Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Smith and Brown lead Bears into new era

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Jaelyn Brown and Charmin Smith stand together as player and coach, trying to accomplish the same thing, leading a team into a new era while serving as a link to the past.

Brown, the Bears’ senior guard, and Smith, the Bears’ new head coach, are the “returners” for a team that is rebuilding in the midst of a competitive Pac-12 landscape that includes four teams ranked among the top 10 nationally. Cal is 7-2 with seven straight wins, and a lot to prove to people who assume that the departure of head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, All-American Kristine Anigwe, and experienced guards Asha Thomas and Recee' Caldwell after last season leaves them putting the pieces back together.

Smith and Brown have something else in mind.

“A lot of things have changed,” Brown said. “I don’t pay attention to polls or rankings. I honestly think people haven’t seen us yet. We’ve shown pieces of who we can be, here and there, but there’s a lot more to us. I think we are going to surprise some people.”

Brown, the team’s lone returning starter from a season ago, leads the Bears in scoring at 15.2 points per game and is second in rebounding at 6.8 rebounds a game. A 30-point, 12-rebound game against then-No. 20 Arkansas in November earned her ESPN National Player of the Week and Pac-12 Player of the Week honors. She has scored in double-figures in six of Cal’s last seven games.

“She really struggled those first two games,” Smith said. “She was trying to find her way. Our offense isn’t really geared toward creating shots for her. Or anyone else, really. But she got it going in San Diego and then in Arkansas.

“I’ve told her not to focus on scoring, to worry about something else and it will come. I asked her to take on some tough defensive assignments and she was so locked on that, that her offense just came. And when she is feeling it, it’s tough to slow her down.”

Brown mirrored her team’s bumpy start to the season, losing the season-opener at Harvard, a game they led by 10 points at the half. The Bears followed up with a 72-61 loss to Connecticut, ranked No. 5 in the country at that point.

“I think we proved in that game that we can play with anyone,” Brown said. “We all felt like we should have won the Harvard game.”

Since then, the Bears have won seven straight and face a significant challenge this week, a game against No. 14 Kentucky on Saturday.

The Pac-12 season looms.

“The main thing on my mind every day is that everybody is OK and that they feel ready to play,” Brown said. “The leadership role that I have put on myself is making sure that everyone feels like they have a part in all of this. It’s not just me putting up numbers. Everyone has a place here.

“The (start of the Pac-12 schedule) is definitely in everybody’s heads. These games early in the season can be hard, but we haven’t seen anything as hard as we will see in the Pac-12. We are using these games to get ready.”

Brown characterized the months that followed the 2018-19 season a little “rough”, particularly following the unexpected departure of longtime coach Lindsay Gottlieb.

“We didn’t know who was going to be the coach, who was staying, who was leaving,” Brown said. “But we had to make those changes and we had to move forward.”

When Smith was hired, Brown breathed a sigh of relief.

“She has a presence that’s undeniable,” Brown said. “She’s headstrong and willful and disciplined and she makes us want to be those same things for her. Our players listen to her. We look up to her. We know she has our back and we have hers.”

Smith, who was an assistant coach at Cal for 12 years before she was hired as the head coach, is as hard on Brown as anyone on the team. Both coach and player are trying to set a tone.

“It’s important for other people to see that we have high standards for everyone, that it doesn’t matter how long you have been a starter,” Smith said “We set that tone with her and let everyone know. She’s stepped up to meet that challenge.”

Smith is hoping her young Bears, who are using many new faces in significant roles, do the same.

“We are just trying to do things the right way and to get people confident,” Smith said. “We have a lot of people in different roles. I think they have really bought in. We have really good chemistry and they play hard for one another. There’s a really good vibe around this team.”

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, San Francisco Chronicle, The Athletic and AOL Fanhouse. She was has won several awards, including the WBCA's Mel Greenberg Media Award, presented annually to a member of the media who has best displayed commitment to advancing the role of the media in women's basketball. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.

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