With the announcement that Pac-12 basketball will be tipping off Nov. 25 for the first time since March, a rebuilt Cal women’s basketball team is preparing for a season of change. Facing a daunting Pac-12 gauntlet and a modified return-to-play plan due to COVID-19, the Cal squad has much to conquer. Still, the addition of the No. 7 recruiting class in the nation and increasing progress from the already-established young core mean that fans can look forward to a season full of both growing pains and glimpses of a bright future.
Cal will face one of its biggest challenges before it even hits the court, as the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have created a return-to-play plan that will seriously test the youthful roster. Faced with the prospect of no exhibition games or scrimmages, a schedule shortened to just 27 games and the late practice start date of Oct. 14, the Bears will have to hit the ground running if they want to have a chance at competing for a berth in the spring March Madness tournament. With the team experiencing significant turnover this offseason, that may be easier said than done.
Last year’s veteran-heavy squad showed flashes of potential but ultimately disappointed en route to a last-place finish in the Pac-12. The core of that team is now mostly gone, as four seniors graduated, leaving only one returning member on the starting lineup: Leilani McIntosh. Furthermore, senior Alaysia Styles, who would have been the only upperclassman on scholarship this year, announced her transfer to Maryland last week. Her veteran presence and experience is something that the Bears will sorely miss this season. She was also the only player to have played under former head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who is now with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thus, for better or for worse, this team is now fully in the hands of second-year head coach Charmin Smith.
Losing the remaining holdovers from the Gottlieb era left the Bears with an inexperienced team and a lot of holes to fill. Luckily for them, these empty spaces and opportunities allowed Cal to bring in one of the biggest and best recruiting classes in Cal women’s basketball history. The six new Bears combine to form the No. 7 recruiting class in the nation and include some high-end talent that should make fans excited for the future.
The new recruiting class is headlined by a trio of five-star forwards, who will likely make up the future of this team. First is Michelle Onyiah, a 6’3” California resident who can control the defensive end and snag rebounds. Next is Fatou Samb from Texas, a physical 6’4” post who is surprisingly quick for her size.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the 2020 recruiting class, however, is Dalayah Daniels, a 6’4” forward from Washington. She’s the second-ranked forward in her class and ranked the No. 13 prospect overall, having all the makings of a future Pac-12 star.
“I truly believe (Daniels) is just scratching the surface when it comes to her potential,” Smith said. “She’s a high-motor, athletic forward, who can make you pay from the perimeter or in the paint. She’s going to be well-prepared to come in and compete in this challenging Pac-12 conference.”
With Dutch sophomore Evelien Lutje Schipholt being the only returning frontcourt player, all three of these young talents should be thrust into immediate playing time.
Smith’s recruiting class departed from her predecessor’s in terms of not only size but also location. With the addition of two guards, Alma Elsnitz from Sweden and Ornela Muca from Greece, Smith showed the team may have a new focus on international markets.
International recruits are generally unknown, offering high risk with high reward, and often need time to develop. With guards McIntosh, Cailyn Crocker and Jazlen Green returning for their sophomore seasons, Muca and Elsnitz will likely be given that time to develop. Next season should see them easing their way into the American game, as they look to blossom into the European backcourt of the future for the Bears.
Cal is already looking forward to next season too, as it has added two high-potential guards out of California to the class of 2021: Mia Mastrov and Jayda Curry. Transfer Jadyn Bush from Harvard will also be eligible to play in 2021-22, bringing a veteran defensive presence to the fold next year.
This year, though, the new Cal squad will face off against perhaps the toughest conference in women’s college basketball. Last year’s champion, Oregon, may have lost star Sabrina Ionescu, who was the first overall WNBA draft pick, but the Ducks will fill her void with the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, and they’ll stay dominant. Stanford, Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State also look like strong teams primed to make a run in the tournament.
The retooled Bears will face a challenging new season, up against powerful foes and COVID-19 complications. Still, the team is young, hungry and filled with potential. Cal will encounter its fair share of ups and downs this year, but no matter what, the Bears should be a fun team to watch.
Benjamin Coleman covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].