Can Cal stop the best player in the country? My sources say no.
The Cal women's basketball team, which has a new head coach this season and is riding a six-game winning streak, invades Maples Pavilion tomorrow. The No. 4 Cardinal can move one step closer to yet another conference title with a 15th straight win. Thanks to NorCalNick of California Golden Blogs for answering a few questions about the Bears (and for the term "Ogwumikii"). If you missed C&R's interview with CGB, you can check it out here. And finally, here are my answers to CGB's questions.
What's the transition from Joanne Boyle to Lindsay Gottlieb been like? Any changes in playing styles or tendencies worth mentioning?
CGB: The transition has been very smooth, which isn't a huge surprise. Lindsay Gottlieb was very much a known quantity with her recent time at Cal. Also, she's a player's coach, and won almost immediate support from her players. The main stylistic difference is that Cal has played a more up-pace style of play. The Bears aren't running like Paul Westhead's Ducks, but they are the 2nd fastest team in the conference. It's a change that I appreciate, because it's fun to watch and because it fits Cal's strengths. Gennifer Brandon and Reshanda Gray are both fast, athletic post players, and Brittany Boyd is a joy to watch in the open court - these are players born to run and it's been an effective style of play for them.
The Bears had a lot of success shutting down Washington's Regina Roberts by double and triple teaming her. Do you think Gottlieb will employ a similar strategy against Nneka Ogwumike?
CGB: I'm torn. On the one hand, Nneka is the single best player in the nation, which means a single defender would be incredibly hard-pressed to even slow her down. But on the other hand, Stanford is hardly lacking in other scoring threats the way Washington was, and the veteran Ogwumike isn't going to be phased with double teams. I think the 'answer' is that Cal will have to be very careful with their double teams. Maybe the primary defender can shade Nneka towards a help defender. Maybe a wing can cheat a little inside. I think the best strategy is to do everything possible to prevent her from getting the ball deep in the post. But there's only so much you can do, and overreacting will put Cal out of position on defense and for rebounds.
You wrote about how Cal has overcome deficits and held off rallies to win close games during its six-game winning streak, the type of games the Bears lost last season and during the nonconference portion of this year's schedule. What's changed?
CGB: Depth and confidence, I think. Last year Cal played just 6 or 7 players deep, and key players were basically forced to play 35 or more minutes. The team was visibly tired both mentally and physically even midway through the conference season last year. I don't usually like attributing success or failure to 'chemistry,' but pretty much everybody on the team last year, from the coaches to the players, admitted that there was some kind of disconnect last year. For once Cal now has a rotation as deep as what Stanford has every year, at least in terms of the sheer number of players. And we have a new coach who seems to have healed the mental block the team had. At this point I think it's less about Cal having the mental toughness to win close games - it's more about these players living up to their own potential and playing well enough to beat the teams they should beat.
Between Reshanda Gray, Brittany Boyd, and Justine Hartman, the Bears have received major contributions from their freshman class. Which freshman has been the biggest key to the team's success, and have the freshmen as a unit exceeded your expectations this season?
CGB: Easily Brittany Boyd. Last year Cal simply didn't have a true point guard, and it's a big reason the offense frequently sputtered. Boyd is a gifted passer, and at this moment is 10th in the nation and 1st among freshman in assist %. I'd put her on the freshman all-american team if I had the chance. Beyond adding the true point guard element, it allowed Layshia Clarendon to shift over to off-guard, her natural position. It took some getting used to, but Clarendon has come on strong during Pac-12 play as everybody grew into their new roles. That isn't to diminish the contributions of Gray and Hartman, but since Cal already had two excellent returning post players, they don't' have the opportunity to play major minutes the way Boyd does.
What's your prediction for the game?
CGB: Cal's biggest strength is rebounding - a major source of offense for the Bears is 2nd (and 3rd, and 4th) chance points. But Stanford is also elite in that regard, so Cal is going to have to be more efficient in the half-court set than they are used to. I think the key for Cal will be perimeter defense, oddly. If Cal can harass Stanford's guards it will do two things. It will prevent Stanford's guards from providing the Ogwumikiis with easy baskets, and it will create transition opportunities for Cal. But if Stanford's guards play composed and get the ball inside, I have a hard time seeing Cal pull the upset. Cal does enough to add some serious intrigue to the rematch at Haas, but Nneka at home is too much: Stanford 77, Cal 68.