As the California Golden Bears and Miami Hurricanes tried to prepare for their 2010 WNIT Finals meeting on the same flight to Berkeley, it also might have felt as though both were preparing for an even brighter future in 2011.
Although both teams would lose a couple of key seniors, both were also relatively young with Miami relying heavily on their eight underclassmen while Cal relied on six talented freshmen as the supporting cast for WNBA draft pick Alexis Gray-Lawson. Both have relatively young promising coaches who are helping to build some momentum for their respective programs.
So regardless of the outcome of their 2010 WNIT meeting, it would have been perfectly reasonable to assume that neither would find themselves in the 2011 WNIT. And after Cal's 73-61 win over Miami for the WNIT title, a victorious Talia Caldwell said that she "really can't wait for next season while Miami's Riquna Williams called game a "learning experience".
Both figured to be heading upward.
"You can't write a better script to finish your season," said Cal coach Joanne Boyle back in October during Cal's media day. "If we're in the NCAA tournament are we one and done? I mean, everyone wants to go to the NCAA tournament, but to have that extra month and the games; and we played road games in those big atmospheres, you know, Illinois State, 8,000 people.
"So you couldn't have written a better script for bringing that group back the following year. And they said themselves, ‘If we're going to be in the NIT then we better sure as heck win it.' They changed their mindset, which helps us for this year - they totally changed their mindset. I think they were upset that that's where they started but that end result gave us that kind of gratification and hope and confidence coming into this year."
Just as Boyle saw the extra experience from their WNIT run as beneficial - both the games themselves and the extra month of practice time they afforded to help players learn the system - Miami coach Katie Meier similarly thought something had been "unleashed" in her own team during their surprising tournament run after finishing conference play in the ACC's cellar.
After the WNIT was settled, it figured that both teams would be near the top of their respective conferences and punching a ticket to some region of the NCAA tournament in March 2011.
And indeed those were exactly the expectations Boyle had for her team entering this season.
"Now we're a year older and more experienced to be able to take on teams like [Rutgers] and finish stronger," said Boyle, before beating Rutgers - now a tournament team - in Berkeley. "The goal of our team is to get to the NCAA tournament. I don't think we're ready to start determining where in that mix. But still with such a young team, trying to figure out who we are and our identity and what level of competition we can compete at.
"Can we take care of business at home? Or are we going to struggle a little bit on the road? Or does just that year of freshmen playing through March make them more junior- or senior-like? And that's kind of where these first 10 games are going to tell us about where we're going to be in Pac-10."
With the exception of a road loss to New Mexico - which, if taken optimistically as a sign of improvement, does not look nearly as bad as last season's home loss to San Jose State - they got through their first 10 games relatively fine at 7-3. Even with tomorrow's opponent, Stanford, looming as their opponent to open conference play, the Golden Bears looked poised to make some noise in Pac-10 play.
And then it all unraveled.
February turned into a nightmare in which all of Boyle's pre-season questions were answered opposite the way she might have wanted.
You can take your pick of rock-bottom February low points - either the Washington schools came to Haas Pavilion to complete their first joint sweep of Cal in this millennium after embarrassing the Golden Bears in January in Washington or a six-game losing streak, which sent their tournament hopes from life support to flat line.
If we assume another loss to Stanford tomorrow, the bottom line for Cal this season is that they'll finish 15-14 overall and a far more disappointing 7-11 in conference play, which leaves their only hope for realizing their NCAA tournament dream as winning the Pac-10 tournament.
Meanwhile, Miami has already realized the tournament potential that was unleashed during their WNIT run: they'll finish the season at an impressive 26-3 overall, technically tied with Duke at 12-2 for first place in a more highly regarded ACC, and a top 10 RPI.
So how exactly have these two teams with such high hopes to end last season gone in such opposite directions?
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Photo of Eliza Pierre throwing the ball into the air after Cal won the WNIT (via California Golden Blogs).
To be clear, the similarities between these two programs when they met in the WNIT were actually only surface-level.
And just yesterday, James illuminated the primary difference in a piece about how important one dominant player - particularly Miami junior guard Riquna Williams - can be to a team.
Georgia Tech loses to Miami, loses ACC tournament bye: How important is one player to one team? - Swish Appeal
As time is about to expire on the shot clock Williams lets go with an arcing shot over the Tech defense. It goes in for Williams's second consecutive 3-pointer. The Hurricanes now lead by 10 points, 52-42, and it seems that from that moment on Miami is keeping Georgia Tech at arm's length.
"I don't think that there's a guard in the country that can rise up and shoot over people the way she does," Joseph said. "It's phenomenal to watch. And she's fearless. That's the thing that makes her a great scorer."
Yes, both teams were young when Cal's posts bullied Miami in the 2010 WNIT Final, but the Hurricanes had three sophomores, two of which were their leading scorers (combining for an eye-popping 38.6 of their team's 74.8 points per game). In contrast, Cal lost their leading scorer and dominant force in Alexis Gray-Lawson and didn't really have the same kind of ready-made option to replace that.
"In the last couple of years I think we've been dominated by one or two or three people with points," said Boyle back in October. "Ash and Dev and then it was Lexi. And I think we have a little bit more balance this year, but I still would expect a few of them...to take up more of a scoring role for us."
There's no pretense of balance at Miami
So for all the talk in Pac-10 country about how outstanding this balanced and "tournament tested", yet sophomore-led, Cal team was going to be, Miami went from tied-for-worst to tied-for-first in the ACC on the strength of two upperclassmen supported by sophomore starter Morgan Stroman. With Stroman's 13.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game this season, this trio of holdovers has accounted for 54.7 of Miami's 80.1 points per game and 72.6% of the team's overall statistical production this season.
Although Williams deservedly got the majority of the praise at Georgia Tech for her scoring performance, it's fellow junior Shenise Johnson who could be considered the team's MVP. With team-highs in three point percentage at 34% and free throw percentage at 86.6%, Johnson is actually the team's most efficient scorer with a true shooting percentage of 60.23% despite not having the team's highest field goal percentage. Toss in 3.2 steals per game - second on the team behind Stroman's 3.3 and just ahead of Williams' 3.0 - and Johnson has been as outstanding, if not moreso, as Williams.
But that MVP debate is probably academic anyway as this team looks forward to the ACC tournament: what does matter is that both Johnson and Williams were named to the 2011 All-ACC First Team while Stroman was selected to the third team.
Ultimately, Miami has been good this season because three players were ready to carry the team whereas Cal entered this team searching for how to replace Gray-Lawson, both in terms of scoring and leadership.
"Eliza, Layshia, and D have to take on more," said Boyle. "Whether it's Eliza taking on more on the defensive end more, although she's playing much better offensively this year - I think she's a little bit calmer. But Layshia's gotta be a scorer - we gotta pick up Lexi's points somewhere - DeNesha's gotta be more of a scorer for us."
So going back to October is not an effort to ridicule Boyle while her team is down - to the contrary, it's to say that Boyle pinpointed exactly what this team needed from the very beginning and didn't get it from the players.
Norcalnick of SBN's California Golden Blogs has already done a good job of identifying three primary problems for Cal: struggling with the half court offense, lack of a true point guard, and lack of depth. Nevertheless, in light of his question about how much blame the coaching staff deserves, what I found interesting when going back to the media day audio is that Boyle not only clearly identified those three things in the pre-season, but also attached them to specific players.
This is not at all a blame game, but this team needed a few pretty specific things, the coaching staff requested them, and the team really didn't deliver any of them.
Inefficient scoring in the halfcourt: "Pierre's gotta have more of a scoring mentality"
Norcalnick summarizes the crux of Cal's problem quite well in his piece.
Women's Week In Review: What's Wrong With The Bears? - California Golden Blogs
But as soon as they have to beat a defense with all five players set? Everything seems to fall apart. Stallworth and Talia Caldwell have to work tirelessly just for the smallest window for an entry pass, and guards miss that window half the time. Penetration is rare and often comes with no plan. Players attack the baseline and get trapped with no one to pass to. Our three point shooters aren’t consistent enough to force teams to respect it as a threat.
If half-court offense was a problem all season, things really fell apart during conference play. A brief look at their effective field goal percentages (a stat also described previously by James) in conference and non-conference play illustrates that well.
|Team||Non-conference eFg%*||Conference eFg%||Overall eFg%|
Effective field goal percentage for Cal vs. their opponents in non-conference* and conference play.
Statistically, Cal's differentials versus their opponents remained relatively consistent in almost every category except their shooting efficiency in conference play. Sure, the fact that they got less offensive rebounds might have influenced their second chance scoring opportunities, but overall the fact that their shooting percentage dropped and their opponents' increased by almost double that amount explains the difference.
And while Layshia Clarendon was hot from beyond the arc in non-conference play (46.15%) and considerably less so in conference play (28.26%), backcourt mate Eliza Pierre has just been less so 11.5%.
Of course, Pierre's defense is still what makes her one of the best players in the conference to watch. She has become an even better defender this season, among the nation's leaders in steals. It's 40 minutes of in-your-face intensity, blanketing whomever she's guarding wherever she's guarding them and imposing a state of panic that matches her frenzied defense.
Or you could just say she just annoys her opponents.
"She's a tough defender," said Washington Huskies point guard Sarah Morton with a sigh after beating Cal in Seattle. "I think she's one of the best defenders in the Pac-10, actually. She's crazy. She can get hands on everything. And she's kind of tricky about it because she looks small, but she's super athletic. So she's kind of deceptive in that way."
The problem is that her athleticism has yet to translate into strong offense and the result is a pretty familiar sight from last season - teams will sag off Pierre and dare her to shoot.
"I think they're still going to do it and challenge her," said Boyle in October when asked about Pierre's shooting. "Until she proves ‘em differently...In practice she's willing to take [threes] her mid-range is much better. Her personality is defense - her mentality is defense. So she's very unselfish offensively to a fault because that wasn't her strength in high school and she knows that that was a key thing for her this summer to improve on: to just kind of give us more balance on the floor, people to respect her outside game, for DeNesha to not have double teams and things like that. So I'm not going to say she's from A to Z, but she's much better than she was last year and she realizes that she's gotta have more of a scorer's mentality."
Just as Boyle said, Pierre has been a much improved shooter overall, improving from 29.9% last season to 38.6% this season. But that teams are still willing to sag off of her when she's beyond the arc still really hurts a team that is already ranked 8th in the conference in three point shooting.
No true point guard: Clarendon didn't emerge as the clear point solution
Photo of Layshia Clarendon at Washington via Kailas Images.
In addition to their shooting struggles in conference play, Cal struggled to find a ball handler.
As Norcalnick described, Gray-Lawson was the answer last season as a bail-out option. Absent their senior star, Cal needed a combo guard to step up and actually run the offense smoothly. With Avigiel Cohen out for the season, Boyle was counting on Clarendon.
"I'm always going to demand them to raise the bar on themselves," said Boyle. "I think Layshia has to - and we've talked about this - she's gotta be our point guard. We didn't expect Avigiel to be in this situation so between her and Eliza that's going to be a shared role. It's probably going to fall more early on Layshia and she's going to be willing to accept that. And that means leadership and running her team and all that kind of stuff."
Unfortunately, while Clarendon had produced an assist a bit more often than she turned the ball over in non-conference play, she fell to about even in conference play with an assist ratio of 16.54% and a turnover ratio of 16.86% for a pure point rating of -3.39. While Pierre has led the team in conference play with an assist ratio of 22.11% - much closer to the rate of an average point guard - nobody on the team has been even remotely efficient as a ball handler.
Lack of depth: Rebounding still solid, but poor shooting and distributing hurt post scoring
So if they're not passing or shooting the ball well, it would stand to reason that post play would suffer. And that's exactly what happened, particularly with Talia Caldwell.
Boyle expected Stallworth to step up in the post and to some extent she has, currently 10th in the conference in scoring with 13.1 points per game.
"D has to be the one that's going to coordinate the posts," said Boyle. "And she's gotta get her post group together and demand it. And I think they all bring great things to the table but she's gotta lead it."
However, both Caldwell and Stallworth have struggled with shooting in conference play: Caldwell's field goal percentage has fallen from a team-high 57.14% in non-conference play to 43.44% in conference play while Stallworth has fallen from 55.15% to a team-high 46.01%. When those post players are two of the team's top three scorers - with Clarendon sandwiched between the two as her three point shooting has dropped - the whole team is in trouble.
Where depth comes into play is in what norcalnick described upfront: these post players are working tirelessly inside, not getting good looks at the basket, ultimately getting worn down, and becoming less and less effective overall.
Could Cal have a turnaround like Miami's with one more year under their belt?
We often believe that balance matters in basketball, but perhaps what a look at Cal and Miami demonstrates is that having that dominant player (or trio) who can turn it on, as James described in his piece about Miami, is more important for a young team.
A lot of young balance that perhaps has even more variance in performance than a more experienced balanced team is simply going to struggle. What Cal had last year in Alexis Gray-Lawson is a player to bail them out and that's what Miami has had for two seasons: players who are simply elite scorers.
But without that elite scorer, a lot of other things had to fall into place for Cal. The coaching staff knew that, many fans worried about it, and ultimately it didn't happen.
"At times they get it and at other times they have no idea," said Boyle in October. "Part of what has helped us is having the extra practices - it has bought us some time. But ultimately it's going to be games. Just with freshmen and sophomores, at some point you have to start playing."
However, a learning experience requires participation in a situation, but also a guide to help make that interaction in a situation "educative", meaning the learners are able to take something from it and apply it to future situations through either reflection, getting some sort of positive reinforcement about what's working, or making it clear just how far they have to go.
So, how much of this is about Cal's coaching staff?
On the one hand, the coaching staff seemed to have a clear idea of what needed to be accomplished this season and those things didn't happen. That would seem to be a personnel problem and, indeed, maybe it will work itself out with one more year under their belts. The problem has only been compounded by very key injuries. On the other hand, one could certainly argue that the very fact that there were clear objectives to be met and they weren't met is a coaching problem because it is their job to develop players. To the depth problem, some would argue that's just a sign of lacking recruiting foresight.
But haggling over that right now is probably pointless: Boyle has done enough to earn job security, or at least some slack, and how the team responds next year - assuming they're at full health - might be a stronger test of indication of how much blame she should actually shoulder.
The problem, however, is that this season might have just raised the stakes for next season as described by norcalnick: "Simply put, the Bears will be too talented for anything less than an NCAA tournament appearance to be considered a success. Arguably, sights could be set even higher."
*All of Cal's non-conference numbers are actually through the first ten games, which is when I grabbed their numbers. That would exclude their win at Illinois in which they outshot their hosts 39.3% to 37.7% from the field.