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Pac-12 Women's Basketball Preview: Can Cal Meet Expectations This Season?

SB Nation blog California Golden Blogs contributor norcalnick picked his Golden Bears to finish third in the Pac-12 in his Pac-12 women's basketball preview and wondered if he might've been a homer for picking Cal third.

Maybe, but there's a lot of reason to have high expectations for Cal in the Pac-12 standings, perhaps even higher than last season.

Part of that is because of what might be obvious: both Arizona State and UCLA suffered major losses of different kinds in the offseason leaving room for someone to move up into the top of the standings this year. But also because Cal might have filled a major hole this year: ball handling.

Entering last season, one of the big questions for Cal with Alexis Gray-Lawson departed and Avigiel Cohen injured was how Cal would fill what appeared to be a void in the area of ball handling. Both Layshia Clarendon and Eliza Pierre were expected to shoulder that burden and with the experience of WNIT championship behind them, the young team had justifiably high hopes. 

Unfortunately, ball handling ended up being a persistent problem for Cal and hurt their ability to score in the halfcourt and get the ball inside to their talented post players. So even with the significant loss of post DeNesha Stallworth, Cal is getting reinforcements in a key area of need.

As Nick covered in Part Three of his Cal season preview, there are still lingering questions about the team's point guard situation: Cohen is unproven, freshman Brittany Boyd is a freshman, Pierre's inconsistent perimeter shooting has been a problem, and it's not really even clear who the starter will be by the end of the season. But one thing is for certain: Clarendon, who has always been better when focused on scoring and is good at getting herself to the rim, can perform a more natural function more often while first year coach Lindsay Gottlieb looks to others to run the offense.

How all that will work out is anyone's guess. There are reasons to have high hopes for Boyd and Cohen, but it's just hard to know how all the pieces will fit together in the backcourt. Gottlieb is certainly not lacking for talent in her first year at Cal, but the challenge might be figuring out how to bring it all together to strengthen that area of weakness.

Preseason predictions:

Nick's preseason predictions were identical to the Pac-12 coaches' poll for what it's worth those results were as follows (old as they may be now):

1. Stanford (11) 121
2. USC (1) 111
3. California 98
4. UCLA 83
5. Arizona State 68
6. Utah 61
7. Washington State 59
8. Oregon 51
9. Arizona 48
10. Washington 38
11. Colorado 36
12. Oregon State 18

I'm going to "cheat" and do Pac-12 conference play preview after we have some stats to work with, but here are some thoughts on both the preseason poll and Nick's comment.

  • Last year, I said that four or five Pac-12 teams could make the NCAA tournament...and I knew that was stretching it a bit. When you consider all the losses that UCLA and ASU took, the fact that they were still picked fourth and fifth in the conference doesn't speak too highly of the conference's strength this season.
  • USC has too much talent to miss the NCAA tournament again. As in, if this were a pro team, you'd talk about trading players and rebuilding if they don't make the field of 64. And of course, with the seniors and highly ranked recruiting class they have, that will essentially happen. Having Jacki Gemelos for a full season after already having performed relatively well last season will be huge for this team. In any event, I'd think three tournament teams is a reasonable (though not at all a given) expectation for the conference this season given all the coaching changes and injuries.
  • Top point guard in the conference this year will be Nia Jackson of the Oregon Ducks. She hasn't gotten the national spotlight, but Pac-10/12 fans are well aware of what she's capable of. An unfortunate injury curtailed a very good season last year and when you look at the pack after that top 5, Jackson could make a difference.  
  • Davellyn Whyte anyone? I like what I've seen and although Arizona suffered major losses in the post, Whyte's continued development as a playmaker will be fun to watch.
  • If Washington finishes above ninth in the conference, new coach Kevin McGuff will deserve ample credit for a job well done. With star scorer Kristi Kingma out for the season due to injury and starting point guard Sarah Morton having graduated, things are not looking all that sunny for the Huskies. So of all the returning players, that makes sophomore Mercedes Wetmore someone to watch. Wetmore will apparently be moving from point guard to off-guard this season and that's a good move - she showed flashes of having a scorer's mentality despite alternating between point and shooting guard in her freshman season. With Kingma out the Huskies will really need people to pick up the slack. Regina Rogers will also matter, but the same challenge from the past two seasons remains: how often will she play and how often will they get her the ball?

For far more on Cal, do check out CGB's four-part season preview (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).