Cal women’s basketball begins season against Westmont

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On Sunday, the Cal women’s basketball team will tip off its 2015-16 campaign with an exhibition matchup against Westmont, a team that plays in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, instead of the NCAA like Cal and other big-name schools.

While the game won’t count on the Bears’ record, it gives them a chance to see what they’re working with this season. This is a wholly different team from the one that went 25-10 in the 2014-15 season. Cal lost three key players from last year’s team in Reshanda Gray, Brittany Boyd and Mercedes Jefflo, and lost five players overall who combined for 61.2 percent of the team’s scoring last year.

Now the Bears will get their first opportunity to see how their extremely young crop of core players will fare in their expanded roles. Cal and head coach Lindsay Gottlieb will surely be eager to see how the team’s five freshmen perform in their first action at the college level. The Bears only have two upperclassmen and the one most likely to get a lot of playing time is junior forward Courtney Range. Range, who started nine games last year, has displayed some impressive potential in her time with Cal — she scored 27 points in a game last season.

The game against the Warriors will be Range’s first chance to really dominate possession of the ball and to serve as the offense’s focal point. It will be interesting to see what she can do against Westmont’s small front court.

Playing an opponent like the Warriors will also give Cal a chance to test out a variety of lineups to try to find what combination works best. For example, the Bears will get a crack at finding who will replace Boyd as the team’s facilitator on offense. There’s not an obvious fit among the returning players. Sophomore guard Gabby Green was second on the team in assists last year, but she fits better as a shooting guard.

It seems like Cal will have to put the ball in the hands of one of its freshmen if it wants to run anything close to a traditional offense. The Bears have two options that are most likely to fit as point guards, freshman Breanna Cavanaugh, who was a consensus top-100 recruit, and freshman Asha Thomas, who was ranked No. 87 by ESPN HoopGurlz. Sunday will be the newcomers’ first chance to carve out a place in the starting lineup.

Though Cal may spend most of the game messing with its lineups, it will face a Westmont squad that’s actually one of the best in the NAIA, ranking fifth. For the Warriors, Sunday’s game basically serves as a way of challenging themselves. No one expects them to win, but if they can stay close against a team from the Pac-12, it will be an impressive accomplishment.

Westmont is led by senior guard Krissy Karr who has experience playing against NCAA teams, having started her college career with Idaho. The former WAC All-Freshman Team honoree has had a blistering start to this season with 36 points in the Warriors’ two games thus far. She has also established herself as a perimeter threat, shooting 21 threes and converting 42.9 percent of them. With Karr there to space the floor, Westmont has found room inside to score. Junior forward Aysia Shellmire has taken advantage of this more than anyone else with 18.5 points per game so far while shooting an impressive 65.2 percent from the field.

Where the Warriors’ offense has completely fallen apart this season is in the turnovers department. Westmont has 45 turnovers already, versus only 24 assists. If that trend continues against Cal, the Bears could find themselves with a myriad of opportunities to get out on the fastbreak and score in transition.

Given Cal’s clear talent advantage, Sunday’s game probably won’t be much of a nailbiter. It will, however, give the Bears an opportunity to figure out parts of their offense as they inch closer to the games that count.

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