On April 10, former head coach Joanne Boyle — the winningest coach in program history — left the Cal women’s basketball team to accept a job at Virginia.
With the Bears’ coaching job vacant, all signs for a new coaching job pointed towards Lindsay Gottlieb, Boyle’s former assistant coach from 2005 to 2008, as the right person to run the program.
Not surprisingly, Gottlieb took the job. But even before the season tipped off, Gottlieb has completely changed the culture inside the locker room.
After an unspectacular 18-16 season last year, Gottlieb brings in enthusiasm and hope for a program that direly needs it. The newly kindled fire within the program is a welcome addition after the Boyle era, a time riddled with players leaving the program largely in part to their unhappiness with the team.
“You weren’t sure how much negative thoughts can tear a team apart in the past,” guard Layshia Clarendon said. “There’s just a positive energy about the entire year in the team.”
In addition to the newfound optimism in the locker room, the Bears have brought in a new class of freshmen to bolster the roster. With no seniors n the team, newcomers like point guard Brittany Boyd and forward Justine Hartman are expected to contribute immediately for the team.
In their exhibition game against Vanguard, the two freshmen showed glimpses of their talents. Boyd dazzled, showing composure and readiness to become the point guard that Cal sorely lacked in the past year. The Berkeley native will share the duties with Eliza Pierre to create shooting opportunities for guard Layshia Clarendon, who averaged 13.2 points per game last season.
Despite the talented freshmen, the Bears are centered around the junior class, namely Clarendon and center Talia Caldwell. After the sudden transfer of power forward DeNesha Stallworth days before Boyle’s departure, Caldwell is now the primary post player and is expected to become a force inside. Alongside Caldwell and Clarendon, there are plenty of supporting players to reinforce the two players.
“Layshia had the burden last year of handling the ball, having the offense run through her and shooting 18 shots per game,” Gottlieb said. “Brittany and Eliza (Pierre) have done a fantastic job handling the ball and pushing the tempo, taking off pressure for Layshia.”
Thankfully for Caldwell, the recent emergence of forward Gennifer Brandon — returning after a season-ending stress fracture last year — has taken some of Caldwell’s burdens inside the post. In Sunday’s loss against No. 17 Rutgers, Brandon was monstrous inside the paint, pulling a double-double with 12 points and 15 rebounds, providing even more depth inside and versatility with Caldwell and Hartman.
Although Cal is poised to rebound from its mediocre season last year, Gottlieb’s squad has a tough road ahead in its quest for a NCAA Tournament bid. Including Rutgers, the Bears have a fairly rough nonconference schedule, most notably against No. 24 Ohio State at Haas Pavilion on Dec. 17.
The Pac-12 is a top-heavy conference led by No. 5 Stanford, No. 22 UCLA and No. 23 USC. After reaching the Final Four the last four seasons, Stanford looks once again to a national title contender, spearheaded by the Ogwumike sisters, who have been terrorizing opposing centers and forwards for years.
But for Gottlieb, contending for the Pac-12 or earning one of the 64 spots in March Madness is a talk too premature to have right now.
“More than contending or finishing the season in a certain spot, we only talk about playing championship basketball,” Gottlieb said. “It’s just November. Hopefully we will be in the mix in February and March.”