker, who showcased her all-around game against Bay Area ProAm. Walker pulled down 18 boards in 30 minutes, demonstrating an amazing knack in beating other players to the ball.
She also led the team with 3 steals and threw in a blocked shot for good measure. Against Eastern Washington, Walker got into foul trouble and played fewer minutes, but she made her time count, taking over the offense for a couple of stretches. Although she is undersized at only 6 foot, Walker will be fine in the post because of her leaping ability and quickness. In addition, Walker benefited from Hampton's suspension by earning the coaching staff's confidence with her extended minutes. Although she is capable of starting, look for Walker to provide a spark as the first post player off the bench.
Providing depth at forward will be Shantrell Sneed. Another 6 footer who loves to rebound, Sneed will play some on the perimeter where she will be a physical presence. Sneed has been a revelation her first few games with her toughness and activity. She is a good rebounder and never seems lost or confused on defense. However, Sneed's minutes might depend on the health of her shoulders as she is coming off her second injury in two years. With Hampton's return, Sneed will probably play more at the 3 where she will back up Renee Wright.
Also coming off an injury is Jene Morris who hopes to be fully recovered from her hand injury by the start of the season. Morris is athletic and long and can change the momentum of any game with her defensive quickness; given playing time, she will get her share of steals. However, Morris will need to gain some strength if she hopes to stay with the likes of UCLA's Lisa Willis or Stanford's Candice Wiggins. Morris has three-point range, but she will have to prove herself a consistent shooter at this level.
Finally, we have perhaps the most talented player Cal has seen in a decade: McDonald's All-American Devanei Hampton. Many believe that Hampton is the front-runner for this year's Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. She can play down low where her combination of quickness and size will create many match-up problems for opponents. At 6'3 with long arms, Hampton can be a monster on the boards (as long as she doesn't bring the ball down, where little guard hands will snatch it away!). She can play at the high post where she is a good passer. Hampton also has no problem shooting the three or pushing the ball up court on a fast break - not that Cal would want to count on her breaking the press.
Especially with Jessica Lawson gone, Hampton will now undoubtedly be Cal's center of attention. She will probably see double teams early and often and will need to show she can pass to the open shooter. Perhaps the only person who can prevent Hampton from playing heavy minutes is herself (as in fouls or, um, a suspension).
Those are the individual pieces, but how will the Bears be as a team this season?
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
With such a huge turnover in personnel, including a new coaching staff, it is difficult to predict the Bears' performance as a team.
On paper, they are certainly more talented with the new players who bring many different dimensions to the team. First and foremost, the Bears have upgraded in quickness and athleticism at almost every position. On defense, this translates to fewer times of being beat off the dribble and perhaps more steals and blocks. On offense, expect to see more tipped balls leading to offensive boards and put-backs.
Cal should also be much tougher physically than in recent years. Even without Lawson, the Bears will be much more difficult to push around. Walker, Hampton, Sneed, and Foster should be able to hold their own against many teams inside, and Wright and Gray-Lawson are also strong at their respective positions.
Along with this strength comes improved rebounding. Expect to see the whole team crash the boards; the Bears will not give up as many second chance points this season.
Another change this year will be the presence of the mid-range game. Gray-Lawson has shown that she can hit a pull-up jump shot, still not yet a common sight in the women's game. Walker has shown a willingness to hit the elbow jumper, and Hampton will also take her game and her defender away from the paint as well.
Finally, another improvement will be Gray-Lawson's ability to dribble penetrate, which provides open shots for her teammates. This was never a reliable option last year. But Gray-Lawson will have to find the balance between looking for her own shot and passing the rock. Also, look for the Bears to score in transition, as they also have better speed this year.
However, they may not be able to run all that much if they continue to have a short bench, as has been the case in the early going. This is especially problematic with a team full of freshmen who tend to get into foul trouble while learning the speed of the college game.
Another possible weakness is the lack of outside shooting. Whereas last year's team set records for their shooting, this year's squad has no proven three-point threat. While Pool, Gray-Lawson, Wright, Morris, and even Hampton all can shoot it from downtown, none can be considered a pure shooter.
And of course, there are worries about the team's youth. With so many new faces, will Boyle have to simplify her systems and schemes? How will the young players adjust to juggling Boyle's intense practices and a full course-load? Will they hit the Freshman Wall halfway through the season?
The Bears have a favorable non-conference schedule that includes an early start and possible additional games due to the WNIT, which can only help a young team working with a new system. While there are few tough match ups, notably defending national champ Baylor in the Caribbean Classic, most games are in the "winnable" category.
If the Bears can get out to a good start (say, 8-3) and carry some confidence into the Pac-10 slate, they might surprise a few people.
Realistically, the Pac-10 has improved since last year, and the Bears will be hard pressed to better last season's eighth-place finish. On the other hand, if the freshmen adjust quickly to the college game, and if the Bears steal a game or two on the road, Cal could be fighting for 6th place, a winning record, and a berth in the post-season.
Let's split the difference and predict a seventh-place conference finish for this young and talented team.
10 other PREDICTIONS and WILD GUESSES:
1. Bears will out-rebound their opponents this year.
2. Ashley Walker will lead the team in blocked shots.
3. The Bears will have 2 players with 100 assists or 3 players with 50 assists.
4. The Bears will commit more turnovers than last year (614).
5. 5 Bears will average more than 8 ppg.
6. The Bears will hold opponents to less than 43% shooting.
7. Pool will improve her shooting percentage.
8. Boyle will receive a technical this year.
9. Cal will have at least 2 players on the All-Freshmen team.
10. Cal will have a winning record.
©Copyright 2005, BearInsider.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.
If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this active online Cal community and get access to the members-only content from the nation-wide Scout.com network.
Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.