Pre-Season Prognosis

It's not Fernando Vargas vs. Oscar De la Hoya but the battles going on in Cal State Fullerton's men's basketball program this year will certainly be more intense than fans have seen in quite some time. The days of Matt Caldwell vs. Mitch Deve or Dan Thompson vs. Ahmad Shurdim seem a distant past and hopefully they will never be seen again.

Titan fans haven't had much to be excited about in nearly a decade, but with the newfound competition at every position, this was one story that had to be written.

On paper, the 2002-03 season appears to be the year Cal State Fullerton makes some progress. Six quality new faces have been added to a roster that already includes the best returning player in the Big West (Pape Sow) as well as three other starters in Brandon Campbell, Derrick Andrew and Babacar Camara.

It’s been awhile but does anyone remember the last time the Titans had this much talent in a given year? Some would say never. One guess might be the 1989-90 season which featured starters Cedric Ceballos, Mark Hill, Wayne Williams, Agee Ward and David Moody. The backups were Ron Caldwell (Pac-10 transfer), Aaron Wilhite (freshman but went on to play at UNC Charlotte), Bruce Bowen (freshman), Van Anderson, Marlon Vaughn, John Sykes and Dareck Crane.

Unfortunately that team went 13-16 that year. The year before with this same group and Derrick Jones, minus Bowen, Wilhite, Caldwell and Crane, they went 16-13, so perhaps it has nothing to do with the amount of talent. The bottom line? Titan fans know what it’s like to have three, maybe four legitimate Division I players on a team and now they crave the other side.

What can Donny Daniels do with a team that goes ten deep?

Well, they are about to find out thanks to a hard working coaching staff and the ability to recruit with no restrictions. Here is a not-so-brief look at what to expect at each of the five natural positions, along with some predictions on who will win the battle for the starting role.

Point Guards: Zakee Smith vs. everyone?

The battle going on here is really not for the starting spot but on who will see time as the backup to Zakee Smith. While fans may wish Denver Lopez steps up and takes on this role, the fact remains he wasn’t able to last year when the competition was next to zilch. This year Lopez will have to battle with newcomers Federic Holm-hadulla (Fedi) and Anthony Bolton as well as last year’s point guard Derrick Andrew who averaged 30+ minutes a game at the position.

Lopez may get his chance early on in the season and if he can correct his lack of court vision and drastically improve on his assist to turnover ratio then he has a shot. If not, look for Fedi, Bolton and Andrew to pick up the five to 10 minutes a game as Smith’s backup.

Due to NCAA rules Fedi will not be eligible to play until the ninth game at San Francisco (Dec. 28) because he participated on a club team overseas. Fedi is a 21 year old sophomore who, according to Daniels, “is an excellent outside shooter and a good ball handler.” He is very quick and once he learns to play defense will add even more depth to an already loaded backcourt.

Zakee Smith, on the other hand is what Coach Daniels has needed since his first year as coach. Smith is a true playmaker who has the ability to get it to the open man on the break as well as penetrate and dish it inside to Pape Sow in a half court game. Smith will not average 14 assists as he did in the JC ranks but should he role a seven, Titan gamers will worship him like no other. If the Titans are destined to push the ball up the floor this year as Coach Donny Daniels has indicated, Smith is a key component who needs to stay healthy.

Projected Winner: Zakee Smith with Fedi, Bolton and possibly Andrew seeing time as his backup.

Shooting Guard: Derrick Andrew vs. Ralphy Holmes

Derrick Andrew will make the switch back to his natural position of off-guard this season and he will be battling with Titan newcomer Ralphy Holmes for the starting spot. Perhaps it may be premature to discount Derrick Andrew as he has had a great summer working on his game as well as putting on a few pounds from work in the weight room and he does have a year of experience under his belt but Holmes will be tough to beat out.

Holmes, a 22 year-old sophomore from Philadelphia, is an exceptional talent who never played high school ball. The Philadelphia Daily News has called Ralphy “The Sensational” Holmes a top five playground legend and all indications are this is true. At first glance Holmes doesn’t appear to be anything special but after seeing him play a few times or most likely a few minutes, you will be sold. Holmes simply loves to play basketball and it shows. He can drive, he can pass, he’s got good handles, he can shoot and he can dunk … with authority. He is destined to become a fan favorite.

Another aspect of Holmes will be his ability to make players around him better. One benefactor of this, ironically, will be Andrew. Last year Derrick just didn't have any competition and Andrew is a fierce competitor. He will not relinquish the starting role without a fight. Andrew is the better defender but he will need to improve his shot as well as finding the open man for him to keep up with older Holmes. Ralphy, though, is just too good to come off the bench.

Where Andrew fits in only time will tell but it’s difficult to imagine the team’s best defender seeing only spot minutes. This will most likely be determined on a game-by-game basis but there should be times where a three guard lineup will be favorable, especially in the Big West.

Projected Winner: Ralphy Holmes

Small Forward: Anthony Bolton vs. Brandon Campbell

Another great battle will be at the small forward position. Incumbent and fifth-year player Brandon Campbell vs. incoming Palomar JC transfer Anthony Bolton. While Campbell has the experience, Bolton appears to have the touch. His 50% FG shooting, 45% from three and 93% from the charity stripe bodes well for a Titan team which lacked a shooter last year. He also happens to be a tremendous passer and may, at times, try to be too unselfish.

But don't bet against a completely healthy Campbell. He's been working hard on his shot during the summer and it appears that work is paying off. Experience will also be a key factor. Campbell now has two years of Donny-ball under his belt while Bolton will be coming in cold. If Bolton can adapt quickly, watch out. Both players can play the two wing positions while Bolton can also play the point.

Projected Winner: Campbell (if healthy) starting early with Bolton making a push mid-season.

Power Forward: Jamal Forcheney vs. Bron Groomes

After seeing Bron Groomes at the Say No and watching Jamal Forcheney at Open Gym there was no doubt Forcheney was the better player. But those were first impressions. The first time they faced each other, Groomes dominated. And the next time it was Forcheney. Call it a hunch, but this is how it will be going well into February.

In the early going, Groomes has better range from the outside whereas Forcheney is a better post player. A reason to like Forcheney is he seems to be a better fit in a system that already has two scoring threats in Ralphy Holmes and Pape Sow. Forcheney loves the offensive boards and the easy baskets and with Pape drawing two or three guys, he will have plenty of opportunities.

If Pape and Ralphy are struggling, Groomes can come in and loosen up a defense. He certainly is not shy about taking the open jumper – or even the not-so-open jumper… Defense will be the key in this match up and whoever steps up to be the guy who can stop the opposition should get the nod.

The X-factor at this spot is Amir Bar-Netzer who is a redshirt from Santa Monica City College. If he were available for Daniels’ first two years he starts … easily. This year the talent level has risen so much he is now relegated to begging and pleading for 10 minutes a game. He’ll get some chances, especially if the injury-prone Titans have another standard year in that department but his role may become that of an enforcer.

When Fullerton need some fouls, put in Amir. When UCSB’s Jacoby Atako takes a cheap shot at Ralphy, send in Amir. UCI’s Adam Parada getting too many easy baskets? Amir, get in there! He’s not a dirty player by any means, but he will be asked to play tough, to come in and set picks when picks are needed, to intentionally foul when the frontline players can no longer foul, and to know his role. Many of the new guys -- and a couple of the old ones – should pay close attention as they can learn a lot from Amir.

Projected Winner: Jamal Forcheney only because Daniels needs to have some scoring punch off the bench and Groomes fits this like a tee.

Center: Babacar Camara vs. Pape Sow

The Lakers have Shaq and Kobe and the Titans have Pape and Ralphy (hmm, best to leave this analogy for another time), but make no mistake, as with Shaq, Pape Sow is the franchise, well, at least for one more year. Some had hoped he would be back for his senior year but when a guy can put on over 50 pounds of muscle in less than two years and with the skills he possesses, this tends to have NBA scouts slobbering all over themselves.

(Side note: The scouts will be viewing Pape early and often as well as late and if they sense any amount of improvement, he will be a first rounder. Scouts from Portland and Dallas have already been seen at practices and he’s been injured for most of them.)

How much will Pape improve over last year? It could be a tough call because it’s not like you can put on all that weight without an adjustment period. Last year was a prime example as it took him at least 10 games to get his timing down and his shots started to fall. His numbers improved dramatically as the season progressed and he became more comfortable with himself and D1 ball.

This should not to be the case this year as he is spending more time working on his shooting. The Titans have a new-fangled contraption which forces you to not only get a good arch on your shot but also spits the ball back to you for maximum productivity. He has been diligently working with this machine during the injury and it looks to be paying dividends.

Babacar Camara, on the other hand, has a much better chance of returning next year. Though he’s a senior academically, this will be his third year as a Titan and could regain his fourth year as long as he graduates before the end of the summer. All indications are this will happen as the Titan coaches and staff have been on top of this from day one. Looking at Camara as a junior is much more palatable so be sure to ignore the Senior label all year.

Babacar started most of last year (Pape played at the four spot) but, because of the influx of talent, this year he will have to improve quite a bit to keep that starting role. He doesn’t necessarily have to beat out Pape, but he will have to prove he can rebound, play tougher defense as well as play with a sense of urgency and passion that has been lacking thus far.

The fact is it’s hard to dislike Babacar. Sure he has not performed up to his potential, but he is 6-11, athletic and strong and you just don’t give up on a player like this. Some say he doesn’t have it in him to get better but, until his injury in practice session No. 2, it was clear he was making significant progress. He’s certainly bigger. If he shows any increase in intensity and makes improvement in the rebounding department as well as holding on to the ball, Camara will change the minds of most of his critics.

Projected Winner: Pape Sow