In 2019, the Cal women’s basketball team made the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row. It went 20-13, dominated non-Pac-12 opponents and finished 9-5 in front of its home fans in Berkeley. This was a program used to winning and familiar with the cheers of a crowd.
The team never could have imagined what was to come. In the 2020-21 season, the Bears went 1-16 in empty stadiums. The wins left at the same time the crowd did. But Thursday, Haas Pavilion will be welcoming back fans for an exhibition game against Westmont. The team taking the court has the potential to leave last year’s failures behind and bring a winning program back to its fans.
But it won’t be easy. The Pac-12 is the best conference in the league, and Cal is far from a top dog. It placed dead last in a recent coach’s poll ranking the 12 teams in the conference and it’s not too hard to see why. Last year, the Bears scored the fewest points per game in the Pac-12 and gave up the second most. They were the worst three-point shooting team, had the fewest assists per game and were outscored by nearly twenty points per game. If you just look at last season’s numbers, it’s tough to find optimism in this squad.
However, things get more complicated when you look deeper. Last season, Cal was ravaged by injuries. Despite having a 15-player roster, it often was down to seven available players on a given night. For starters, key pieces Jazlen Green and Cailyn Crocker missed the entire season. Green was a top scorer and shooter on the 2019-20 team and Crocker brought reliable three-point shooting off of the bench. These two are essential for the Bears’ offense to bounce back from a disastrous season, and their ability to spread the floor should open up the floor for the rest of the team.
Green and Crocker won’t be the only players returning for the Bears. In fact, all of the key players from last year’s team are coming back. Last year’s young squad of primarily underclassmen will get a second year as a unit.
Knowing how to play together and play off of each other is going to be a big advantage for a team that could never settle in during last year’s chaotic season. In fact, it often couldn’t even practice in its own facilities last year. The team had to practice on tennis courts in order to fulfill COVID-19 guidelines. After a season with a range of uncertainties, such as who would play and where they would practice, it must be refreshing for the Bears to have a team familiar with each other back in its regular environment.
They’ll get their first in-game experience of the year Thursday, Oct. 28, facing off with Westmont College. Although it’s only an exhibition, it will be the first game the team has played in front of fans since the 2020 season. With returning players, new experience and a crowd to play in front of, the Bears will look to start replacing last year’s sullen silence with raucous cheers.
Casey Grae covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].