Analyzing the Pac-12 Struggles of Cal Women's Basketball
Why is a promising collection of talent sitting in 11th place?
When you look at the individual pieces, you’re left thinking that this couldn’t possibly be a team sitting at 2-10 in the Pac-12.
After all, Cal has a sophomore who led the conference in scoring as a freshman. Cal has a veteran point guard who is an efficient shooter and distributor and has garnered conference defensive honors in the past. Cal has two transfers with proven Pac-12 experience. One is one of the best pure shooters in the conference, the other a heady defender and capable scorer. Cal has a veteran post player who regularly fills up the box score. Cal has a bench full of capable reserve players. Why can’t they compete at a higher level in conference play?
First, let’s get the obvious part out of the way: The Pac-12 is the best conference in the nation. But that’s ultimately only part of the equation, and an unsatisfying answer anyway. This isn’t a new problem, and Cal has no choice but to play the schedule in front of them.
I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure it out, and I think I finally hit on the most succinct way to summarize the problem:
If you look at Cal’s roster it’s not like it screams ‘undersized,’ but the inches add up. McIntosh and Curry are 5’5’’ and 5’6’’ respectively and are basically tied for 1st on the team in minutes/game. Peanut Tuitele and Evelien Lutje Schipholt are 6’1’’ and 6’2’’ and are regularly giving up size to post players around the conference. Cal gets bigger when Claudia Langarita (6’4’’) and Michelle Onyiah (6’3’’) play, but Langarita is more of a stretch/finesse interior player and doesn’t bring a ton of rebounding to the floor. Based on individual rebounding rate, I’d say that Onyiah is probably the only plus rebounder for her position on the team.
This lack of size manifests itself in two clear ways: rebounding, and interior scoring.
Cal is regularly outrebounded. In conference play only, Cal is last in offensive rebound rate and 2nd to last in defensive rebound rate, and the result is that Cal has been outrebounded by about 7.5 in conference play.
Meanwhile, Cal’s lack of size means that opponents have lots of success scoring in the paint, and Cal is last in Pac-12 play in 2 point defense (49.5% allowed).
These are common problems for teams playing small, whether by choice or by necessity. But of course there are potential positives of playing small. In theory, what you give up in size you can make up for in other areas, like speed or shooting. Maybe they can get out in transition, or have a big turnover advantage by getting in passing lanes and having good ball handlers. Maybe they have so many shooters that they rain death down upon their opponents from behind the arc.
Unfortunately, it just hasn’t worked out that way. Cal’s Pac-12 turnover % is virtually identical to its turnovers forced %. Cal’s 3 point shooting (33.9%, 5th in the conference) is solid but basically league average.
You can see the size issue in action when you watch. On one hand, Curry and McIntosh are both excellent ball handlers and good passers. They don’t give up possessions cheaply. But they are regularly being guarded by bigger players who are able to bother them with ball pressure. Passing lanes are tough to find and both players can struggle to find space to get deep shots off because opponents are aware of the danger both players pose as shooter.
Maybe in a different conference that isn’t the single best, most talented conference in the nation, Cal could get away with playing this small. But in a conference with 8 teams expected to make the tournament, it’s not something Cal has been able to get away with.
Are their strategic solutions to this problem? At times I’ve hoped to see Cal play a more active, disruptive, pressing defense that would take advantage of their potential depth. But when Cal presses it’s only occasionally successful, so I’m inclined to think that it wouldn’t be very effective as a base set.
There are potential long-term solutions to this problem on the roster. Michelle Onyiah has the size and strength to match-up with other Pac-12 posts. But she’s just one player, and still struggles to finish shots and play defense without fouling. Cal needs to add another player with Onyiah’s rebounding and defensive skills.
Meanwhile, Amaya Bonner (6’0’’) is a potential solution for size and athleticism at the guard position. She’s only playing token minutes in Pac-12 play as a freshman, but Cal fans will be hoping for a big sophomore jump next year.
Beyond that, Cal will likely have to address the issue via the transfer portal, though I’m not really sure at this point how many scholarships Charmin Smith will have available to use, with many players having eligibility left that they may or may not want to use.
But for now, Cal has no choice but to try to find a way to overcome this disadvantage in what remains of the season. Cal will stand a good chance to win when the play last place Arizona State in Tempe next Friday, but once that' game is complete, every single game left in the season will be against a team expected to make the NCAA tournament. There is no rest for the weary.
Excellent write-up and you make some good points about what has become a frustrating season. To me the problem is simple. Cal's best teams have had players like Brittney Boyd, Alexis-Gray-Lawson, Layshia Clarendon and Asha Thomas in the backcourt and Reshanda Grey, Kristen Anigwe, Devani Hampson and Jennifer Brandon at the post. They have no one of that quality on the current team. There are no players who can carry them in close games. More concerning is there's no help on the way. There is no one in the next recruiting class and, depending on transfers out, probably only room for one to three newcomers via the portal. Selling five star high schoolers on the program is going to be a tough sell. Hopefully Charmin Smith is up to the task.
Would be interesting to see what the home attendance has been for recent Cal men's home games versus the same number of the most recent women's games. I took a quick look to see if I could do it and really can't, at least quickly. Not asking anyone to try either, but I bet the numbers are close, especially if you look at the last four or so games.