CAL

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LAST SEASON: 32-4, 17-1 (tied for first in Pac-12)

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COACH: Lindsay Gottlieb, third season at Cal, 57-14; sixth season overall, 113-53

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KEY PLAYERS: Junior guard Brittany Boyd (12.5 points, 4.3 assists), senior forward Gennifer Brandon (12.3 points, 11.1 rebounds), junior forward Reshanda Gray (8.3 points, 5.3 rebounds)

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SCOUTING REPORT: Coming off its best season in school history and first ever trip to the Final Four, Cal again is expected to be one of the nation's top teams. The Bears are ranked No. 9 in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls and have two national player of the year candidates in forward Gennifer Brandon and point guard Brittany Boyd. Both were named to the Wade Watch and Wooden Award preseason lists. Brandon is recovering from stress fracture surgery, however, and her return date is unknown, though the coaching staff is optimistic it will be before the start of conference play. Reshanda Gray will be the Bears' inside threat in Brandon's absence. ... Boyd impressed during the Bears' summer tour to China and will be counted on to replace some of the leadership and production of first-round WNBA draft pick Layshia Clarendon. ... After playing with zero newcomers last year, the Bears have two transfers and four freshman on the roster. Courtney Range could be the most impactive newcomer. The versatile 6-foot-3 freshman will help out in the frontcourt while Brandon is sidelined, but is just as good shooting 3-pointers from the wing. ... Pittsburgh transfer Kyra Dunn will be eligible to play beginning Dec. 22, just in time for the Bears' game with defending national champion Connecticut. Cal's nonconference schedule also includes a Nov. 10 home date with No. 2-ranked Duke.

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BOTTOM LINE: If Brandon can return in time for Pac-12 play and match last year's production, Cal should again challenge Stanford for the conference title and make a run in the NCAA tournament.

-- STEPHANIE HAMMON

STANFORD

  • LAST SEASON: 33-3, 17-1 (tied for first in Pac-12)

  • COACH: Tara VanDerveer, 28th season at Stanford 742-152; 35th season overall, 894-203

  • KEY PLAYERS: Senior forward Chiney Ogwuimke (22.4 points, 12.9 rebounds), junior guard Amber Orrange (10.8 points, 4.08 assists), senior forward Mikaela Rueff (4.2 points, 6.6 rebounds)

  • SCOUTING REPORT: Stanford returns four starters from a team that reached the Sweet 16 last season, graduating only forward Joslyn Tinkle. But that team relied too much on All-American Chiney Ogwumike, and coach Tara VanDerveer sees promise for a more balanced effort. "We can't have coattail players," said VanDerveer, who sometime in December is expected to become the fifth coach in women's basketball to get 900 victories. VanDerveer sounded buoyant because of five freshmen that she describes as an "A class." The coach also expects returning players to contribute more. "Last year, I was upset when Chiney shot because she wasn't rebounding, and I was upset when someone else shot because Chiney didn't have the ball," VanDerveer said. "She really had to do everything for us last year." But 6-foot-3 redshirt senior Mikaela Ruef has improved and the post players should get support from 6-3 freshmen Kailee Johnson and Erica McCall. If not for the medical retirements of senior guard Toni Kokenis and sophomore forward Aly Bebe, Stanford might be ready to handle reigning national champion Connecticut. ... As it is, the No. 3 Cardinal play at top-ranked UConn on Monday. VanDerveer isn't worried about the results from the early season showdown. She has too many injured players: Taylor Greenfield, Sara James, Erica Payne, Bonnie Samuelson and Lili Thompson. All are expected to be available for the bulk of the season. ... The 12-game non-conference schedule includes seven teams who played in the NCAA tournament last season. The big home game is Dec. 2 against No. 4 Tennessee.

  • BOTTOM LINE: The Cardinal will push for its 14th consecutive Pac-12 title. But questions remain whether the freshmen will be ready to help lift the school to its sixth Final Four in seven seasons.

    -- ELLIOTT ALMOND

    Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.

    SAN JOSE STATE

  • LAST SEASON: 11-19, 8-10 (seventh in Western Athletic Conference)

  • COACH: Jamie Craighead, first season at SJSU (51-70 overall)

  • KEY PLAYERS: Junior guard Ta'Rea Cunnigan (19.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.8 steals, 2.8 assists), sophomore center Riana Byrd (11.4 points, 10.9 points, 2.1 blocks), sophomore forward Emily Schill (10.8 points, 7.2 rebounds), freshman forward Jasmine Smith

  • SCOUTING REPORT: Tim La Kose laid the foundation; it's now up to Craighead to build on it. La Kose won more games (22) in two seasons than the Spartans had in their previous four seasons combined before he resigned in late August. Craighead inherits a team that includes Cunnigan, an all-WAC first team selection last spring, and Byrd, who made the all-WAC freshman and defensive teams while setting SJSU's single-season record for blocks (64). Smith made quite an impression on Craighead in San Jose State's exhibition win over William Jessup on Oct. 29, scoring 18 points and grabbing 19 rebounds. "Smith and Byrd together could be a powerful duo over the next three years," the coach said. Rebecca Woodberry, who sat out last season after transferring from Nebraska, and fellow junior guard Classye James, an Archbishop Mitty grad who played at Oregon State, round out the Spartans' starting five. Guard Britta Hall and forward Rachol West are expected to see significant minutes as freshmen in SJSU's first season in the Mountain West Conference. San Jose State's lone senior, guard Chereese Thomas, will miss the season with an injury.

  • BOTTOM LINE: Ranked 9th out of 11 teams in the Mountain West's preseason media poll, SJSU may have the pieces in place to finish higher.

    -- RAY HACKE

    SAINT MARY'S

  • LAST SEASON: 23-11, 11-5 (tied for third in WCC)

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    COACH: Paul Thomas, eighth season at Saint Mary's, 127-95; 19th season overall, 360-253

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    KEY PLAYERS: Senior guard Jackie Nared (16.6 points, 8.7 rebounds), senior forward Danielle Mauldin (13.6 points, 10.8 rebounds), senior forward Kate Gaze (11.0 points, 2.9 assists)

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    SCOUTING REPORT: With four starters back from a team that reached the WNIT quarterfinals, Saint Mary's could be primed for an even more successful season if it can be consistent. Coach Paul Thomas thinks his team was left out of the NCAA tournament last year not because of a lack of good wins, but rather some head-scratching losses. To get to that next level, the Gaels have made being "mentally healthy" a priority. "Can we get through the hurdles, the road blocks, the adversity with some maturity," Thomas said. "If we can do that, I think we're going to be good at the end." ... The Gaels boast two of the conference's top players in guard Jackie Nared and forward Danielle Mauldin. Nared led the league in scoring last season while Mauldin was the top rebounder and had 18 double-doubles. Kate Gaze and junior forward Carli Rosenthal are also returning starters. Australia native Lauren Nicholson, a sophomore guard, will likely be the fifth starter. ... The Gaels' most challenging nonconference game could be their season opener against Washington. ... Saint Mary's didn't play an exhibition game, but Thomas was pleased with his team's performances in scrimmages with reigning NCAA tournament teams Cal and Fresno State.

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    THE BOTTOM LINE: Saint Mary's has the pieces to contend with Gonzaga and San Diego for the WCC title and possibly earn an NCAA tournament bid, but it will need to eliminate the bad losses that have been a plague in recent years.

    -- STEPHANIE HAMMON

    SANTA CLARA

  • LAST SEASON: 14-16, 6-10 (tied for fifth in WCC)

  • COACH: Jennifer Mountain, sixth season at Santa Clara, 46-107

  • KEY PLAYERS: Senior guard Ricki Radanovich (10.5 points, 68 3-pointers), senior center Ruta Zurauskyte (10.5 points, 7.2 rebounds)

  • SCOUTING REPORT: Expect to see many changes for the Broncos this season, starting with style of play. "We are going to open things up a little bit," Mountain said. "We are trying to go faster." ... Two freshmen from Oregon City, Ore., point guard Montana Walters and power forward Jo Paine, have been impressive in the preseason. Paine scored a total of 22 points in the Broncos' first two exhibition games of the season. The depth of the team is a major strength. ... Radanovich provides a consistent outside scoring threat. The Carondelet-Concord graduate led the West Coast Conference in three-pointers with 2.3 per game. ... Santa Clara returns four players with starting experience: Radanovich, Zurauskyte, and junior guards Raquel Avila and Nici Gilday. ... The Broncos' season took a turn for the worse in 2012-13 when all-conference senior post player Lindsay Leo was injured. But a deep team could avoid a situation like that this season. ... Vanessa Leo, Lindsay's sister and a redshirt sophomore forward/center, has scored a total of 26 points in the Broncos' two exhibition wins this season. ... "I really feel like this is the best team we've had. I would be very disappointed if we didn't finish in the top four (in the West Coast Conference) and go to the postseason," Mountain said. ... The Broncos have improved their record every season under Mountain.

  • BOTTOM LINE: With improved depth, the Broncos should be able to improve their record for the sixth straight season.

    -- PHIL JENSEN

    USF

  • LAST SEASON: 12-19, 4-12 WCC

  • COACH: Jennifer Azzi, fourth season at USF, 21-69

  • KEY PLAYERS: Sophomore forward Taylor Proctor (9.6 points, 6.3 rebounds), sophomore guard Zhane Dikes (10.8 points)

  • SCOUTING REPORT: USF loses three seniors including its best two-way player and All-West Coast Conference selection Mel Khlok. That means Proctor and Dikes, who were each named to the WCC All-Freshman team, will be handed the keys. Dikes, named to the preseason All-West Coast Conference team, will be counted on to take a big leap this season. Azzi is counting on Dikes to emerge as a leader and is playing her at point guard despite Dikes being more of a scorer than facilitator. Dikes will have a valuable option in the post in Proctor. The Dons post players specialized in rebounding last season, led by Alicia Scafidi with 6.8 boards per game. Azzi also gets 6-foot-3 redshirt junior forward Paige Spietz, who transferred from Missouri. Azzi wants to get more scoring from her frontcourt. Also, Azzi expects true freshman Rachel Howard, who won three NorCal championships at Berkeley High School, to make an immediate impact. The Dons finished 12-19 last season, the team's first 10-win season since 2007-08. The nonconference schedule includes road games against Boise State and Fresno State, and home games against San Jose State and UNLV.

  • BOTTOM LINE: The duo of Dikes and Proctor figures to keep USF from regressing this season, but a young Dons team isn't expected to compete near the top of the WCC.

    -- WES GOLDBERG