Shootaround at season’s end: A Cal women’s basketball retrospective

Vanessa Lim/Staff

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Q1: How should fans feel about Cal women’s basketball’s 2019-20 Season?

Tim Sun: It was always supposed to be a rebuilding season, and all things considered, it was a good one. The freshmen quartet of Leilani McIntosh, Jazlen Green, Cailyn Crocker and Evelien Lutje Schipholt showed that they are capable assets for Cal’s future, growing up and gaining confidence with each big shot and crucial play. These four and the squad as a whole also gained experience playing in — and more importantly, winning — big games. Late-season upsets of Arizona and Arizona State will boost morale in an otherwise disappointing season, and those experiences will pay dividends in the next few years. Expectations this season were for growth, not wins, and in that sense, the season was a success.

William Cooke: Cal fans have every right to be disappointed, but there is no reason to be surprised. Head coach Charmin Smith inherited a young team from former head coach Lindsey Gottlieb. After Kianna Smith announced her decision to transfer, and Asha Thomas, Reece Caldwell, and second-team All-American Kristine Anigwe all used their final year of eligibility last season, the Bears were left with just one returning starter in Jaelyn Brown. The senior forward did lead the team in scoring this year with 13.9 points per game, but her ability alone was never going to be enough to go dancing. Inexperience meant that Cal was destined for a poor season.

Benjamin Coleman: On paper, the season was a clear let down from years past. The Bears missed the NCAA tournament for only the second time in the past nine years and tumbled to the bottom of the Pac-12 standings. Still, considering the circumstances the team was left in at the end of last season, Cal fans should be pleased with the progress made. The Bears experienced a sort of mass exodus after last season, highlighted by the departure of their head coach and many of their star players. After years of success, this season was always going to be a rebuilding year. Given those expectations, Charmin Smith and the Bears did a great job of setting their program back up for success.

Q2: Why should Cal fans keep the faith in first-year head coach Charmin Smith even after a poor first season?

TS: In terms of the three key controllable axes for a first-year coach — culture, player development and recruiting — Smith knocked it out of the park. She gained a trust among players in the locker room for having their backs unconditionally, and that team dynamic will only strengthen as she gets more time in at the helm. Smith’s success with player development shone through the freshmen four, as she gave them opportunities to learn and mature — three made it to the starting lineup by year’s end. Finally, recruiting went unbelievably well, as a first-year coach and a losing program somehow nabbed a top-10 recruiting class. Smith had no control over the graduations and transfers that essentially started her off from scratch, but she’s delivered in a big way in every other area.

WC: She did quite a lot with the tools she had. As I mentioned, Cal was forced to rely on one veteran player in Brown to lead the charge against a Pac-12 schedule, arguably the toughest schedule in women’s college basketball. No one expected young players like Jazlen Green, Cailyn Crocker, and Leilani McIntosh to be productive in their freshman seasons, but coach Smith gave them the confidence to score in double-digits on multiple occasions. Player development is key for any program, but especially for one that has struggled in recent years. Additionally, the Bears earned two top-25 upsets in their final three games. Cal is on the rise, and coach Smith is behind it all.

BC: Charmin Smith seems to be making all the right moves towards building this program from the ground up, so fans and players should feel confident with her at the reigns. When rebuilding a college basketball program, priority should be placed less on wins and more on growth is the team making progress and getting better? Cal showed increasingly positive development this season under Charmin Smith. Their four freshmen really came into their own by the end of the year, and returning players like Jaelyn Brown went from supporting role players to full blown stars. Smith clearly has a way with team and player development, and with a top-10 recruiting class coming in next season, expect plenty of more growth still to come.

Q3: What is one lesson from this tough season that the Bears can bring forward into next year?

TS: Together, the Bears can go far. There isn’t a clear-cut, go-to option for Cal next season, but the team can rest easy knowing they have the weapons they need to win. With Alaysia Styles’ defense, McIntosh’s game management, Green and Crocker’s three-point shooting, Lutje Schipholt’s rebounding and more, the Bears have specialists that can be great when they’re working together. In that 20-0 run against Arizona State, these skills were on display, and it was magical. It’ll be offense and defense by committee next season, and if everyone plays their role, the Bears have the ability to surprise some people.

WC: They’re capable of beating the best. This year, six Pac-12 teams finished in the AP top-25. In a conference that tough, a young team like Cal had to get some conference wins to start believing in themselves. Even though they went 4-16 against conference foes this year, those four wins were crucial. Heading into next season, the Bears will at least know that they can hang with some of the best teams in the country. A young, fearless Cal team will be fun to watch.

BC: This year the Bears learned how to play together as a team. This season’s roster featured a mix of freshmen, returning players, bench pieces thrust into important roles and players returning from seasons off due to injury. Cal entered the season with a young new team still learning how to play together and they certainly went through their fair share of growing pains. Still, by the end of the year the team finally began to come together, and they even snagged some impressive upsets over top-25 teams. This season the Bears learned that if they come together, they can hang with anyone in this conference. If they can carry forward that lesson into next year, expect another season of progress for Cal.

Bonus question: Cal’s underclassmen stepped up in big ways down the stretch and the Bears welcome a top-10 recruiting class next season. What can fans expect from Cal women’s basketball’s 2020-21 season?

TS: They can expect some youthful energy and a lot of hope. It might take another year before the Bears become contenders in the Pac-12 or make the NCAA tournament, but they’ll take a step in that direction next season. With a rotation that will feature almost all underclassmen, the Bears will falter at times due to inexperience, but they’ll show flashes of their potential. It’ll be a rollercoaster again, definitely with more highs this time around.

WC: Enjoyable inconsistency. Head coach Smith worked wonders on the recruiting trail, earning the sixth-ranked 2020-21 recruiting class in the nation. The Bears will welcome three five-star recruits in Dalaya Daniels, Michelle Onyiah and Fatou Samb in the fall. I can see all three getting minutes in their first year, but they won’t be world-beaters out of the gate. Like this season, I predict a few shocking upsets fueled by wide-eyed hunger, but not consistent wins over Pac-12 powerhouses. At least not yet.

BC: Another season of growth and progress that will have its fair share of ups and downs. There will certainly be disappointments, but I think the Bears will do enough to challenge for an NCAA tournament berth next season. Many teams in the Pac-12 will be rebuilding next year after the loss of star seniors, while the Bears will continue to go up. Expect current junior Alaysia Styles to step up into a similar role as Jaelyn Brown served this year, while this year’s freshmen should continue to grow to become key contributors in the Pac-12. Couple that with a top-10 recruiting class, and you may have a team that is ready to make some noise.

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