What the hell happened to Cal?

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The Cal women’s basketball team started the season 9-2, with wins over then No. 8 Louisville and then No. 19 UCLA.

Then, the Pac-12 season started. And the Bears have looked terrible. They’ve lost seven of their eight conference games, including a 19-point beatdown courtesy of the same Bruins whom Cal had defeated just a month earlier.

So what the hell happened?

While the reasons for the Bears’ recent struggles are too many to address in this column, one quality stands out. No, it’s not the turnovers, although Cal has coughed up the ball more than anyone in the Pac-12. It’s not the Bears’ inexperience either, even though they have only one upperclassman who gets significant playing time.

No, Cal’s biggest problem is a crippling lack of depth.

The Bears have only nine players on their roster, but the problems are even worse than that, because freshman center Chen Yue has only been able to play eight games because of injury. This lack of bodies to work with has been more challenging than could have been predicted in the months leading up to the beginning of the season.

Cal was supposed to have 11 players on its active roster, but unexpected obstacles stood in the way of that. The Bears’ third-leading scorer from 2014-15, guard Mercedes Jefflo, was dismissed from the team in September. Cal’s issues were further exasperated in November when freshman guard Breanna Cavanaugh was forced to take a leave of absence as she struggled to recover from the lingering symptoms of a concussion suffered in September.

With all of these players missing, head coach Lindsay Gottlieb has been forced to limit her team’s rotation far past a point that could be considered ideal. When sophomore guard Gabby Green missed both of the Bears’ games in their Los Angeles road trip, Gottlieb’s rotation essentially featured six players, especially in the second game, against USC. A seventh player, junior forward KC Waters, did eventually see the court but that was in the last minute of the matchup when the game was already well out of reach.

These shortened rotations are putting an especially high amount of strain on Cal’s starting lineup, with all five members averaging more than 30 minutes per game, led by a whopping 36.1 minutes per game from sophomore forward Mikayla Cowling. Only one Bear in the starting lineup, sophomore forward Penina Davidson, even averages more than 20 minutes per game.

With the reliance on the starters and Davidson to play nearly the whole game, there is extra pressure placed on the young Cal team to stay out of foul trouble. If two of these six players pick up two fouls in the first quarter, for example, Gottlieb will be forced to turn to a player she doesn’t trust as much to get substantial playing time. This focus on fouls is crucial as it also has the potential to hurt the Bears’ defense, with players more likely to avoid playing aggressively and going for blocks because this would put them in position to pick up cheap fouls.

But the place where Cal’s lack of depth has most harmfully manifested itself is in the fatigue it has caused. With players forced into playing substantial minutes on the court with minimal time to rest, the Bears often struggle at the end of games, where fatigue and an inability to get fresh legs on the court would most directly hurt them. The most obvious example can be seen in Cal’s most recent game, against the Trojans. The Bears went into the fourth quarter down by only one point, but after hitting a free throw with seven minutes and 21 seconds to go, Cal went scoreless for the next seven minutes and 33 seconds. In this span, the Bears gave up 17 points and essentially lost themselves the game.

This wasn’t a one-time thing for Cal, which has been outscored in the fourth quarter all season long, despite an 85-point advantage in all other periods of play. The Bears’ typically have tired legs heading into the fourth quarter, making it harder for them to hit even wide-open jumpers, bogging down their offense and making them even more reliant on finding open looks inside the paint than usual.

This, along with the aforementioned defensive issues, is a formula for defeat in a tough conference like the Pac-12, and that’s exactly what it has been for Cal. Now, with the Bears sitting at 10-9 and in 11th place in their conference, their NCAA Tournament hopes are all but dashed.

And with no quick fix in sight for Cal’s depth issues, it doesn’t look like things will get much better before next season, when the whole team is expected to return, along with Cavanaugh and a fresh batch of recruits.

Hooman Yazdanian covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian