Despite finishing last in the Pac-12 last season in Charmin Smith's first year as head coach, expectations are high heading into Cal's 2020-21 women's basketball season with the addition of a freshman recruiting class ranked as the seventh best in the country by ESPN.
On Wednesday, Cal announced its first player signing for the class of 2021: Jayda Curry, a 5-foot-6 guard from Centennial High School who averaged 22.4 points as a junior. She received honorable mention All-American recognition from MaxPreps.
However, the emphasis for now is on the 2020-21 season, and making headway in the Pac-12, which has four teams ranked in the preseason AP top 10, will be tough enough. But the unusual circumstances necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic have made preparations difficult, especially in terms of integrating the Golden Bears' six freshman into the program.
"The biggest difference is that we're several months behind schedule for our season," Smith said. "And then, you know, we're wearing masks. I'm not allowed to touch a ball, or touch a player, so it's really different in terms of how I interact and how I get to teach throughout the prctice as well."
Cal lost a number of players who played prominent roles in last year's 14-18 squad that went 7-11 in the conference, and all six freshmen figure to get significant playing time this season.
The lack of traditional practice makes it more difficult to work in the six freshmen, who require extra time to learn the way things are done at the college level.
"Yeah, they're more than half of our team," Smith said. "It is really challenging when they didn't get the summer workouts to get acclimated to both on the court and just getting used to Berkeley courses and such."
The highest rated freshman is Dalayah Daniels, who is ranked as the nation's 13th-best prospect in the class by ESPN. Ugonne "Michelle" Onyiah is ranked 35th, Fatou Samb is No. 51, and 6-foot-8 Sela Heide is No. 89. Cal also added two international players who come in as freshmen: guard Alma Elznitz of Sweden and guard Ornela Muca of Greece.
Somewhat surprisingly, Smith said Elznitz is the newcomer most ready to make an immediate impact.
**Smith gives a thumbnail assessment of each of the six newcomers in this video:
They will join a Bears squad that is led by the one returning starter -- sophomore point guard Leilani McIntosh -- and sophomore Jazlen Green, who made a significant impact late last season and ended up being the team's No. 2 scorer behind Jaelyn Brown.
But with Brown and her 15.1 points-per-game scring average gone, the Bears have no players who averaged double figures in scoring last season.
Senior Alaysia Styles, a Cal starter last year when she was the team's third-leading scorer, announced her transfer to Maryland last month. As a result every scholarship player on this year's team has arrived since Smith became head coach.
Sophomores Cailyn Crocker and Evelien Lutje Schipholt are the other players who figure prominently in Cal's plans this season, although their playing time may be curtailed by the presence of the highly touted freshmen.
The Bears will play 22 conference games, although the Pac-12 schedule has not been released.
Cal is planning on playing three nonconference games before the start of conference play. Nothing is official yet, but Smith says the Bears expect to open the season with a Nov. 25 game against San Jose State, followed by a Nov. 29 game against Cal State Bakersfield and a Dec. 10 game against San Francisco. All three would be played in Berkeley, with the conference season to follow.
**Charmin Smith discusses the likely nonconference schedule:
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