California Golden Bears (10-1)
The last time the Stanford Cardinal lost during Pac-12 conference play was against Cal at Haas Pavilion almost four years ago on January 18, 2009, despite a few scares here and there including an overtime game against Cal at Maples Pavilion last season.
After a program-best 10-1 start to the season, Cal is once again positioned to be the team that "upsets" Stanford in the Pac-12. Yet even a cursory look at the Golden Bears' performance during non-conference play suggests that beating the Cardinal would be less of an "upset" than the outcome of a hard competition between equals.
Four Factors statistics for Cal during non-conference play.
Efficiency statistics for Cal during non-conference play.
Narrative description: Cal excels by out-rebounding teams to get easy shots both in the paint and in transition. Defensively their numbers may not look dominant, but their quickness to create turnovers and keep opponents from getting second chance scoring opportunities makes them a well-rounded team that is tough to beat.
SOS: 57.23 (29th nationally)
Upset wins: N/A
Upset losses: N/A
MVP: Gennifer Brandon, F (6'2", Jr., 12.99 MVP)
To be clear, I'm not sure there is a single MVP for Cal - their strength is how the various players complement each other as a unit and surely there are a few ways you could go with MVP. To put that in perspective, this is the only team for which the statistical story was so close (Boyd and junior forward Genifer Brandon were within 0.7 MVP points of each other) that I almost just made a more subjective judgment call.
But the statistical story is a great excuse to talk about a player who does not get enough spotlight; Gennifer Brandon is had such an amazing performance in non-conference play that I had to do a double take when looking at her rates of production as opposed to her averages which are modest because she only plays 24.5 minutes per game.
It's impossible not to start with Brandon's rebounding, which was better than the raw numbers from non-conference play suggested: while her rebounding average of 10.9 per game placed her fourth among Pac-12 players entering conference play, her rebounding percentage (23.3%) had her as the best Pac-12 rebounder from the conference. And although Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike is the better offensive rebounder by percentage, Brandon is by far the best defensive rebounder at 31.54%. Offensive rebounding and the resulting points in the paint is often a topic of conversation after Cal's wins, but Brandon's defensive rebounding is a major part of why their differential is so huge: Brandon just doesn't leave many rebounds for opponents when she's on the floor.
And with all those second chance scoring opportunities she gets, plus a breakaway layup or two per game off of a steal, Brandon also - somewhat quietly - has the team's second-highest usage rate on the team at 27.66%. But it's not like she's a ball hog who just fires up shots indiscriminately: she's getting good shots, often due to her own work on the boards and ability to beat opposing posts down court. And the result is a very good true shooting percentage of 55.68% considering her high usage and a huge improvement over last season.
- If you've been following Pac-12 basketball over the last few years, the fact of them being a strong rebounding team is probably nothing new: they just do it every year and the transition from Joanne Boyle to Lindsay Gottlieb didn't affect that.
- Yet the biggest strength for Cal, and their most significant improvement, is their shooting efficiency. And it's not because they're suddenly a good shooting 3-point team - they're just getting better shots and while the improved efficiency of Brandon and fellow post Talia Caldwell (65.45% true shooting percentage, up about 12% from last season) is a large part of that, they've gotten improvement from all five of their starters. The post scoring efficiency really does stand out, but credit also has to given to the perimeter players for being much more patient and not settling for bad shots quite as often.
- Defensively, they force opponents into quite a few turnovers which helps to defeat the monotony of opponents slowing down games with zone defenses and getting Cal some transition scoring opportunities. Their disciplined pressure and quickness around the perimeter gives the coaching staff flexibility in what schemes they use to take away opponent strengths, which they've done well thus far.
- Perhaps this is a good way to characterize how talented Cal is: three players on their roster (Brandon, Boyd, and senior guard Layshia Clarendon) have been more productive than the top player on three other Pac-12 teams. Although the bulk of their statistical production comes from five players, one of those comes off the bench (sophomore forward Reshanda Gray) and they all share within five percent of the credit for victories. Going beyond that top five, junior wing Afure Jemerigbe and senior guard Eliza Pierre bring an unquantifiable defensive impact. Along with all of that, they're an extremely balanced scoring team that shares the ball well with most of their rotation picking their scoring opportunities as they come within the flow of the offense.
- As a unit, this team's biggest weakness is that they don't shoot threes well: 30.1% was eighth in the conference entering conference play. Compounding that, the majority of that 3-point production comes from Clarendon and Jemerigbe - the rest of the team shoots just 26%. That's why they see so much zone defense: teams would rather force them to bomb away from deep than deal with their post scorers.
- Boyd, though a much more efficient scorer than last season is still not a very efficient scorer, which is a limitation for someone who is such a volume shooter.
- Jemerigbe's decline in 3-point shooting from last season make both her and Pierre inefficient scorers on the perimeter, which makes it hard to play the two of them with Boyd.
X-Factor: Brittany Boyd, G (5'9", So., 12.24 MVP)
When talking about how might be the team's MVP, the intangibles that point guard Brittany Boyd brings can't be ignored.
First, her athleticism and ball handling ability has rendered pressing Cal pointless thus far for the average team: she's a one-woman press break and she's really the only one who can contain herself. Second, smaller and/or weaker point guards simply can't match up with her defensively making it hard for some teams to play man-to-man defense against Cal. Third, the poise that she has developed in just her sophomore year is a large part of what makes the team so effective against the zone: even if she isn't able to conjure up one of her most spectacular plays, her court vision and ability to recognize open players and get the ball to them in position to shoot is essential for a team that is going to see zone as teams trying to minimize the impact of their post players.
However, I highlighted the moment in which Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb took her out of the game against the George Washington Colonials to illustrate that she's not perfect: the coaches need to help her refocus on how to "handle the ebb and flow of the game" as Gottlieb put it. That's just part of the development of a young point guard, but it shows up statistically in her turnover rate of nearly 15%. She's still a relatively efficient Pac-12 ball handler due to the rate at which she creates plays for her teammates, but if she can improve her ball handling efficiency - particularly by not trying to do too much at times when she does get caught up in the flow of the game - the team could get even stronger.
Key question: How many teams in the Pac-12 will figure out how to exploit Cal's weaknesses?
Looking at the numbers above - especially when taking their non-conference strength of schedule into account - it certainly might not appear that Cal has many weaknesses. But their suspect 3-point shooting and a perimeter rotation with inefficient scorers are a couple of glaring weaknesses for a team that is so dominant inside.
The question is, which teams will actually exploit those weaknesses?
Colorado was able to do something most teams won't even try: they played them man-to-man and did an excellent job of both pressuring Cal's guards to limit the angles to make entry passes to the post and fronting the posts to force rather difficult, contested lob passes. The fact is that most teams in the conference simply don't have the personnel, on either the perimeter or interior, to pull that off effectively.
Of course, with the number of strong rebounding teams in the conference it's also conceivable that a team would beat Cal - or stay even with them - on the boards, thus negating a major advantage. But how many teams have the depth to do that for an entire 40 minutes?
None this is to say that Cal is invincible - if nothing else, their 77-63 loss at Duke proved that it's possible for an opponent to take away most of their strengths (if you haven't already, check out the analysis of that game from DWHoops.com, which essentially laid out a blueprint for beating Cal). Yet in Duke, we're talking a team that is probably a top 2-4 team depending on whose ratings you look at - there aren't many teams in the nation that will be able to approach Cal in the way Duke did.
And that might even include Stanford, which would mean Cal is knocking on the door of the nation's elite.