“Will you go to the NCAA tournament with me?”
It’s the question that has been thrown around campus the past two days due to the Cal women’s basketball team’s emergence into the NCAA March Madness tournament, announced Monday. And as weird as Oski’s proposal might be for some Bears basketball fans, this is their only chance this year to see a team in a national tournament.
The excitement Monday after finding out that Cal was the fourth seed in its bracket, giving it the right to host the first two rounds of the tournament this weekend, has transitioned into anticipation about what the Bears will actually be able to accomplish.
For me, this season has been an introduction into the world of women’s basketball. My previous exposure to the game consisted of watching “Love and Basketball” repeatedly in my Baltimore home, which gave me the false idea of a loveable USC women’s team that was entirely fictional.
I have learned that college basketball games have fantastic halftime shows (see the unicyclers from the Oregon game). I have learned that college women’s basketball games can have the most exciting of endings and the most drawn-out of defeats. I have learned that the players on the Cal women’s basketball team have more heart and passion for each other and the game than I may have ever seen in a team.
So while this season has been Basketball 101 for me, it has been a rollercoaster ride for this team.
The lows were deep lows — for example, an overtime failure to Long Beach State University that will forever stain Cal’s 2014-15 campaign. There were the ups, too. A buzzer-beater win against then-No. 10 Arizona State in the middle of an eight-game winning streak will forever remain a pivotal moment in the season and showed that Cal was going to have a say in the Pac-12 title.
The most unsettling part of the Bears’ season, for anyone who has watched them play, is what could have been.
Cal has the smallest roster of any team in the Pac-12. Let that sink in. To the casual fan, this may not mean much. This, however, has been a huge part of the Bears’ season. Let’s break this down. Cal has 10 players on its roster. Most teams in the Pac-12 have 12 or 13 — some even 15. USC only has 11, but that season didn’t go much of anywhere. The small number of players has resulted in the Bears’ players, especially the starters, getting tired by the ends of games. Getting tired means that they can’t compete on the same level that other teams’ substitutions can.
Part of this is that Cal does not have a single junior on the squad. After the two top seniors, Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd, the starters are all freshmen and sophomores. Overall, when the two stars leave the court, they are replaced by young talent. Also an issue.
If Cal had two more solid, even average, junior players, there is a high chance that they would have won games such as the LBSU one.
But the time to dwell on such things is no longer. This is still a good basketball team. It deserved the home field advantage for these first two rounds. Gray and Boyd, alone, earned it. With both players expected to go in the top five in the WNBA draft, there is no denying that this team has talent.
The whole Pac-12 has talent this year. Looking at the tournament bracket, there are four Pac-12 teams hosting this weekend: Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Arizona State. Their dominance as one of the top conferences in the country this year is visible in this number. Having all four schools chosen to host is electrifying for Pac-12 women’s basketball on the West Coast, and if nothing other than that comes out of the tournament, then Pac-12 fans should be content overall.
But there will be more coming from the bracket. What legacy will these two star seniors leave behind? And can the young players step up like they did in the Pac-12 championship?
The first two rounds look simple. No. 13 Wichita State (29-4) should not be a challenge. I expect Gray and Boyd to really step up to the plate with the excitement of starting off the tournament. Next? No. 5 seed Texas (22-10) should easily handle No. 12 seed Western Kentucky, leaving Cal to battle the Longhorns on Sunday. This matchup is one I thought over for a while, trying to come up with an answer. Cal should be able to win. Should. This is exactly the type of team that the Bears have had issues with this year, though. They are similar in their level of play and have lost to teams they should have beat and beaten teams such as Stanford. I’ll give Cal the edge here in the belief that sophomore Mercedes Jefflo and freshman Gabby Green can shoot threes successfully.
But that will be its last win of the season. If it advances to the regionals in Albany, Cal will immediately face No. 1 overall Connecticut (32-1). The Huskies’ only loss this season is to Stanford. That is the only hope Cal has — to replicate whatever Stanford did to defeat a team that is making its 27th straight NCAA tournament appearance. The Huskies also have the record for the record for most wins in tournament history — 97-17, or 85.1 percent.
So yes, Oski thank you for asking. I will go to the NCAA tournament. But unfortunately, I think Albany is as far as we will go.
Alaina Getzenberg covers women’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected]