As the Cal women’s basketball team (11-12, 2-10 Pac-12) prepares to take on No. 9 Arizona State (20-4, 11-1) on Friday in Berkeley, it will do so with the experience of having already played the Sun Devils this season.
But this will be both a blessing and a curse.
The Bears will surely benefit from having gone through a close game with Arizona State already where Cal lost by eight. But the experience will also give the Bears a reminder of how far and quickly they’ve fallen and how high expectations were just a few weeks ago. The two teams squared off Jan. 2 in both teams’ Pac-12 openers and entered the game with nearly identical records — Cal actually had the better record, 9-2 compared with the Sun Devils’ 9-3.
While the Bears did lose their road game on the back of an unseemly 26 turnovers, there was no way to predict what would come next.
Arizona State has held a 10-1 record since that game was contested and has propelled to a tie for first in the conference, while Cal has a 2-9 record in that time, and now sits tied for 10th in the Pac-12 with just about no hope of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
On Friday, the Bears will need to rediscover their early-season form or they could very well get blown off of their own court. This will start with limiting turnovers this time around. Arizona State is second best in the conference at turnover margin, while Cal has turned it over 17.8 times per game, more than anyone in the Pac-12. The recent return of sophomore guard Gabby Green after she missed five games will help the Bears in this area, as it will give the team another ballhandler to complement freshman guard Asha Thomas and lighten her load, especially given Cal’s incredible lack of backcourt options.
“(Green) can do things that nobody else can do on our team. The vision she has, the passes she makes and her defensive length is incredible,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb after Sunday’s loss to Stanford. “Having her back just gives us another sort of offensive weapon in a way that’s untraditional. It’s not just points but seeing the floor and angles that gives us another ball handler to put us back in positions.”
Green’s return also helps counteract some of the Bears’ depth problems, as they were often left with only six players playing significant minutes during her absence. But this won’t be enough to help Cal come close to matching the Sun Devils’ deep team, as the latter has nine players who average more than 10 minutes per game.
Whereas the Bears rely upon big performances from a few players — typically freshman forward Kristine Anigwe or junior forward Courtney Range — Arizona State is built on its balance and propensity to share the ball. Head coach Charli Turner Thorne’s squad features only one player scoring more than 10 points per game but has five players who put up at least eight points per game. This makes the Sun Devils an especially hard team to plan for, so Cal will need to pay attention to everyone on the court. This problem is also exacerbated by the fact that Arizona State is full of talented passers — the Sun Devils have assisted on an impressive 62.9 percent of their field goals this season.
While Arizona State is a difficult team to stop, the Bears may struggle even more to solve the Sun Devils’ defense — a unit that has given up only 53.5 points per game. Cal’s primary option in attacking defenses for much of the season has been turning to Anigwe, who scores 19.7 points per game. But opponents have recently started sending extra defenders her way and the freshman has struggled to adjust. Anigwe has scored more than 20 points in just one of the Bears’ last eight games. Not coincidentally, that’s the only game Cal won.
If Anigwe, who still has talent that stacks up with anyone in the country, can get out of her slump and break through the “freshman wall,” the Bears will have a chance to pull off the upset against Arizona State. But if the Sun Devils come out hitting on all cylinders, even a great Anigwe performance may not be enough to change the path both teams have embarked upon since their last matchup.