With Gottlieb at the helm, Cal women’s basketball experiences breakthrough season

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NEW ORLEANS — If the Cal women’s basketball team can become the powerhouse coach Lindsay Gottlieb promised it could be 10 or 20 years from now, all will point toward this season as the breakthrough campaign that made it all possible.

All traditional powerhouses, like UConn and Stanford, had that special season in which they made the leap to elite status. UConn, under coach Geno Auriemma, made its first Final Four in 1995 and has won seven national championships since. Stanford, under coach Tara VanDerveer, took its jump as the dominant women’s basketball club on the West Coast in 1990 with a national championship.

In 2013, the Bears stand at a crossroads. The 32 wins this season and the journey to their first Final Four appearance paved two paths that forked as the season came to a close on Sunday: Can Cal continue its development as a perennial Final Four contender? Or will it peter off back into being Pac-12’s No. 2 behind Stanford?

With the 64-57 loss to Louisville in the Final Four at New Orleans, four seniors who constituted the greatest recruiting class in program history are no longer with the team. Picked as the best recruiting class back in 2009, they have more than met expectations. Before coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s arrival in 2011, the program was in slow decline, missing out on the NCAA Tournament and marred by a growing list of players transferring from Cal.

Of the four, guard Layshia Clarendon leaves the biggest hole. Once the lowest-ranked player in the class of 2009, Clarendon established herself as the primary scoring option and the central leader of the team.

On the court, Clarendon developed her game from that of an average combo guard to a nationally acclaimed shooting guard. She perfected her midrange jumper in her senior season, making her a coveted player in the upcoming WNBA draft.

As Clarendon leaves the Bears’ backcourt, she will pass the torch to sophomore guard Brittany Boyd. The symbiosis between Clarendon and Boyd over the past two years was a match made in heaven; Clarendon’s weaknesses, such as ballhandling and distributing, were veiled by Boyd’s excellent point guard skills.

Without Clarendon’s presence, Boyd will be put on the spotlight, and the shortcomings of her game will be targeted by opposing teams. For the Bears’ to succeed in the next two seasons, Boyd will need to develop a more consistent shooting game and lessen the recklessness in her playing style.

But Boyd won’t be alone in the backcourt.

Brittany Shine, who transferred last year from Florida, provides an interesting wrinkle in Cal’s high-octane offense. Although Shine has not played for the Bears this season due to in-residence transfer rules, Gottlieb praised her speed and experience in the SEC and believes she will slide into the backcourt without creating any awkwardness.

Shine will be joined next year by Kyra Dunn, a forward who transferred from Pittsburgh. With senior center Talia Caldwell leaving, Dunn will keep the post rotation in tune.

In addition to Shine and Dunn, there will be freshmen on the team for the first time since 2011. Excluding Gennifer Brandon, Mikayla Lyles, Avigiel Cohen and Afure Jemerigbe, the rest of the team will have been recruited by Gottlieb to come to Berkeley.

For the first time, Gottlieb will have a chance to sculpt the team to her philosophy. However, this can also mean the team trailing off from its Final Four zenith back into rebuilding mode as the players pick up Gottlieb’s system and adjust to the collegiate game.

But is there pressure for Gottlieb to make the Final Four again? Yes, Auriemma and VanDerveer made their first Final Four appearances when they were around Gottlieb’s current age (35), but it took them several more years to cement their elite status.

Yes, the team does stand at a forked road that can redefine how this program fits in the national landscape. But one, two or four years down the line is too early to tout Cal’s premier standing.

The verdict will come 10 or 20 years from now, when all point to 2013 as the season that started it all

Seung Y. Lee covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @sngyn92.