For Heralded 2005 Recruiting Class, It's Now or Never

Bears Look to Build on Last Year's Record-Setting Performance on Shoulders of Talented Senior Class

Photo: Senior Devanei Hampton returns for her senior season as a two-time All-American. Cal's center will start the year on the sideline following an offseason knee procedure.
Nick Fradkin/File
Senior Devanei Hampton returns for her senior season as a two-time All-American. Cal's center will start the year on the sideline following an offseason knee procedure.

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Over three years ago, the pieces were set in motion for what was then thought to be resurgence in the Cal women's basketball program.

As if by fate, first-year coach Joanne Boyle inherited a nationally acclaimed recruiting class that consisted of Alexis Gray-Lawson, Devanei Hampton, Shantrell Sneed and Ashley Walker.

Right off the bat, the group led the Bears to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1993 and followed it up with two more bids, a school record for consecutive appearances. But while it's clear that the program has rebounded, many still believe this group has underachieved, especially in the last two seasons.

Last year's squad, which broke school records for wins in both the regular season (27) and the Pac-10 (15), was picked to go deep into the postseason. But Cal's NCAA tournament run ended abruptly with a last-second shot by George Washington in the second round.

Now, in what will be the fourth and final season for most of that loaded recruiting class, the No. 9 Bears look to finally show the rest of the country what they're truly capable of.

"Each year brings a new motivation for us, but this year, mainly for the seniors, it's our last chance," Gray-Lawson said. "When you have that, it makes you want to strive for better things."

Heading into the season, the Athlon Sports preseason poll has Cal ranked at No. 2, the highest ever in the program's history. Some polls even have the Bears edging out higher-ranked Stanford to win the Pac-10 title.

With all of its starters from the 2007-08 campaign-including All-America selections Hampton and Walker-returning this season, Cal presents a strong case to take its first-ever conference title.

Still, as talented as this year's squad looks on paper, the sheer number of players has drawn some concern. The Bears have only 11 players listed on the roster, add the fact that post forwards Hampton and Rama N'diaye won't see action early due to injuries and the depth issue becomes even more glaring.

"Depth has been a problem for us for three years," Boyle said. "You just have to make adjustments and try to capitalize."

With seven guards to utilize and Walker as its only post presence, Cal will look to raise the tempo early on in the season and push the ball up the court often. Because this group has only added two freshmen to its roster, the adjustment process has been relatively smooth so far.

"They walk into practice with a high level of confidence, so the pace we're going at has been very quick," Boyle said. "They're very crisp and not sloppy with things."

The Bears will have a chance to test out their small lineup in two home exhibition games, with the first slated for Wednesday against Chico State. Cal kicks off its regular season Nov. 14 against Albany and, not too long after, it will take on No. 5 Rutgers. The Bears will also have to deal with top-25 teams in No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 19 Baylor before they begin conference play.

With N'diaye scheduled to return in December at the earliest after tearing her ACL in the first round of last year's NCAA Tourney, and no time table on Hampton's recovery from her offseason knee surgery, Cal will have to find a way through its tough non-conference schedule with its guard-heavy rotation.

"We're playing a tough schedule and trying to get them ready for the tough Pac-10," Boyle said. "It's a long season so we just have to improve daily and make sure we're peaking at the right time in March."

By the time spring rolls around, the Bears should have their two key post players back to create a balanced attack.

With the roster at full strength, Cal's seniors will have an opportunity to write the closing chapter of their record-setting history here. Under Boyle's tutelage, they have reached unprecedented heights in the past three seasons but have also fallen short. With only one more shot left, the desire to finally break through is apparent.

"We're a lot older this year, with all the juniors and seniors, so we pretty much know what it takes to win," Gray-Lawson said. "Now it's just a matter of putting it all out there."


Contact Jimmy Tran at [email protected]

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