Complete makeover: Cal women’s basketball in rebuild mode

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Cal women’s basketball is on the brink of a complete makeover. The word “rebuilding” has a negative connotation in sports, as it usually means sacrificing a couple of seasons while the team reconstructs itself around a young core. In college basketball, the effects of the maturing process are even more visible, and the Bears will hope to keep this process as short as possible.

For the last four years, the Bears’ game plan revolved around the team’s centerpiece, Kristine Anigwe. Even with the impressive skill set she possessed at the onset of her career at Cal, she peaked in her senior year, producing incredible numbers that led her to be selected as the 9th-overall pick in the 2019 WNBA draft.

After battling with several ups and downs throughout the season, the Bears finished another 20-plus win season and made their third straight NCAA tournament appearance. Their second-round exit came at the hands of the eventual 2019 national champions, Baylor.

The season, however, is behind, and it is even more important to look at the future than previous years. Cal has lost four of its starters — also the top scorers of the team. Aside from Anigwe, Asha Thomas and Receé Caldwell have completed their collegiate careers, and sophomore guard Kianna Smith has transferred to Louisville. Kianna Smith was expected to be the team’s top performer next season, even though she stagnated in her sophomore season behind a packed guard rotation after an impressive Pac-12 All-Freshman season.

The Bears also said goodbye to associate head coach Charmin Smith, who is headed to the WNBA to join the coaching staff of the New York Liberty. After Charmin Smith’s departure, Cal added former Arizona assistant April Phillips as an assistant coach to complete next year’s coaching staff.

Phillips, a California native, spent the last season at Arizona, taking part in the Wildcats’ incredible jump in performance from its previous season and helping them earn the Women’s National Invitational Tournament title.

Last Friday, April 19, Cal also announced the addition of two incoming freshmen, Jazlen “Jazzy” Green and Evelien Lutje Schipholt.

Green, a 5’11” guard, is coming to Cal after earning 2019’s John R. Wooden High School Player of the Year. After a knee injury sidelined her during her junior year, Green bounced back on a mission, averaging 28.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 4.0 steals and 1.5 blocks per game in her senior season. Her stellar performance led Lakeside High School to a Southern Section CIF title.

Lutje Schipholt, a 6’2” forward from the Netherlands, is bringing much-needed size and athleticism to the Bears. In the 2018 FIBA U18 Women’s European Championships, Lutje Schipholt recorded double-double averages with 12.1 points and 11.3 rebounds per game with the Dutch National team.

Green and Lutje Schipholt are joining guards Lauren Fields and Cailyn Crocker in signing their National Letter of Intent. Fields and Crocker signed with Cal on the opening day of the NCAA’s early signing period.

Even though there has not yet been an official statement, reported April 17 that SDSU guard Najé Murray is transferring to Cal after two years with the Aztecs. Last season, Murray averaged 13.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 33 games. Because of NCAA transfer rules, however, Murray will have to sit the 2019-20 season out if she officially becomes a Bear.

Cal faithful can expect a much younger team competing out on the court next season. Rising seniors Jaelyn Brown and C.J. West highlight Cal’s depleted veteran presence on the frontcourt with rising junior Alaysia Styles seeing an increased role — the Bears will expect Lutje Schipholt to contribute starting day one.

On the other hand, the Bears will be looking at a young guard rotation. After playing only in four games in two seasons because of injuries, rising redshirt junior Mi’Cole Cayton will be looking to finally return to her form next season. If Cayton can return to her full health, she will be accompanied by an exciting but inexperienced freshmen guard rotation. Rising sophomore and former McDonald’s All-American McKenzie Forbes will be one of the most important weapons wearing blue and gold, as Cal faithful should expect her to continue her late-season increase in performance to spillover to her sophomore season.

The expectations will be different than this past season, and fans should not be surprised if the Bears have a below .500 season like in 2015-16 when they also missed the NCAA tournament. It would be more than acceptable if all it takes for Cal to start having 20-plus win seasons again is just one season of rebuilding, as it did after Anigwe’s freshman season in 2016.

It will definitely be a busy offseason for head coach Lindsay Gottlieb and her coaching staff as they try to come up with a new gameplan for the Bears in the post-Anigwe era.

Hopefully, for the Bears, their fate will not resemble Washington’s in its post-Kelsey Plum era.

Can Sariöz is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @can_sarioz.