Oct. 26, 2007
BERKELEY, Calif. - Coming off one of the best seasons in school history, the preseason eighth-ranked California women's basketball team looks to live up to even higher national expectations in 2007-08.
Cal posted a 23-9 overall record last season, marking the first time the Golden Bears recorded at least 20 wins in 15 years and the first time the program registered consecutive winning records in 14 years. The Bears were also one win away from matching the program's 1983-84 school record (24-8). Under Pac-10 Coach of the Year Joanne Boyle, Cal played in its second straight NCAA Tournament. The eighth-seeded Bears faced the ninth-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the opening round in Pittsburgh, Pa.
This season, Cal looks to advance to its third straight NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. More importantly, the Bears hope to post their first postseason victory since 1993. That year, Cal advanced to the second round of NCAAs for its best showing in school history.
"We've spent two years building the program," said Boyle, who has directed Cal to a 41-21 (.661) record in two seasons at Cal and a 108-50 (.684) mark in five years as head coach. "The players recognize that we've laid the foundation. Now, we need to take the next step. They don't want to just go to the NCAA Tournament; they want to make some noise in the tournament."
The preseason prognosticators have high hopes for Cal this season. Athlon Sports magazine tabbed Cal No. 8 in its preseason top 25 poll, which gives the Bears their highest-ever ranking in any major poll. In other preseason polls, Women's Basketball Magazine lists Cal at No. 11 and Lindy's picks the Bears No. 15.
In 2006-07, Cal earned at least one victory over eight of its nine Pac-10 opponents, highlighted by a 72-57 victory over No. 8 Stanford Feb. 4 at Maples Pavilion. The win snapped the Cardinal's 50-game home Pac-10 winning streak and 17-game overall winning streak and gave Stanford its only conference loss last season.
Clearly, Cal has a high standard to build on during this year's conference slate. Last year's Bears posted a 12-6 Pac-10 record to equal the 1991-92 team for the school's best Pac-10 mark. In 2006-07, the Bears claimed sole possession of third place in the conference to slightly surpass the 1991-92 squad, which tied for third, for the previous-best Pac-10 finish in school history.
This season, Cal looks to build upon the consistency it showed a year ago, only once losing consecutive games at the end of the season. Cal also logged an impressive pattern of sweeps over its conference foes. The Bears swept the Washington series on the road for the first time in school history, the Oregon schools at home for the first time since 2000-01 and USC and UCLA at home for the second straight season. The Bears also swept the season series with Arizona for the first time since 1991-92 and the Washington State series for consecutive seasons for the first time since 1985-86 and 1986-87. Cal also swept the Oregon State series for the second time in the last three seasons and added its second consecutive season sweep over USC.
Cal returns four starters and eight letterwinners from last year's team and welcomes two talented freshmen. Boyle will have the luxury of having a deeper, more versatile bench this season.
Junior forward/center Devanei Hampton, the 2006-07 Pac-10 Player of the Year, and junior forward/center Ashley Walker, who joined Hampton on last year's All-Pac-10 team, headline the returners. The Bears are also excited about the return of junior guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, the 2005-06 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, who started the first nine games of 2006-07 before tearing her ACL.
In Gray-Lawson's absence, sophomore guards Natasha Vital and Lauren Greif saw big minutes for the Bears as rookies. Vital was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman squad, while Greif was tabbed honorable mention Pac-10 All-Freshman.
"With Lexi getting hurt, the other players had to step up," Boyle said. "It forced people outside of their comfort zones and to take on bigger roles. The players became united on the floor. Everyone felt for Lexi, but the players knew they had to move forward in her absence. That shows their confidence as a team and what they're capable of."
Forward Krista Foster, Cal's only senior, and sophomore forward/center Rama N'diaye proved to be capable reserves last season, and junior forward Shantrell Sneed looks to see more playing time this year.
Guard/forward Kelsey Adrian, a member of the Canadian National team, and freshman guard Rachelle Federico, a three-time honorable mention Street & Smith's All-American look to make immediate contributions.
"With more depth, our coaching staff will have options, and we'll be able to keep our players fresher," Boyle said. "We'll have more scoring threats from the outside. The inside-outside combination will be something we can rely on."
Cal looks to continue its improvement on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. With Hampton and Walker combining for 33.9 ppg, Cal averaged 67.9 ppg (fourth in the Pac-10), which was the program's best output since the 1995-96 Bears averaged 71.8 ppg and an improvement over the 2005-06 season's 64.8 ppg.
On the defensive end last season, Cal established school records for field-goal percentage defense (37.3%, 2nd Pac-10) and scoring defense (60.1 ppg, 3rd Pac-10), breaking the previous records of 37.8 percent and 60.4 ppg set during Boyle's inaugural year in Berkeley. In 2006-07, Cal ranked in the top five in 13 league statistical categories.
"We're not doing this alone as a staff," Boyle said. "Our players have bought into what we're doing. They believe in what we're doing, and we believe in them. It's a united front, and we've built this together, as a family. They're proud of the respect we've earned, but they know we must continue to prove ourselves. We have a lot of work ahead of us, and the players are excited about where this journey is headed. We're evolving as a team and are trying to add pieces to the puzzle."
Cal's backcourt benefits from the experience of junior Alexis Gray-Lawson and sophomores Natasha Vital and Lauren Greif. Gray-Lawson, who can play the one or two spots on the floor, averaged 10.6 points and 3.1 assists per game before tearing her ACL Dec. 10 at Kansas. The 5-8 Oakland, Calif., native became the first Cal women's basketball player to be selected Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in 2005-06 after averaging 14.6 points per game. Her best game in a Cal uniform arguably is her 30-point effort on 11-of-15 shooting at Stanford as a freshman.
"Lexi has worked hard in her rehab to come back strong from her injury," Boyle said. "Having to sit out was difficult, but allowed Lexi to really see the game. I think she'll be an even more mature player out there, and we're certainly excited to have her back on the court."
In Gray-Lawson's absence, Vital started the final 23 games at point guard for the Bears and was forced to handle the majority of the ballhandling. A 5-8 native of Stockton, Calif., Vital averaged 7.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game overall but as a starter, averaged 8.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 5.0 rebounds per contest. In conference games, Vital ranked first in minutes played (39.39 mpg) and second in assists (5.4 apg). Vital showed phenomenal endurance, playing at least 40 minutes 13 times, including a career-high 49 minutes in a double-overtime win at Oregon State and every minute of the team's last five games.
"Tasha has demonstrated incredible growth over the last year," Boyle said. "She is playing with confidence and has worked hard to take her game to a new level. Tasha has become more vocal and is a floor leader. She and Lexi will form a dynamic combination in the backcourt."
Greif was also an iron woman for the Bears as a rookie shooting guard, leading the team and ranking fifth in the Pac-10 in overall minutes played at 36.25 per game. One of two Cal players to start all 32 games (Ashley Walker the other), Greif was fourth on the team in scoring (8.2 ppg) and third in rebounding (5.4 rpg). The Portland, Ore., product paced Cal and ranked seventh in the conference in three-point percentage (35.0) and sixth in three-pointers made per game (1.50 pg, 48 total).
"We talk about Lauren being our `connector' kid, as she provides a steady, calming influence on the floor," Boyle said. "She has a high basketball IQ, and her teammates look to her for floor leadership. Lauren is shooting the ball well, and I think with some added rest this year, she'll shoot an even better percentage from three-point range."
The addition of freshmen Kelsey Adrian and Rachelle Federico should help keep the veterans' big-minute games to a minimum. Adrian, a 6-1 player from Langley, British Columbia, who can play the one, two, three or four positions, has been competing for the Canadian National team since she was 16. She was the youngest player at the 2006 World Championships and started for her country at the 2007 Pan American Games.
"Kelsey has gained invaluable experience playing for the Canadian National team," Boyle said. "She has played against top competition on an international stage, and those experiences have prepared her to come in and play as a freshman."
Federico, whose nickname is Mooch, was ranked No. 102 by Blue Star Report at Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, Ariz. As a senior, Federico's outside-shooting prowess helped her team to the 5A state semifinals, as she earned second-team all-state, first-team all-region and first-team All-Southern Arizona honors. She also utilized her athleticism to earn second-team All-Southern Arizona recognition on the school's softball team.
"Mooch is a great shooter and is a very good athlete," Boyle said. "As she adds strength and goes against top competition in practice, I think we'll see her improve by leaps and bounds."
Junior Ashley Walker returns as a confident starting power forward, while the starting small forward role is to be determined with the graduation of Keanna Levy, who was named Cal's Defensive MVP as a senior.
Walker, a 6-1 forward/center, led the Pac-10 in rebounding (8.7 rpg) and double-doubles (12) and finished third in scoring (17.3 ppg). The Modesto, Calif., native continued to be one of the Bears' most consistent players, registering double-figure points in 28 of 32 games. She has led Cal in scoring in first-round NCAA Tournament games the last two years, recording 21 points against St. John's and 20 points versus Notre Dame.
"Ashley has established herself as one of the best players in the Pac-10, and has arrived on the national radar as well," Boyle said. "She showed a maturity last year by doing so much for us on both ends of the floor. Ashley has worked hard on her range this summer, and there's no doubt she's a go-to player for us."
Senior Krista Foster (6-0), junior Shantrell Sneed (6-0), sophomore Rama N'diaye (6-5) and freshman Kelsey Adrian will vie for time at small forward. Foster can play on the wing or in the post for the Bears, contributing 3.6 points and 1.8 rebounds per game last season. She shot well from the floor at 52.4 percent and was also a three-point threat, converting 7-of-19 attempts.
"Krista is an unselfish, hard-working player," Boyle said. "She'll take on whatever role we ask her to that will help our team. She has a great vision for figuring out what the coaching staff and her teammates need from her."
Sneed saw limited action in 13 games as a sophomore. The Fairfield, Calif., product was the co-recipient with Foster of the Alisa Lewis Heart and Hustle Award.
"Trell has worked hard to develop her small-forward skills," Boyle said. "We asked her to go from playing the post out of high school to the wing, and she is much more comfortable in our system than she was a year ago. Trell will bring confidence and energy to the floor."
N'diaye has the versatility to play the three, four or five positions on the court. N'diaye, who hails from Dakar, Senegal, topped all Cal reserves in scoring (4.6 ppg), rebounding (2.8 rpg) and blocked shots (12 total).
Adrian spent her senior year of high school as one of 12 inaugural members of Canada's National Elite Development Academy (NEDA), which focuses on the training and education of some of the country's top young, basketball student-athletes.
Devanei Hampton, a 6-3 junior forward/center from Oakland, Calif., has been heralded as one of the nation's top post players, earning a spot on the 2007-08 Wade Trophy Preseason Watch List. As a sophomore, Hampton garnered an array of honors after leading the Pac-10 in rebounding (8.9 rpg) and ranking second in scoring (18.9 ppg) in conference games. She received Kodak/WBCA and Associated Press honorable mention All-America recognition, became the first Cal women's basketball player to be selected Pac-10 Player of the Year and joined Milica Vukadinovic and Trisha Stafford as the only Bears to twice receive first-team All-Pac-10 accolades.
"Dev is the returning Pac-10 Player of the Year, and we will continue to look to her as our dominant low-post presence," Boyle said. "We have asked her to carry a huge load for us in her first two years, and she responded to the challenge. She has a tremendous combination of power and skill, and in her junior campaign, she has the chance to make her mark as one of the nation's best players."
N'diaye looks to step up her production as Cal's back-up center. A member of Senegal's National team, N'diaye posted her only double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) of 2006-07 at No. 14 Vanderbilt. Before enrolling at Cal, N'diaye spent a year studying and playing at Keisei High School in Kumamoto, Japan.
"Last year was a big growing year for Rama," Boyle said. "She had to learn the language and adapt to living in a whole different world. Going against Dev and Ashley every day last year helped her prepare for this year, and she's already stronger and more confident than a year ago."
Walker will also see some time at center, as she possesses the necessary quickness, athleticism and shot-blocking ability to battle the top posts in the country. She has led Cal in blocked shots her first two seasons and already ranks sixth in school history with 94 blocks.
Cal's 2007-08 schedule features nine teams that competed in the 2007 NCAA Tournament and one WNIT selection. Rutgers, the 2007 NCAA Tournament runner-up, highlights the non-conference schedule.
"We have put together a schedule that is both challenging and exciting, and we're ready for it," Boyle said. "We want to put our players in situations early in the year that will ultimately get them ready to compete for a Pac-10 championship and make a deep run in post-season play."
The Bears play four of their first five regular-season games on the road. After the season opener at Fresno State, Cal travels Nov. 15 to UC Riverside - its first game against an NCAA Tournament qualifier. The Bears then return to Berkeley Nov. 18 for their home opener against New Mexico, which also earned a trip to the Big Dance last season.
Cal's non-conference slate doesn't get any easier, as the Bears spend Thanksgiving Weekend playing two more NCAA Tournament teams - TCU Nov. 23 and Baylor Nov. 25. The Lady Bears lost in the second round of the 2007 NCAAs.
Cal then returns home for three games, beginning with Loyola Marymount Nov. 28 and a round-robin Contra Costa Times Classic Nov. 30-Dec. 2. Cal battles Saint Mary's - its second straight WCC opponent - Nov. 30 before facing Vanderbilt, which advanced to the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament, Dec. 2.
The non-conference road slate wraps up with a trip east to play Princeton Dec. 8 and Rutgers Dec. 10. The Scarlet Knights lost to Tennessee, 59-46, in the NCAA title game last season. Before starting the Pac-10 schedule, Cal entertains Kansas Dec. 21.
Cal opens conference play at home against Washington Dec. 28 and Washington State Dec. 30. The Bears ring in 2008 at USC Jan. 4. Cal concludes its home schedule against Pac-10 powers Arizona State and Stanford at the end of February. The regular season ends March 2 against Washington in Seattle.
Stanford, Arizona State and Washington joined Cal as Pac-10 representatives at the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Oregon earned a spot in the WNIT field. The seventh-annual Pac-10 Tournament will be staged March 7-10 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.