Mikayla Cowling set to lead Cal women’s basketball in 2015-16

Ariel Hayat/Senior Staff

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Unlike years past, the Cal women’s basketball team won’t be entering the 2015-16 season as one of the contenders to win the title. While its three-point loss at home to Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year was devastating, the more crushing blow to the future of the program was the loss of its top three scorers.

Two of these departures were inevitable, with the Bears’ top two scorers, then-senior guard Brittany Boyd and then-senior forward Reshanda Gray, graduating in the spring. As two of the top collegiate talents in the nation, Boyd and Gray formed the core of the team — with the offense bolstered by Gray’s post play and Boyd’s ability to slash into the paint. After being drafted in the first two rounds of the WNBA Draft, the former Bears are now playing for New York Liberty and Atlanta Dream, respectively. Mercedes Jefflo, who was the team’s third-leading scorer last season, was unexpectedly dismissed from the program after a promising sophomore campaign. The result of these departures is that the Bears are young now — really young.

Entering the season, Cal has just two upperclassmen on its roster: juniors Courtney Range, a 6-3 forward who missed seven games last season because of a left knee injury, and KC Waters, a seldom-used reserve. Range showed flashes of brilliance last year, most notably in her team-leading 27-point performance in last year’s season opener against Pacific. She’s also a threat from the three-point range, finishing last season with hitting 23 triples at a clip of nearly 37 percent. The Bears will need veteran presence and leadership out of these two if they hope to combat the inexperience that permeates their roster.

The fate of their season will also heavily depend on the growth of their returning starters, sophomores Gabby Green and Mikayla Cowling. Not only was Cowling the team’s fourth-leading scorer last year at 10 points per game, but she also scored efficiently. She ended the season shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 69.8 percent from the free-throw line, the latter of which was the highest on the team. Green, a guard, was one of the team’s premier playmakers, averaging the second-most assists on the team at 3.2 per game. Green’s role in facilitating the offense and getting other players involved could be crucial for this year’s iteration of the roster to play cohesively.

It doesn’t help that Cal will be competing in one of the toughest conferences in the nation this season, with three teams from the Pac-12 entering the season ranked in the top 25. No. 9 Oregon State, No. 14 Stanford and No. 15 Arizona State all have legitimate championship aspirations and the Bears will have to face each of them twice. While Cal dropped out of the top 25, it does have the potential to be a competitive squad, and that’s reflected in the number of votes it received. Outside of the top 25, the Bears had the ninth most votes of any team with 28.

The promise of this Cal squad lies heavily in its recruiting class, ranked by espnW as the 8th best in the nation with two five-star recruits. Cal will benefit significantly from the addition of the 8th ranked recruit in the 2015 class, 6-3 forward Kristine Anigwe. Anigwe is a strong two-way player, and will be able to contribute through her superior athleticism, mobility and elite shot-blocking skills. Chen Yue, a 6-7 center from China who was ranked as the 8th best center in the 2015 recruiting class, will give the Bears a towering presence and strong rim-protection.

While neither of them are polished offensively yet, Yue and Anigwe should provide a stifling interior defensive presence, and both of them have the potential to grow into key contributors for the team. The lack of expectations this season might be perfect for a young team such as Cal, who could surprise some teams if the members of its freshmen class can assimilate into their roles quickly.

Kapil Kashyap covers women’s basketball . Contact him at [email protected]