Kristine Anigwe will be key cog in Cal women’s basketball’s season

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The squeak of sneakers on the hardwood floor. The swish of the net when the ball goes past it. The beautiful arc of a jump shot. The raw athleticism of the players. Cal basketball is back.

The Cal women’s basketball team kickstarts its season Sunday with an exhibition game against Westmont. Lindsay Gottlieb’s cohort will be looking at 2016-17 as the season in which the team can start realizing the potential that everyone recognized in last year’s disappointing campaign.

The Bears posted a middling 15-17 overall record last season. 14 of those 17 losses, however, came in conference play, with only four wins. While Cal could compete with teams across the nation, the Pac-12 contemporaries proved to be a nut that the Bears were unable to crack.

In spite of the atrocious Pac-12 record, Cal gave its fans quite a number of things to be hopeful about. The team that played last year was a young team, with four freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors and no seniors. While the team lacked experience, the fact that it participated in a tumultuous campaign will definitely contribute to the development of the team, especially in crunch matches.

What happened last season, happened last season.

Gottlieb’s young team showed a lot of promise and potential, and sophomore Kristine Anigwe was probably the epitome of it. The forward/center averaged 20.5 points and was the Bears’ leading scorer. Her dominance in offense was accompanied by her rebounding ability, as she led Cal in that department as well with 9.3 boards. Anigwe’s strong low post game was there for everyone to see, and she became the focal point for Cal’s offense. Her stellar play was rewarded with a number of honors — most notably, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and USBWA National Freshman of the Year.

Anigwe’s game was further enhanced by the passing ability of guards Gabby Green and Asha Thomas. Green stacked up 134 assists last season, while Thomas led the team with 141. Thomas and Green ran the offense for Cal, and you can expect them to once again be the facilitators. Green’s size allowed her to function as an effective defender as well, as her height gave her the advantage in one-on-one situations against undersized guards.

Another offensive asset for Cal’s ambitions this year will be Courtney Range, who was the second-highest scorer for the Bears with 13.4 points per game. Range has a gifted mid-range game that allows the Bears to explore different options of scoring, especially when Anigwe’s game is neutralized by a strong interior defense or when the three-ball game of the players has gone cold. Range’s highest scoring output came against UCLA on Dec. 21, 2015, in a non-conference matchup, where she scored an astonishing 29 points.

One of Cal’s biggest shortcomings last year was its lack of depth. Mercedes Jefflo’s removal from the program had resulted in the Bears only having nine players on the team, with only seven of them getting significant play time. This season, the recruitment of freshmen Mi’Cole Cayton, Celeste “CJ” West and Jaelyn Brown will be an added bonus for a team that is looking to improve. Brown was an ESPN Hoopgurlz four-star prospect and will probably play an important role from the bench as the season progresses. She comes with a proven caliber, as she led her high school, Vista Murrieta, to three Southwestern League Championships. She was also named the league MVP in those three years.

All in all, this season promises to be an exciting one for the Bears as some of the major shortcomings of last year seem to have been solved — on paper at least. Cal has had a long offseason, and the team must have worked on various aspects of the game. The game against Westmont shouldn’t be troublesome for the Bears, but it will definitely be the starting point of the long, tough season that lies ahead.

Devang Prasad covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DevangPrasad.