The California Golden Bears beat the Stanford Cardinal for the first time in a few years on Sunday and now find themselves ranked one spot below the perennial Pac-12 juggernaut at #7 in the AP and USA Today/Coaches polls nationally. But what exactly did we learn about Cal from that victory that might serve them going forward as they make their case for entry into the nation's elite?
Tonight the California Golden Bears will host USC (6 p.m. PST on the Pac-12 Network) in a game that could move them closer to first place in the conference by knocking off the undefeated Women of Troy.
It's probably fair to say that coming off a win against the Stanford Cardinal and being ranked #7 nationally, Cal has to be the heavy favorite for this game and without a question a top contender for the conference championship after their win at Maples Pavilion. But did we actually learn anything new about Cal from their performance against Stanford in the Battle of the Bay?
A few lingering thoughts from that pair of games.
The Good: Cal might be better when they limit turnovers than dominating post scoring
One of the things that sort of leaps out statistically about Cal's win at Maples is that they only committed six turnovers, none of which came from starting point guard Brittany Boyd.
It's an obvious point that limiting turnovers is a good thing, but what's particularly interesting about that game is that they won despite losing the battle of points in the paint, which has been an overwhelmingly dominant strength against some of the other opponents they've played. Moreover, it helped them overcome a sub-30% shooting performance from the field.
It's probably fair to say that most people assumed that Cal would have to win the battle of the boards and, by extension, the points in the paint to beat Stanford. That they didn't is a testament to just how balanced this team is, something that was quite clearly evident in non-conference play.
Key question: Have we even seen the best of Cal yet? And what would that look like?
Among the most interesting things about Cal thus far this season, and alluded to in the point above, is that there hasn't actually been a clear formula for success for them and their win at Maples further disrupted any notion that finding one would be easy.
Yes, rebounding is a dominant strength and they've dominated points in the paint but the big question entering this home-and-home with Stanford is what they would do if an opponent mitigated that post scoring advantage and forced them to shoot from outside. The answer: they clamped down defensively, pressured Stanford's guards, contained Chiney Ogwumike enough to force other players to step up, and won anyway.
So here's the question: have we really even seen a game when everything is clicking? When Boyd is an efficient distributor and productive, if not exactly efficient, scorer, Clarendon is scoring 20+, the defense is locked in, and they dominate the boards all at once? The possibility of that coming together at once is frightening and the reality is that they haven't needed it to this point because one phase of the game has always helped them win. But is it possible that their peak is truly dominating every aspect of the game? It's an upside that will certainly be fascinating to watch for if nothing else.
The bad: Their mediocre shooting can be held against them as a major weakness
Year after year, Stanford makes Cal pay for putting suspect shooters around the perimeter in a way that nobody else does: they simply don't guard them. And while senior Eliza Pierre has been the obvious target, Stanford clearly was willing to risk sophomore Brittany Boyd or junior Afure Jemerigbe taking shots out there as well if it meant shutting down Cal's post offense (which they did to remarkable effect in both games).
Not that every team can execute the defensive game plan that Stanford did, but at some point some other opponent is going to have to take the gamble of giving up perimeter shots and hoping for an off day in exchange for containing Cal's posts, even if they're hitting the boards hard (and make no mistake: they dominated the offensive rebounding battle against Stanford, ironically in the first game moreso than the second).
The Pac-12 can no longer be derided as a league of cupcakes and it's not unreasonable to assume that another deeper team with quick defenders (e.g. Colorado or UCLA) could trip Cal up in conference play by implementing a similar strategy.