Throw those preseason predictions right out the window. The Pac-10 women’s basketball race is up for grabs, and no one can say who will end up in the winner’s circle.
Preseason favorite Stanford has lost two guards to injury, and Oregon lost last year’s conference player of the year before the season even started. Those injuries have brought them back to the pack, and Arizona and Oregon State have stepped up to join them at the top of the conference. With conference play starting on Thursday, no one really knows what to expect.
“I think you’ve got a number of teams that could vie for the championship,” Cal head coach Caren Horstmeyer said Tuesday. “I don’t know that there are any teams that can go through the conference without a few losses.”
This is Horstmeyer’s first year at the Cal helm, but she’s very familiar with most Pac-10 programs from her 12 seasons as head coach of Santa Clara. So rather than concentrate on learning her opponents, she has spent her time working on her own team’s game.
“I have seen a lot of the teams, and I’ve played a lot of the teams,” she said. “If there’s been an adjustment period for me, it’s been seeing where we are as a team.”
The Bears start the conference season Thursday against Arizona, one of the conference’s top teams. The Wildcats have surprised many by going 10-2 in the preseason despite the loss of four starters from last year’s team. Freshman forward Veranda James has stepped forward to lead the team in scoring and rebounding, but the improvement has come from all over the roster. All five starters are averaging double figures in scoring, and Arizona’s only losses have come to ranked opponents.
“They’re probably the best running team we’ve seen all year. They run very well, and they penetrate to the basket very well,” Horstmeyer said. “We’ll play very aggressive defense against them, try to limit their transition opportunities and limit them to one shot.”
The Bears go into Pac-10 play with a 4-6 record, and they have been inconsistent on offense this season, scoring more than 70 three times but less than 52 three times. This up-and-down performance is due to the team not having any consistent offensive threats. Leading scorer Courtney Johnson hit for 32 against Santa Clara and 27 against Alabama, but has been held under double figures five times. Johnson is the team’s point guard, but not a natural floor leader. When she is forced to concentrate on scoring, the rest of the team seems to sag.
The key to the Bears’ success may be guard Kenya Corley. The senior is averaging 17 points in Cal’s wins, but just 5.2 ppg in the five losses she has played in. When she is scoring, Johnson can concentrate on distributing the ball and running the offense, which clearly makes the Bears a better team.
The team will get an offensive boost with the return of freshman forward Kiki Williams. After missing the first nine games with a stress fracture, Williams returned in the win against San Jose State. The Marin native is a superior athlete, and can score from inside or outside. Although the coaching staff considered redshirting her following the injury, she has impressed in practice and should see regular action this season.
With all offensive forces intact, including center Lauren Ashbaugh and forward Ami Forney creating chances in the paint, the Bears feel they have a chance to break out.
“I think we’re starting to shoot the ball with more confidence. You can see it in our shooting drills, and our percentages have been higher in our games lately,” Horstmeyer said. “We still have our moments when we don’t shoot well, but I think we’ve made great strides in that area.”
Ashbaugh, a senior who has gone through the growing pains of a young team, agrees.
“There have been times when we couldn’t shoot a lick,” she said. “We’ve definitely got the talent to be better this year. I think we’re still learning and still growing, and if people would underestimate us, it’d be wonderful.”