There’s a human element to sports at any level, and in Lindsay Gottlieb’s office, just a few steps from the Haas Pavilion court on the University of California campus, it shines forth.
There are commemorative basketballs, and the various paraphernalia of a coach always on the move. Smartphone plugged in to battery source. Numerous water bottles. All that running around. But it’s the photos that grab you. On one side of the wall rests a collage from the thrilling Final Four run in 2013. Nets cut down to the rim’s orange bone in Lubbock and Spokane. To the right, a shot featuring Mikayla Lyles and Avigiel Cohen, both now graduated. They’re vaulting off the bench, hailing their teammates.
It’s fitting. Gottlieb would do anything for any player, past and present. This is just a reminder of that.
On a recent weekday, while a Cal campus bathed in sunlight and shade thrummed with the start of a new academic year, Gottlieb spoke to SLAM about seasons past and present. In this upcoming campaign, Cal has a chance to be pretty damn good. And they’ll do it the way they’ve been doing it under Gottlieb. Quintessentially quirky. Unbelievably talented. Unfailingly resilient.
In just her fourth season at the helm, the program has reached the point where the 22-10 (13-5 Pac-12) season seen in 2013-14 isn’t good enough. These players want more. They’ve poured in work during the spring and summer. Three uncommonly talented freshmen are joining the ranks. Two unbelievable seniors will lead the way. That bodes pretty well, you’d think.
It’ll be different. It’ll be thrill-ride levels of fun. It’s Cal basketball.
SLAM: You seemed to be beaming through the press release that announced the arrival of Devanei Hampton and Sweets Underwood to Cal this past week. These are two of your former players. Is this one of your proudest moments as a coach?
Lindsay Gottlieb: It sounds kind of cheesy, but it is, 100 percent, the most gratifying part of coaching. It’s why we do this: to see players succeed and reach their own goals in life, whatever it is. I’m just as happy when Mikayla Lyles (Cal basketball, 2010-14) is going to be moving onto a movie set some day, but it’s so immediate to be able to help players through basketball.
Derrick Florence, the high school coach that coached Sweets—this guy grew up in Compton, went to Harvard for grad school, then decided to come back to work at this school in Compton to help kids with aspirations like himself meet them. He connected Sweets to me. This is a kid who lost both parents by the time she was 7, and was raised by an aunt and uncle who told her, “Anything below an A in school is not acceptable”; they were so academic-oriented. I connected with them when I got to (UC) Santa Barbara.
When you recruit a kid, it’s about so much more than just, ‘I’m gonna coach you.’ It’s, ‘I’m going to be in your life.’ Derrick was that coach, and they’re the ones who brought [Mercedes] Jefflo (current Bears sophomore) to Cal camp when she was in the seventh grade. So you see all these connections. And Derrick wrote me this text: “What you’ve done for Sweets, and for Jefflo, it’s everything you’ve said you’ve done. It’s why we do this.” That’s really what this whole purpose is: that you can impact these kids’ lives. For Sweets, she was playing overseas, and she actually had a health issue that effectively ended her professional playing career.
I remember being in the NCAA Tournament (last season), and it’s the day before we play Baylor in the Round of 32, and Jefflo comes up to me and asks, “You talked to Sweets?” And I say, No, and Jefflo says, “She’s in the hospital, and she won’t tell me what’s wrong.” So I told her, I’ll find out, don’t worry. I call Sweets, and I ask, What’s going on? And she says, “Jefflo needs to prepare for the game, she doesn’t need to worry.” I was like, OK, Jefflo won’t worry, but I need to know what’s going on. Do I need to go over there? And she told me what was going on, and essentially had to get her mind thinking, ‘OK, life after basketball? OK, what can we do?’ And Sweets said, “Well, I might want to coach, I might want to be an academic advisor, I might want to marketing, I don’t know.” And I said, Well, we’ve got this internship at Cal; it’s perfect. And it worked out from there, and just having the ability to impact their lives beyond teaching the pick and roll defense, to me, that’s the most important thing.
With Dev [Hampton], it’s pretty widely talked about. We got here, Joanne (Boyle, then the Cal head coach) and I, and I’d never lived on the West Coast, I certainly had never coached anyone quite like Dev. And the first time we sat across from each other, she probably thought I was an alien from outer space. I was totally intimidated by her. She’s this All-American from Oakland, and it took some time, but I probably became as close with her as any player, ever.
Being at her grandmother’s in Oakland, helping her through the injuries and academics and all that. When I left to go to Santa Barbara (in ’08), you tell them, I’m leaving this job, but I’m not leaving your life. I think Dev’s the only kid we’ve had that’s come through and hasn’t gotten a degree, so it was really important for me to facilitate that happening, and she wants to do it.
Now she’s a mother, with a son, she was working and like, ‘I want to do this.’ We made it happen, and the NCAA is really good about paying for kids to come back and finish their degree and letting them on the court. It’s just a great chance to have her share her experience with our players, to really live the notion that we’re a family, that we don’t just say it. But also, the most important thing, she’s given so much to me, to this program and to this university, that she needs the degree. We want to make sure that that happens, so she can do anything that she wants. Moving forward with her life, that’s really important to me.
SLAM: Berkeley has become a home for you. That’s made all the more interesting given that you were born in New York, played basketball at Brown University, and got your start in coaching on the East Coast. What has made this place so unique, and special?
LG: When you’re an assistant, you don’t totally have control of your life. So I was Joanne [Boyle’s] top assistant during our last year at Richmond (2004-05), and she was the hot, young coach. And there was big turnover that year; it was one of the first years when it was like, ‘Oh, women’s basketball, there’s going to be turnover closer to the men’s.’ I remember Miami, Colorado and Cal were open. And they all kind of showed some interest, and I remember thinking…obviously, Joanne and I are close, and she’s going to consult me on this, but where she decides to go, I either go, or I don’t have a job. It’s a weird feeling.
So, I was really excited that she chose Cal, for a lot of reasons. I thought the Bay Area was a pretty appealing place, I knew about the incoming freshman class, about the academics. I knew that Adam Duritz was a big Cal fan, and maybe we could get the Counting Crows connection going. [Laughs] That kind of stuff. (Duritz is the CC’s lead singer.) In theory, it was great. But you also have to pack stuff up and get on a plane and move 3,000 miles away. So it was really stressful. And for me, I played in the Ivy League, I’d been successful connecting to those kids at Richmond, but it was a mid-major thing. I was like, What if I look at the Devanei Hamptons and Ashley Walkers of the world, and they don’t listen? I definitely had to go through my own process with it.
But because it was such a big move, Berkeley did become home really quickly. The first thing is with the players, I consulted some people that I know and trust. Two things I learned: If the players believe you know what you’re talking about, they listen. They don’t care if I played at Tennessee or at Brown. They really don’t—if they believe that I can get them where they need to be. And they did. The second thing is, if they know that you care about them, then they’re gonna run through a wall for you. Those were the two things for me that I learned.
And there was just that bond with that group and this place, and taking Cal from 13 losing seasons in a row to eighth in the country when I left. There was a connection and a feel here that was really strong. And then, I had a choice of different jobs around the country, but I loved California, and I was going to take a good job—I wasn’t going to take any job—and Santa Barbara was such an appealing place for women’s basketball.
It also made a lot of sense. The same club coaches I’d had relationships with, and was calling, now I was calling, and maybe I’m talking about the third or fourth kid on the roster, instead of the McDonald’s All American. But I could use my reputation that I’d built with them, and the relationships, so it made sense.
And obviously, coming back (to Cal), I didn’t have some grand plan. I didn’t say, Oh, I’ll go to Santa Barbara until Joanne leaves. I didn’t expect that. I certainly was open, at the time, to considering East Coast, but really saying, I’m going to do a great job at Santa Barbara and I could be here for 15 years.
When the Joanne move (to Virginia) happened, it felt so right. It felt like, I was supposed to come back here to Cal. I’m a student of women’s basketball, and the landscape of women’s basketball was changing such that there could be an opening for another school to join that ‘elite’ group. There was only Stanford on the West Coast that had consistently been great. Obviously, [Arizona State] has had some runs, and other people have had success, but I wanted to say that the best players, if they want to go 3,000 miles away, more power to them, but I don’t want it to be because there isn’t an option where you can play for championships and get a great education, other than Stanford.
I wanted to make that happen at Cal. Obviously, I believe in this place and the mission, and I think there’s such a support for women’s basketball here. So all those things together, I think, make it the ideal spot for me, and I think it’s a good fit because I love it here, and I think the community in turn has embraced me wanting to be here as well.
SLAM: You were struck by the potential at UCSB. That head coaching stint often seems passed over when your career is examined, particularly after your immediate and resounding success at Cal. How much did your first head coaching job prepare you for Berkeley?
LG: More than I can articulate. I sort of get asked by young coaches and young people, ‘What’s the right way to be successful?’ And there’s no one path. It’s not a profession where you can say, Oh, do A, B and C, and then you’ll get to D. There’s a lot of ways.
But for me, there are some things that…all I can do is say how valuable they were for me. The first thing is working for Joanne, when she was a first-time head coach at Richmond. Because she said, “Come with me, let’s do this together.” It was as close as you could possibly be to being a head coach without actually doing it. It doesn’t mean that someone who goes to work for a coach who’s been at a place for 30 years doesn’t get a lot of value out of that, but it’s different. Going to someone who’s looking at a group for the first time and saying, ‘Trust me, believe in me, let’s set up this program.’ That was one thing that was huge.
The other thing, for me, was being at this high-level program at Cal, but then taking my first head coaching job at a place that was the right fit. I think sometimes coaches make bad decisions on jobs. Either it’s not a good job, or it’s not a good job for them. It might not be the right time. For me, I felt like I was ready to be a head coach, but it’s one of those things where you can be ready on paper, but then you have to do it.
It was a chance to…call a timeout myself, be the only one talking in the huddle, make mistakes, learn from them, and put my core values into action. Believe that those can work, but also make adjustments as necessary. It was valuable in so many ways. And again, I always say, I wanted to take my first job in a place where you think you can be for a very, very long time. I don’t think you’re successful if you say, Oh, three years, and I’m on to the next thing. That mindset’s not going to work.
But I also think, I see a lot of assistants take jobs, and they don’t think about how they’re going to be successful at that place. They’re not asking, “What is the recruiting footprint for here? What is my vision for this place?” If you’re recruiting to Duke, or Tennessee, or Cal, or UConn, it’s one thing. And then you go to a different place, and you have to understand that maybe the type of kid you’re going to recruit is different, or what you want to run is different, or you have to kind of be aware of what it’s going to take to be successful, to make sure that you can be. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m a great coach, and I’m going to be successful wherever I go.’
For me, Santa Barbara was a wonderful place to develop as a young coach, to make mistakes, to grow, to learn, to continue to build my style and relationships with people. Coming back here to Cal, then, I was far more prepared than I would’ve been had I just stayed at Cal and got the job.
SLAM: A first head coaching job allows you to incorporate your personal values—even bolster them. At Cal now, Devanei Hampton is undertaking this new coaching endeavor. She’s graduating and helping prepare the current players for a life beyond basketball. Is this a core value for you?
LG: I said it in my staff meeting yesterday. We had a high-performance meeting with staff, plus our trainer and strength coach. We’re kind of setting up for the season. Really, every single thing we do should be about setting up our players to have the best possible academic and athletic experience, while they’re here and beyond. Really.
I’m reading [John] Calipari’s book (Players First), and whatever you think about him, it’s about the players. We have this opportunity to coach them, to teach them. Through basketball, let them get an incredible education. Now, I also want to be accessible to our fans, be a great part of the community, I want Cal basketball to get a lot of wonderful things, but at the end of the day, the players that come here and put on the jersey and walk across the stage at graduation, that’s what it’s about. I think we live that. I’d much rather have someone tell me I ran the wrong play at the end of the game than I didn’t treat a player correctly. That’s huge.
Other of our core values. I think we’re incredibly innovative, I think we try to push the envelope and not just do what’s been done, but to create an elite program in women’s college basketball based on who we are. I think we embrace each player’s individual character insofar as it makes the team stronger, the team better. I think it got a lot of publicity with the Final Four team. I was so comfortable that they believed in the Cal across the front of their shirt that if one of them has crazy hair and another one wears skinny jeans and another one wears baggy jeans, I’m OK with that. In fact, we embrace that, because I think the strongest team is a collection of various individuals. The same way we’re going to ask one kid to set more screens, and one kid to shoot more, this kid’s gonna get in the newspaper and this kid’s gonna do the dirty work—not everyone’s the same.
But if you bring these kinds of values and embrace the various aspects people bring to the table, it makes for a stronger unit. It also makes for stronger human beings, in general. Those are the things. Really caring about players, valuing all of them, even though they don’t all play the same amount, or get the same accolades. I think part of this family and this culture here that is supposed to empower each them to be great while they’re here, and after.
SLAM: The 2012-13 team was special. By the time they reached the Final Four in New Orleans, the nation was able to see it. Coming into last season, you lost three key players and a spiritual leader (Tierra Rodgers) from that team. Then, Gennifer Brandon is out. Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray are thrust into new leadership roles. How tough was it to get going in ’13-14?
LG: The first thing is, Talia (Caldwell, a senior on the ’12-13 team) is going to play in Greece. She left yesterday (August 26). She stopped by over the weekend, and we were just talking, and even she and I were like, with a little distance, and a little bit of perspective, she was like, “Sometimes I just sit and think about how unreal that year was.”
It was just really hard to be, whatever-and-2 we were before we lost to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament and then we went on the Final Four run. We were talking about how it really was…fun. It had this supernatural feel to it. We’re in sports, so we understand there’s going to be pain and failure and success and you’ll learn from it, but that year was just so…you could just bottle it and say, there should be a 30 for 30 made about it. That’s what Talia said.
Coming off of it, we were conscious that we want to use this as a springboard to be consistently great, even if every year doesn’t look exactly like that, and I do think we are on that path. I have no problem that we come back from that, and people are asking, ‘Are you going to win the Pac-12 again? When are you going back to a Final Four?’ I mean, isn’t that what you want? Those kinds of expectations. We want to be thought of in that realm.
I think now, in retrospect, I knew that we were graduating great production, with those three we were graduating, and great leadership and veteran knowledge with Laysia, Talia, Eliza and Tierra. But I sort of didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’d never been a coach coming off a Final Four, and how that might affect people. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint what areas we might need work in. What I sort of realized as we were going through it was, it wasn’t just, ‘OK, we’ve graduated three significant players,’ it was that every single person on the team was going to be in a brand new role. Whereas the year before, we had everybody back. I think the Final Four year was so strong because everyone was coming back, and they were just better. They were in similar roles.
Now, it was new for Boyd and Gray. They had the luxury as freshmen and sophomores of stepping in and making plays. They were gamers, they were wonderful energy, they were competitors—but they didn’t have to get everybody ready for practice. They didn’t have to be 35-minute-a-game players. Afure Jemerigbe (a senior last season) was in a new role. Our freshmen are brand new and asked to contribute. The role players were in different and/or different roles. Mikayla Lyles, Justine Hartman: each person had something new.
I think that I didn’t quite…I wasn’t quite prepared…for the impact of the Final Four in terms of the players’ mindsets. They’re human. It wasn’t a conscious, ‘Oh, we think we’re great.’ But their mindset was, ‘OK, when we get back to the Final Four…when we get back to the postseason,’ whereas the year before, we had very much been like, ‘OK, we have to be better at practice tomorrow, we have to be better the next day.’ These are kids now who’ve had this taste of this big thing, and so that’s what they want, but I think the focus maybe should’ve been on smaller things along the way.
One thing I was really proud of was how much we improved through the season, and the way we were playing at the end of the year. We lost to Washington without Boyd, and we lost in the Pac-12 tournament (quarterfinals), so it looked like we slipped up. But I thought the progression over the course of the year…we were pretty darned dangerous in postseason.
We played at Baylor, and it was a tough situation, but it was a great game and felt a lot like being at Notre Dame in the ’12 NCAA tournament, where we were like, ‘Hey, we’re in this game, we’re just not quite good enough.’ And we talked about it. This is why you don’t want to be a 7-seed. Each game matters, so that you end up as a 2-seed instead of a 7-seed. That kind of thing.
Coming off of that, I think this spring and this summer, I’ve had a really, much more acute pulse of what our strengths are and what the potential downfalls or weaknesses could be, so we could address them proactively. I think it’s been an incredible spring and summer. We’ve really worked on our discipline and mental toughness and leadership and who we are and what we’re about. Things that never went away, but things that we need to reemphasize because that’s what makes Cal special.
I think these kids have totally bought in, and I actually think we have the chance to do some pretty special things this year. I think it’ll look and feel a little different than the Final Four year, but I think there’s a feel about it, like…the kids were saltier this spring and summer. They lost a little before they wanted to last season, and we have a little bit of that chip on our shoulder back. It’s an incredible group. We have more basketball players who can do more things on the court than we’ve ever had, in terms of multi-faceted kids, and I think it’s going to be exciting.
SLAM: There’s a human element to sports at any level. Thinking of your father, who passed away just weeks before last season was set to begin. A piece of you was ripped out. How do you begin a season after such a blow?
LG: Yeah…you know, my dad was not ‘young,’ and he had some health things going on, but nothing life-threatening. We certainly didn’t expect that. He’d been in the hospital for a relatively minor bladder procedure, and it was a Wednesday, and we had the Thursday off at Cal. We were in that fall practice time.
And I would often call on my way home, you know, it was 7, 8 o’clock, so it was 10, 11 o’clock on the East Coast, right as my dad’s going to sleep or whatever. So I knew he was in the hospital, and I talked to him, and he sounded OK, even though he’d rather be home than in the hospital.
My sister had gone with her kids to the hospital and they’d played that day. So we had a conversation, he asked about practice that day, and it was totally normal. And I go home, do whatever. And my phone is always on. I have 18- to 22-year-old children who can call at any hour. And my sister called at like, 11 o’clock my time, 2 a.m. their time, which is not a good sign. She and my brother had left, they’d gone home from the hospital, and just at some point after that, he had heart failure. And someone…I’m sure somebody saw it, and they revived him, but he was pretty much gone.
So it was literally in the middle of the night, I’m emailing (Cal associate head coach) Charmin Smith, ‘I’m going to be gone.’ I didn’t want to wake anybody up. It was just this crazy kind of obviously emotional time, emotional for me and my family, but at the same time, I do have this family here, and the things that go through my head of, I would never leave them without telling them, so to Charmin and (Cal assistant) Kai Felton, I said, You have to meet with the players so they don’t think I’m abandoning them. I found out in the middle of the night.
We had to get Gen Brandon separately, because she and I are so close, and her stuff with death, and just all of the things we had to do. But I will say, credit to Charmin and Kai and our players. I was worried about all that logistical stuff; they were so great about being like, “We got you, you spend time with your family, you do what you need to do.” And I’ll forever be grateful for that. I think if I didn’t have such a warm and capable and wonderful people here, I might not have felt like I got the closure that I needed to get. Ace—Avigiel Cohen, a senior on the ’13-14 team—came into the office and said, “This must be hard for you; what do you need from us?” You see people emerge in ways that change you forever.
I was gone from Cal for like, 10 days. I missed the Saint Mary’s scrimmage. Can you imagine? I missed a scrimmage! It’s crazy, you know. But coming back…it was obviously wonderfully comforting to be around the team, and this community, the people that reached out, it was unreal. I told the story of the kids pooling money together and sending flowers. Like, these kids don’t have money, and for them to each give $10. They allowed me to do my process.
At the same time, I was obviously really aware that I am still their head coach. It’s not that I can’t be human, and I can’t be vulnerable, but in a good way they feed off how I am. So I pride myself on never being in a bad mood, or putting too much stress on them. So similarly, I did not want to put what I was going through on them in any way—although I knew that they were there for me, and they were a source of strength for me. But I certainly wanted them to feel like I still was OK. And I was OK. But you go through stuff, and I don’t know…it was interesting.
SLAM: There was a palpable “saltiness” emanating from the team this spring. A sense that they wanted to return to where they feel they belonged in the national reckoning. When you met with the players ahead of this summer, with an eye peeled toward ’14-15, what message did you impart?
LG: Let’s address where we weren’t good enough and make it better. And that’s a hard thing to do sometimes. They know how great I think they are. I’m not afraid to say we have this, this and this—and nobody else has that, and we want to play fast, and people can’t stop us when we do this, and we’re talented…so to then be able to say, OK, we didn’t get to where we needed to be, so what do we need to do better?
I always say to them, when it’s November, December, January, February games, I want to be able to look at the film and say, ‘We need to be able to play better transition defense. Or, move the ball better. Not, Who are we? What are we about?’ So we spent time just revisiting what we are about.
We brought in The Program, which is former Marines, to do a two-day thing. They teach team cohesion, togetherness through shared adversity. We put them in situations outside their comfort zone. We address things like mental toughness and discipline, if we say we’re starting at this time, we’re here early. Things that have always been part of our program, but it felt like we had to make an emphasis on it so that they realize when it comes down to basketball, we want to be able to showcase our physical capabilities on the court, but there’s a lot of work that goes on outside of that to make sure that we’re functioning as highly as we can.
We hit it hard in the weight room, with conditioning, skill sessions were more competitive. We raised the standard in terms of expectations, I think. They loved that. These are competitive kids who don’t like not being at the very, very top. I also think, we use things I hear to motivate them. I don’t necessarily think people are talking about us coming into this year. OK. So what do we want to do about that?
SLAM: The Program is renowned as a terrific realm in which leaders emerge within a team. Did you have the same experience?
LG: There were so many moments. We only have 10 kids, so there is a spotlight. I’ve said this to everyone. The fact that Brittany Boyd bought in so headfirst made the whole weekend work. The first time the guys said, “I need a leader to step out,” Boyd sprinted about as fast as only Brittany Boyd can sprint from here to here (Gottlieb uses arms to display short distance), and said, “I got you.” She was completely locked in. She’s been a really good leader all spring and summer, but I think this was one of the defining moments.
The Program is really good. They talk to the coaches for two hours before it starts, asking, “Who are your leaders? Who needs to step up? Who are you looking for?” We tell them stuff, and then see how it emerges.
I think that was big, and then our sophomore class—we don’t have a junior class—so I think the sophomore class has a lot in it to kind of burst and come out this season. Courtney Range and Mercedes Jefflo in particular. The other thing, there’s this segment in the pool the second day, and let me just say, our players are not that comfortable in the pool, so there were tears.
But it was interesting, because kind of on the whole, the people who were the best swimmers were not necessarily our kids that play the most or score the most. So, they now had to really take on, like, OK, if you can tread water, you can swim, and meanwhile Reshanda Gray’s flailing in the water.
You have to take on a role, now, the burdens that leadership takes sometimes, or performance. So that was neat to see, kids that maybe have the swagger or whatever, the best players have to be vulnerable. A lot of dynamics came, which was huge. But all of our players bought in. I think there was some really, really good things that emerged in terms of leadership. But mainly, I think that our players want to be special, and they’re willing to do some hard things to do it.
SLAM: The sophomore class brims with talent. Take Courtney Range. Few players in the country can match her skill set and ceiling. How has she improved this summer to get closer to reaching that potential?
LG: The number one thing, to put one word on it, is confidence. Now, as a coach, and I say this to her all the time, confidence comes because you’ve put the work in, because you’re earning that right to be confident. But you often see that freshman to sophomore leap where you’re not just trying to keep your head above water; you’re more in command. I always talk about, you want to be in command of the workout. Boyd now commands workouts; the workout doesn’t command her.
Courtney has been in the office a lot, and we talk basketball, and she throws in style conversations in the midst because she’s a very girly-girl, but we talk about her goals—and she has these really big goals—and she’s so capable, and she just needs to be pushed at times.
We have built that relationship where I’m always going to make sure that she realizes the ceiling is even higher, and I think our best players here don’t need to compare themselves to one another, or even to other players in the conference…but what do you think Maya Moore did when she was heading into her sophomore year (at UConn)? Those are the kinds of things.
Range looks great. She’s strong, the workouts…I think she figured out how to attack the workouts, as opposed to just getting through them. We really are excited about what she can do this year.
SLAM: Last season, when Boyd had the ball at the top of the key, defenses might sag off and double- or triple-team Gray in the post. Then, if Boyd drove to the basket, they’d collapse. Their improvements in skill have been remarkable, but what have they done to take the next step as seniors?
LG: A lot of it is verbal, because a lot of what you do in the offseason is conversation. They both understand that ’13-14 was the first year that they had to be relied upon completely, and when you’re relied upon that much, you’re exposed.
Gray had probably one of the best seasons…I mean, her improvement was ridiculous. Her shooting percentage, her points and rebounds…but of course we talked to her about the foul trouble. We don’t take it for granted, but we acknowledge her physical capabilities, and we say OK, now the next step is staying out of foul trouble. Now the next step is to get through double- and triple-teams. Some of it, for them, is realizing that’s as much your next level of growth as the physical.
That’s the first thing, the mental part of it: just being consistent leaders. I’ve talked a lot with them, about whether they’re going to be professional basketball players or not, having our kids prepared going into senior year for what’s next. Because it’s a big deal to go into senior year and then graduate. So the two of them, I have to have a sense of what that player needs, whether it’s, ‘Relax, you just need to play’, or ‘Think about this, that next thing.’ From a mental standpoint, we talked about that being a big growth.
From a physical standpoint, I was on the phone with coaches and GMs in the WNBA, asking what they need to do. Obviously, I know what we need them to do to be better for us. They both have the mentality now, ‘We’re not just doing workouts because coach says.’ They are motivated on their own, they’re doing extra. Gray has worked a lot on her perimeter skill. Not to be a 3—she’s not going to be a 3—but to make her a more effective 4/5, to be able to pull people away from the basket when she is being double-teamed. To be able to be in great condition so she doesn’t get tired and foul.
Boyd worked on her jumper relentlessly, but she’s also worked on her conditioning and the other parts of her game, just to give her all the options available to her on the court. I’ve talked to them: If we are at our best this year, those two combined may average less of a percentage of our points. We shouldn’t be as reliant on the two of them with points, if you ask me. But I think they’re both better players than they were six months ago, which is exciting.
SLAM: For the freshman class, Penina Davidson is a bit of an unknown, stateside, but it’s pointing out the obvious to wager that Gabby Green and Mikayla Cowling could be pretty good players this season. What specific areas do you see them bolstering, though?
LG: I think this concept that we’re always going to be able to put five people on the court that are dynamic basketball players. Gabby and Mikayla both fit that in different ways. As does Courtney Range. As does Jefflo. Multiple players fit that mold. Gabby and Mikayla are both incredibly athletic and long. They bring different kinds of scoring dynamics. Gabby’s a legit 6-2 kid who handles and makes decisions from the 2-guard spot like a Layshia Clarendon. She can shoot it, she can come off the ball screen and pass, she can get to the rim. Cowling is in that Courtney Range dynamic of, sometimes you’re just like…Oh my gosh, did that just happen? She’s so athletic. She gets above the rim for rebounds. She’s freakishly athletic in a Gen Brandon way, but with a guard’s skill set. When she shoots her pull-up jumper, it’s unguardable, because she’s so big and she gets up. We did a one-on-one-on-one one day in practice with Jefflo, Boyd and Cowling. Jefflo and Boyd are gonna kill me that I’m saying this, but we gave them a hard time. Cowling won two out of three of those one-on-one-on-one games because when she rises and goes into her mid-range jumper, there’s nothing they can do—if she’s feeling it. She’s kind of a rhythm shooter.
In addition, and I talked about this to the older kids long before the freshmen got here, we need to be so good, and so together, and so solid, and such leaders, have our—excuse my language—shit together so well, that these freshmen get to do what the Boyd/Gray/Hartman freshman class got to do, which is come in and be students and not worry about too much. That’s the luxury that Boyd and Gray had, because Layshia and Talia and Eliza and Mikayla and Ace were so solid. That’s what I want. I want to take other dynamics off their plate, and they can be great student-athletes. I think they’re going to be capable of doing that, and we need them to do that. We have 10 players, we expect everyone to contribute. And Nina too. I think Nina is going to…she’s the unknown quantity, I guess, but she’s going to be able to step in and give us stuff. It’s never just one great class that makes a great team. It’s classes, stacked. In ’12-13, if we didn’t have the Layshia class, as veterans, along with the Boyd and Gray class as young ones, and Fu [Jemerigbe] and Gen in between, that’s how you get really good. The fact that freshmen don’t know sometimes that they’re supposed to be nervous, don’t know that this is a big game, or don’t quite have all of the knowledge that can help a team, if you have the older ones anchoring and saying, ‘We need to be sharp in shootaround.’ That balance is, I think, what makes a great team.
SLAM: This is the senior season for Boyd, Gray and Justine Hartman. When they were freshmen, you were in your first year as Cal head coach. Does that lend a certain poignancy to this season?
LG: I think every season—and this is what I love about college basketball—you see the growth of every class. You see the way that they change, and come into their own in certain ways. I sort of feel that way every year. But yeah, I’m aware that this senior class, we were freshmen together, sort of, and they don’t know anything except the NCAA Tournament. They’ve had this incredible ride already, but now you want this to be everything they want it to be, without feeling pressure all the time. I have to kind of make sure that’s not the prevailing sentiment. I want them just to play every day, work every day, go to class every day. But sure, I think about, like I do every year, but particularly this year, the journey of where they’ve come, and I’m looking forward to the things that they’re going to be able to do this year. It’s going to be pretty exciting.