Cal women’s basketball will kick off season vs. Austin Peay State University, Louisville

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Weeks of speculation and conjecture about the Cal women’s basketball team will come to an end Friday, when the Bears play their first official game of the season.

Cal will have a busy weekend to set its season in motion, with just one day of rest between its first and second game that will be held Sunday. The Bears will start their season on the road, squaring off against Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. Austin Peay State finished last season with a record of 10-20 in the Ohio Valley Conference, or OVC, whose champion Tennessee State was the conference’s lone representative in the NCAA tournament in March.

The makeup of these two teams’ rosters couldn’t be more different. Featuring only two upperclassmen, neither of whom are seniors, and two highly touted recruits, Cal will look to its young core to lead the way. The Lady Governors, on the other hand, have a large returning group of players, highlighted by senior guard Tiasha Gray. Gray was voted preseason conference Player of the Year by the OVC media and will likely be the focal point of the Lady Governors’ offense.

While the Bears lack experience, their coaching and size give them the edge in this matchup. David Midlick, former associate head coach at the University of Memphis, will be coaching his first game as the Lady Governors’ head coach Friday. Meanwhile, Cal’s Lindsay Gottlieb holds the school record for the most wins in a four-year period as the women’s basketball head coach, a feat she achieved in her first four years with the program. There’s also a clear size advantage for Cal — 6-foot-3-inch Courtney Range and 6-foot-4-inch Kristine Anigwe should be able to feast in the paint against a starting lineup whose tallest player is 6-foot center Brianne Alexander. Strong post play, relentless rebounding and a stifling interior defensive presence from the Bears’ frontcourt can swing the game in their favor.

Sunday will present a much tougher test for Cal, when it heads to Louisville, Kentucky to play the No. 8 Cardinals on the road. The Bears aren’t favored to win against a highly touted Louisville squad, which was eliminated in the third round of the NCAA tournament last season. But competing in an ultra-competitive conference like the Pac-12 will mean that the Bears need to get acclimated to playing high-ranked opponents.

Louisville’s roster outlook is reminiscent of Cal’s, loaded with young talent but marred by inexperience. But more than the Bears, the Cardinals can expect their new recruits to contribute immediately. As arguably the best recruiting class in the nation, Louisville’s crop of freshmen includes three five-star recruits, all of whom are guards. The Cardinals’ batch of newcomers is headlined by 5-foot-10-inch point guard Asia Durr, 2015’s No. 2 ranked prospect according to ESPN. Durr’s blend of midrange shooting and ability to drive into the paint make her a potent offensive threat that Cal will need to contain. Taja Cole, the 26th ranked prospect, is projected to join Durr as a member of the starting backcourt for Louisville.

The Bears’ chances at stealing a victory on the Cardinals’ home floor will largely depend on how they’re able to pressure their opponent defensively. Louisville high-scoring offense last season was the product of fluid ball movement — its 17.3 assists per game was good for 11th in the country. Cal will need to be alert on defense and disrupt passing lanes if it hopes to slow Louisville down.

With matchups against a beatable team and a top-10 ranked opponent, Cal should have a rough indication of where it stands as a team by the end of the weekend.

Contact Kapil Kashyap at [email protected]