Cal women’s basketball opens Pac-12 play this weekend with a homestand against Washington and Washington State. The start of conference matchups raises a series of questions, as a new-look Bears team takes on some of the nation’s top teams. Our women’s basketball beat writers answer some of the biggest questions facing the Bears before Pac-12 games tip off Friday.
Though plenty of games are still to be determined, the Bears will open conference play with a home slate against Washington, Washington State and rival Stanford.
With two games under the Bears’ belt, there are plenty of questions surrounding the team.
With key starters out with injuries, who will need to step up to ensure Cal’s success this season? Who’s a dark horse candidate who could step up?
Benjamin Coleman: I see Dalayah Daniels stepping up as an immediate leader for the Bears. While she’s only a freshman, she has incredible potential and great pedigree. She was the crown jewel of Cal’s No. 7-ranked recruiting class as the second-ranked forward in her class and No. 13 prospect overall. Daniels has already looked like a difference-maker in her first two games with the blue and gold, putting up 10 points and 12 rebounds in her debut and then following that up with 9 points and six rebounds Sunday. The X-factor this season though may be fellow freshman Ornela Muca. With three of the Bears’ five guards out for the season due to injury, the Greek guard will be thrust into a starting role. She will need to step up if the Bears hope to compete in the Pac-12. If she can’t, Cal will be in serious trouble. Muca didn’t seem ready for the spotlight Sunday afternoon, going 0 for 9 from the field and 0 for 6 from three. There will be a lot of pressure on the young guard’s shoulders this season, and if she isn’t able to handle it, things could get ugly quickly.
Justin Kim: With their projected starting backcourt out for the season, the Bears will mainly be relying on Leilani McIntosh to spearhead the offense, as she was Cal’s leading scorer and minutes leader through the first two games. Also, to ensure Cal’s success this season, the team will have to rebound, as this is typically a trademark of successful teams. One of my biggest questions coming into this season was Cal’s rebounding, and it looks like freshman wing Daniels is the answer. She leads the team in rebounding so far, opening the season with a double-double. Freshman center Sela Heide is a dark horse candidate to be Cal’s savior, as she showed great promise in limited minutes. She is Cal’s tallest player at 6’7” and has great potential on both sides of the floor. For example, in only seven minutes against San Jose State, she shot 2 for 3 from the field, snatched four rebounds and led the team with two blocks. Furthermore, in the following game against CSU Bakersfield, Heide showed that she could still maintain her efficiency with increased minutes. In 18 minutes, she racked up 7 points, shooting 2 for 3 from the field and hitting all three of her shots from the charity stripe. She also chipped in six boards and one block.
How will the Bears fare in Pac-12 play this season? Where will they finish in the conference?
BC: Cal faces an uphill battle this season in a loaded Pac-12 conference. The team has potential, but it is incredibly young and inexperienced, with no upperclassmen on scholarship. Of the eight Bears who saw the floor in the opening two nonconference games, six were freshmen and the other two were sophomores. That youth was exposed in two disappointing home losses to mid-major foes. Losing to San Jose State and CSU Bakersfield indicates that Pac-12 play could be a struggle. Cal is up against perhaps the best conference in college women’s basketball, featuring four teams ranked in the AP top 10. To make matters worse, the Bears have been ravaged by injury, losing three of their five guards on scholarship to season-ending injuries. Put all that together, and I predict another tough season for the Bears in the basement of the Pac-12. Cal should be able to steal a few wins in thrilling upsets, but the Pac-12 is unforgiving to young and injured teams. Fans then should expect a season filled with flashes of potential, but one that will ultimately be defined by growing pains.
JK: As of right now, I think Cal’s record in Pac-12 play will be 4-18. They arguably had a better roster last year and went 3-15 in conference play. Furthermore, with Cal’s projected starting backcourt out, it has a shortage of guards compared to other teams. One notable statistic that illustrates Cal’s lack of guard depth is its assist numbers. So far, Cal has less than half of the assist numbers of its opponents, which means Cal’s guards will have to be better at finding holes in the defense and look to move the ball around more if they want to improve their offensive efficiency. Cal is only shooting 30.5% from the field compared to its opponents’ 36.6%, and it has taken a total of 29 fewer shots than its opponents. If Cal improves its shot selection along with its efficiency over the course of the season, I will be more than willing to change my stance.
Which conference games are you looking forward to the most?
BC: I’m excited about the homestand against the Washington schools to open conference play this weekend. The Huskies and Cougars were the only teams picked to finish below the Bears in the preseason Pac-12 coaches poll, so Cal has a good chance to start conference play with victories. If they can get into the win column this weekend, the Bears will prove that they can be competitive in a talented conference. Conversely, if they struggle to open the year, fans should know that a long season may be in store. Matchups with the top teams in the Pac-12 should be fun too, if only to see some incredible talent and skill on display. No. 2 Stanford is a national championship favorite, No. 7 Arizona features perhaps the best player in college women’s basketball with senior Aari McDonald and No. 10 Oregon is a perennial contender. The Bears then will be facing a tough yet exciting slate of Pac-12 matchups with the opportunity to prove themselves against some of the best teams in the nation.
JK: I am looking forward to Cal’s home game against Stanford. I’m always pumped to watch any Stanford at Cal match regardless of the sport, and Stanford is arguably the best team in the nation, which makes the matchup a good test of how Cal stands up against elite competition. I am also curious to see how Cal will guard five-star freshman center Cameron Brink, who was the No. 3 player in her class.