In March, Lindsay Gottlieb became the first Cal coach to win a March Madness game in an inaugural campaign.
After a year full of first times, Gottlieb’s Bears are setting their sights on one more new record: the national title.
The Cal women’s basketball team enters the season ranked No. 13 in the AP preseason poll — the team’s highest preseason ranking since its No. 9 slot in 2008. That year, the Bears reached the Sweet 16 for the first and only time in school history.
In their first trip to the tournament since 2009, the Bears made it to the second round in a difficult matchup against the top-seeded Notre Dame team. The Bears fell, but there was still some success in the loss.
“(Our performance) got our name out there on a national level,” Gottlieb said in the press conference after the loss to Notre Dame. “It will help us be on (everyone’s) radar.”
A chief part in building upon that success will be the increased experience of the team. The Bears return four of their starters and 11 of their total players – all now with some playoff experience under their belts. The only player to have left the team was starter Lindsay Sherbert, who transferred to Gonzaga.
But according to Gottlieb, the returning depth shouldn’t be the reason the Bears get better this year.
“The constant message since last year is that we want to be better this year not simply because we didn’t graduate anyone,” Gottlieb said. “But because the players and the program are better than they were.”
Though Cal has only played one game, the signs are promising.
Senior guard Layshia Clarendon, the team’s scoring leader with 12.8 points per game last year, earned WBCA All-American honorable mention and a spot on the All-Pac-12 First team.
More recently, she was named as a candidate — and the only one from the Pac-12 — for the national senior CLASS award for her contributions on and off the field.
She will be paired up in the backfield with breakout star Brittany Boyd. The Pac-12 All-Freshman posted 10.2 points and 4.8 assists per game last season en route honorable mentions for both the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team and All-Pac-12 Team.
Add in a solid bench filled with returning players, the Bears don’t look to be a good team. The team’s attitude is already one that is looking to be elite.
Cal is looking for a national championship.
In order to be considered the best, though, the Bears will have to beat the best teams first. With games against No. 3 Duke in a few weeks and No. 4 Stanford in early January, they’ll get that chance.
The Blue Devils — a traditional basketball powerhouse — provide an early challenge eight games into the season. The road tilt will also be the Bears’ first weekend road games, matches that the team struggled with last year.
Perennial conference rival Stanford also poses a strong threat to the Bears’ championship aspirations. The Cardinal have defeated the Bears in every matchup since January 2009, and have dominated the Pac-12 conference for years.
Two pairs of back-to-back games against UCLA and USC will also be critical matches to win. Last year the Bears only won once against the Bruins and lost both to the Trojans. Any kind of top-tier label will require those games to be victories.
With the Cal program yet to lay claim to a conference title, an impressive showing in those matchups will go a long way in asserting Cal’s status as an elite team.
“I thought that we had a really great program last year,” Gottlieb said. “Now we want to jump into the elite. Whatever was good last year isn’t good enough anymore.
“I think as long as they stay with me on that journey and that process, I have no doubt that we can get there.”