Last season, in her first year as California's head coach, Lindsay Gottlieb guided the Golden Bear women's basketball team to a 25-10 record, including a 13-5 tally in the inaugural Pac-12 season, resulting in a second-place finish in the conference.
The Bears earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament, where they bowed out to top-seeded Notre Dame in the second round.
As the 2012-2013 season looms, Gottlieb's Bears are no longer under the radar, having received top 15 rankings from all the major polls. As she prepares her team for the opener, Gottlieb took some time to talk to the Bear Insider about how last season ended, how the players grew in the off-season, and what to look for in the upcoming campaign.
Bear Insider: Hi Lindsay. Before we talk about this coming season, I would love to loop back to the end of last year. You have said that outside of winning your last game, last season ended as well as you could have hoped. What did you mean by that?
Lindsay Gottlieb: For every coach in America, the ultimate goal is to win your last game, whether that's your conference championship or your NCAA championship. So other than that happening, it was as good of a way as it could have ended, meaning that we felt like we were playing one of the top teams of the country-they ended up losing in the national championship game-on their home floor, and they had to beat us to win that game. After halftime, they came out and made some adjustments and did a really good job. We battled the whole game, and our players did not leave with sense of disappointment. They left with a sense of encouragement, of, "We're not quite there yet, but this is where we want to be." And they felt good that at that point of the year, we were fully engaged and playing good basketball. We got beat by a team that was playing a little better on their home floor. But it was a motivating factor for the rest of the summer to say, "We're right there." We needed to get better and use that as a jumping off point. That's why it was such a positive thing.
So even though you lost, it was a matter of knowing that you played well, that you were tied at halftime. Was that what made the Notre game Dame different than other close losses you had earlier in the year-Rutgers, Texas, Ohio State?
The way women's basketball shook out last year, there were four teams that were at a different level than everybody else. Those were the four No. 1 seeds-Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford, and Connecticut. It wasn't really close. That's how it played out. I felt that at the end of the year, the way we were playing, we could beat anyone potentially, other than those four teams. Not that we couldn't beat those four teams, but we would have needed to play outside of ourselves, spectacular, to beat one of those four teams, especially since we were on their home court. That's why we did not want to be an eight-seed. In retrospect, it worked out because we won a good game against a nine-seed and then we got to play one of the country's top teams and saw what we could have done better. But I felt like, one comment Doris Burke made at our shootaround was that she had never seen a team at that time of the year so dialed in during a shootaround, so confident in their own ability but also able to focus in on the scouting report. And so given the circumstances, we had a good showing, and it allowed us to say, this is a team, even though our style is different than Notre Dame, we could take a lot from them, because they do things the right way, and their players, as talented as they are as individuals, the whole was better than the sum of their parts. If we were given a different seed and draw, could we have made the Sweet Sixteen? I think so, if things fell the right way. But given the way it ended, it gave us a lot of motivation for the off-season.
And of course, as it turned out, playing a top seed gives you a lot more exposure.
Exactly. I was on the All-American committee that meets at the Final Four to choose the All Americans, and the things the other coaches were saying to me, especially those from the East Coast, meant a lot. It shows that there was a lot of respect for us on the national level. And particularly the Big East coaches in that room, because I don't think they recognized what Cal basketball was all about, but to be able to play Notre Dame that tough, that meant a lot to them. Once people saw how good Stanford was last year, our overtime game against them meant that much more. So those things helped us from a reputation standpoint, but more than anything, the feeling we had in the locker-room after the game was a positive motivating factor for our players in the off-season. It led to a very good off-season.
When you look back, what would you say was one area where you grew as a coach last year?
I think being able to keep the team bought in to what our goals were, despite the fact that at this level, there are a lot of people pulling on them. We have a lot of great players, and getting them collectively to buy into the group goals was the thing this staff was most proud of, that at the end of the year, we felt like these players did what they said they wanted to do, which was make a name for themselves, built an identity as a team that plays hard and has fun playing together, and that the team and the name on the front of the jersey is more meaningful than individual stuff. And that's what people said to me when I walk around town, "Hey, your players are fun to watch. Your team plays hard." And that, more than wins or whatever, was what we wanted to do, to get Cal back to the school from the West Coast where people say, "Hey they're doing something special."
When we spoke before last season, you did identify the need to build the chemistry and culture of the team as a main area of focus. You said you wanted to have it established early, so that in January you could talk to them about screens or out-of-bounds plays instead of identity and team-building. But was it smooth the whole way, or was there a moment during the season where you had to revisit the issue or re-set things in some way?
There wasn't one big moment where we said we had to get back to doing things the right way. As a coach you are always repeating messages, you're always articulating how you want your team to be and how you want them to handle themselves. But I thought our players bought into that all the way through. And absolutely we were making tactical adjustments in January or February, and not saying we need to play hard, or we need to commit to one another. We continued making sure that the core foundation was still solid, but no, there wasn't a time that we needed to go back and revert back to that. You have to have the pulse of your team. For example, there was the day, after that brutal overtime loss to USC-you and both know that's a loss that can sting you for a little bit. We watched film in the locker room, and we went up to the court, got ready for practice. Then I broke them into two teams, and we played whiffleball. I felt what the team needed at that point was to say, "Shake it off. We're fine. This one loss can't make us question ourselves." We never let anything deter us. We had some tough losses, but we kept bouncing back. We kept getting better.
So during the off-season, there were some changes in the program. Lindsay Sherbert transferred; Brittany Shine joined the team. You also had a change in your coaching staff, where Katy Steding is now one of your assistants. What has she brought to the program?
It's been amazing. I thought we had a pretty good thing going with staff-player dynamics and player development; I didn't feel like there was a huge lacking area. But to Katy's credit, she's been able to come in, and initially have the mentality of, "Hey there are good things here; I don't want to rock the boat," and was able to seamlessly transition. But now, with what she has brought, you say, "Wow, how did we survive without her?" That's how good she is. She is particularly good with individual skill development with the posts. What I mean by that is, she can jump on the court, and say, "When I needed to get to create separation against a bigger post player, this is what I did." She could physically show the players what to do, which is amazing. At the same time, her demeanor, her personality already have them believing in her. She's really good with the balance of on-court pushing you and the off-court talking about what the players might need. So that's the biggest addition. Aside from that, she's a just a good personality to have around. She's a great complement to Charmin and Kai. I think the fact that the players can look at her and say, she has a national championship ring, she played professionally overseas, in the Olympics, in the WNBA. She has been everything and done everything that they aspire to. And yet she still connects with people. So yes, she's been a great addition.
You mentioned it's been a good off-season. What kind of growth have you seen from your players?
Particularly our former freshmen-rising sophomores, just seeing Gray and Boyd, that's where you see the greatest leaps. Those kids came here last year and played their tails off. They were gamers; they jumped in right away. But they were doing it without the luxury of all the preparation and everything you get that goes into understanding college basketball. As freshmen, you're trying to get their heads above water, and what a scouting report means. To their credit, they really performed last year. But the biggest growth, all three of them, was their commitment to the preparation and work that goes into being a top college athlete. That was really neat to see that.
Can you give me specifics about the preparation and work leading to results?
First of all, look at all their bodies. Their bodies are different. They move better. They're in better shape. They're stronger. But also, just their ability of not just to get through a drill or a practice but to attack it. There's a confidence level because they know what's going on. Then there are personality things. Everyone on our team gets along, but we told Boyd, beyond the people you are friends with, you want to form relationships with people that will help you excel. So we told Boyd to attach herself to Layshia this summer, and she did. And Layshia pushed her-"Put a little more weight on that." Boyd has the luxury of someone two classes above her who is probably the hardest worker anyone has ever met. And to her credit, she said, "OK, I'm going to learn that from Layshia." And that was a really good relationship. But that's just one example. You see things develop once a team has some chemistry that goes beyond whether we get along, but we're pushing each other to be great.
Boyd and Layshia are an interesting combination. The age/experience gap makes sense, but in terms of personality, on paper, it's not a match: Layshia is a quiet leader, while Boyd tends bounces around. But perhaps it becomes a complementary, symbiotic thing?
Layshia's demeanor is steady and she is naturally introverted. But it's fun also to see Layshia's growth, because just as we told Boyd to attach to Layshia, we also said to Layshia, "You got Boyd." So if Brittany is in the office, Layshia then would say, "C'mon, let go get some shots up." So Layshia has definitely become more vocal.
The other area where you see the differences with all of them is that now they are very confident in their knowledge of my system. So they know when they work on skills on their own, what they needed to do to improve for our transition offense, for example. So that's an advantage, obviously. Because as much as we tried to expand their skill sets last fall, they didn't know what it was for. They couldn't see it. So there was a focus to the skill work that was there. And I said to them at the end of last year, "We want to be really good [next] year not simply because we don't graduate anyone and other people do. We want to be really good because everyone returning is much better than last year." Muffet McGraw said some very complimentary things about us, that we were going to be good next year. I told them, "We want to exceed her expectations. We want to exceed what anyone thinks we're going to be. We don't want to be just more experienced. We want to be better, individually and collectively."
You don't have any freshmen on the squad this year. I assume this is probably the first time that has happened to you?
Yes, and probably will be the last time! Such a unique situation, but we've really embraced it. Let's take advantage of this anomaly of a year. So there are two areas where I've tried to use it. First, we have been able to push ahead on the learning curve so fast. From the first day of practice, our rate of improvement should be faster than other people's, because as sophomores, juniors, and seniors, you should grow at a faster rate. The second thing is that it has allowed me to say, there are some things I see as a college basketball coach, that could be done that are a little outside the box to help college athletes excel, but you don't always have the bandwidth for, when, again, you're trying to help freshmen keep their heads above water.
You know how we have the idea of High Performance here, where we in the Athletic Department says that student athletes don't manage all the things in their lives independently, that basketball, school, strength and condition, the training room, nutrition, it all works in conjunction if you're doing it successfully? My philosophy has always been to have all those things working together, but there has not been a computerized, on-the-phone, real-time management system for that. So I had Jess and Gil essentially create a web-based tool that we're calling their Individual Development Plan. So now our players all have on their phones an Individual Development Plan. It tracks not only their classes and practice schedule, but their tutoring, and their notes, or if they need extra shots with Charmin, or tracking their 3-point attempts. So that's something that we were able to establish that now will become one of the staples of Cal women's basketball. Because we had no freshmen, we could get the current kids integrated into this new system. They love it, they're on top of it, and it's something that will set our program apart.
Okay, let's look forward. What can we expect on the court from the Bears this year?
We hope to do many of the same things as last year, and just do them better. Identity wise, we hope to be one of the fastest teams in the country. We hope we can be fast and convert at a higher rate. We'll be fast and turn over less. When we are in the quarter court, shoot the ball better. And that doesn't just mean the three; it's shooting higher percentages from everywhere on the court.
Am I putting in 17 new plays? Probably not. But the ones we're running, the players will be more comfortable with the options and our skill sets are better. We are definitely putting more pressure on the basketball. We can expect be a better team defensively. Again, not that we are re-inventing the wheel and putting in three different defenses.
This off-season, looking at the fact that we were 7th, 8th in many defensive categories, we feel that we can do better. You know, we're essentially one player down from last year, so I wouldn't say that we are deeper. I would say that our line-ups are more varied. I'll be very comfortable to go with the small line-up, which is Eliza, Boyd, and Layshia. I didn't use that very much until the end of last year, but that's clearly one of the line-ups we'll use. The really different thing will be using the big line-up, which will be using three of our four bigs in the game. I definitely feel that we have four All Americans, and I don't want two of them out all the time. You have to do some things to make it effective.
What has allowed you to move towards using a variety of line-ups? Is it the improved skills of the players so now they could be used in a different position?
I think it's comfortability. A lot of our transition offense is interchangeable parts. When you play Boyd, Eliza, and Layshia together, all three are really comfortable being the point guard, and then our two and three are interchangeable. It gives us more fluidity. It gives me the flexibility.
But the “big line-up”
is not something you’ve used before. How will that work on defense, for
That's a really different thing. The issue when you put those three in together is that, can you guard people? I think that we can. Believe it or not, and I think she'd be the last person that people would think of about this, but Talia moves the best laterally. And then, we have to do things effectively on offense, to take advantage of mismatches. The very flip answer would be just to get shots up on the rim and if we miss, it doesn't matter, we'll just get the rebound [laughs].
But you'd be surprised how much the players need to feel confident in knowing what they're doing, and what are we running with these three, and in playing multiple positions. Our guards are really comfortable now with playing multiple positions, and now I need to get the posts to be comfortable with playing out of those 4 and 5 spots. So I'm trying to do that as effectively as I can where the advantages we gain outweigh any disadvantages.
I imagine Katy is helpful in helping them make that transition.
She was the original big 3 at Stanford. She came in as a 4 player. Then Tara brings in Trisha Stevens and says, "OK, this kid is going to be ahead of you at the 4, you can either sit or learn to be a 3." Katy said, "I'd better learn to be a 3," and turned out to be one of the best shooters in the world. Do I think our big 3s are going to look the way Stanford has? Probably not. There's not one of them at this point who is a consistent 3-point shooter, but we can do some things for sure that are going to be tough for people to guard.
Looking at your non-conference schedule, Duke jumps out. Was it your goal to upgrade your schedule this year, to build on the buzz from last year?
We definitely wanted a Top-5, Top-10 opponent on there. You know, scheduling is not an exact science; you have to get people willing to play you and all that. We thought Duke was a great home-and-home to start, because we'll go there, then they'll come back with Chelsey Gray, and there'll be a crowd. But also, there are the haves and have-nots in women's basketball, and there are the elite programs. Duke has been one of them. We're obviously trying to get to that level, and to get there you have to play those teams. So we make calls out to the Tennessees, the UConns, the Notre Dames, the Marylands. and Duke was the one that worked out. So absolutely that's the kind of team that we want on the schedule.
That being said, we also have the Big East, with Georgetown, coming in here, with consensus All-American Sugar Rodgers. We have Kansas coming here; they were in the Sweet Sixteen last year, and they get back their best player. They have two kids projected to be in the WNBA draft: Carolyn Davis and the point guard who is really good. And we're going to Northwestern. So we try to set up on the non-conference schedule where we measure ourselves against a lot of BCS programs. Clearly Duke is No. 3 in the country, so that's the one that jumps out, but there are a lot of measurements on that non-conference schedule too.
What are your goals this year?
We have different goals than what we had last year. I tend to make the goals not be, "Let's be nine and one," or "Win every home game." Of course we want to win every game. But the goals are a little different this year, in that we are aiming to win a championship. Not that we didn't want to win a championship last year, but we said, "Let's be in the top four in the conference and get a bye for the Pac-12 Tournament. Let's get back to the NCAA Tournament." We did both of those and then some. But this year we have raised the goals a little bit. At the same time, you have to measure progress a lot of different ways, because if your only goal, if you're only going to be happy if you cut down the nets, I think you're missing what is the remarkable about college athletics, which is the process along the way. So I hope that there are a lot of good things along the way.
What's your read of the Pac-12 this season?
I think it's going to be surprisingly tough. I think almost every team is going to be better than they were last year, some incredibly so. I think UCLA is a top-25 type team, once they get everybody back and healthy. I mean, just look at their roster, talent-wise; it's really strong. USC remains one of the more talented teams in the country, when you put it down on paper. I think Oregon State is better. I think Arizona State is always good. There are no easy games in the conference. Last year, there wasn't a lot of talk about how we took care of business most of the time, which isn't easy to do. We have to do that again.
You have to win the games you're supposed to win, but they're not easy to win. It's was interesting, in our conference meetings at the end of the year, both Kevin McGuff and Anthony from Utah, who had come from quote unquote high-level mid-major conferences, they remarked at how every game was tough and how the conference was deep. But now the conference will be deep, but everyone will also be better.
And an improved conference only helps you in terms of RPI and seeding when the NCAA Tournament comes around.
We in the conference all know that we have to go out there and beat people in the non-conference. We need to elevate our own conference so that we get more than two teams in the Tournament, and so that the second-place team is not an eight-seed. It's two-fold: I think people in the East will respect us more because they'll see more games on the Pac-12 Networks, and we need to go out and win non-conference games, so that everyone's RPI is higher.
Finally, talk a little bit about what you want this year for your four seniors: Layshia Clarendon, Eliza Pierre, Talia Caldwell, and Tierra Rogers. They've stuck through some ups and downs here at Cal.
The whole team feels really strongly that we want this to be a special year, for a lot reasons, but very much so for those four kids. They came here as a group on the heels of the Dev-Ash-Lexi era and said, "We want to go to Cal and do some special things." Their careers haven't gone exactly as they would have mapped out. And heading into last year, they were called "underachievers." And whether or not you agree with that, it's a hard thing to hear. Also last year, they had a huge part in creating an identity that's really positive for this program, and everyone wants them to see the next step this year and reap the rewards of that. They're completely capable of doing that, because those four kids have emerged as great leaders, collectively. They work very hard, and they're very talented, so you want us to have a great year so they can go out like that. For sure, Layshia and Talia want to play professionally, so we want to have the type of season where people are recognizing, for Eliza as well, how good they are as individuals because of the team's success.
Thanks, Lindsay. Best of luck this season!
Lindsay Gottlieb and her Golden Bears will open the season this Friday, November 9, against Lehigh, in Haas Pavilion. Tip off is 7 p.m.