Commentary: Hitting Bottom

<p>With three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and a top five recruiting class just two years ago, it seems absurd to be discussing the job security of the Bears second-most-ever effective basketball coach. Yet, that's exactly what is happening.</p>

Expectations weren't high for this season. The Pac-10 coaches poll predicted the young Bears would struggle, and pegged them for 9th. Those expectations took further hits as injuries to Cal's starting back court of Richard Midgley and Ayinde Ubaka left the Bears with a badly depleted lineup. So with the Bears at 50% overall and 5-9 in conference play, why would anyone hit the alarm bell?

It comes down to progress and improvement. Is the team playing up to its ability? Are they getting better? Even with a young roster and the cascading effects of injuries, is the team competing? Are fans seeing the kind of effort and intensity, as distinct from talent and experience, which give evidence of a well-coached team?

The worries start with attendance. There are a lot fewer fans in Haas Pavilion today than just eighteen months ago, and the trend line is not positive. Since Haas opened five years ago, it has been loud, full, and a tough place for visitors to get a win. Coming off back-to-back home drubbings by UCLA and USC, the Bears are below 50% at home this season and the average attendance of the 12,500-capacity arena is under 8,500.

Two weeks ago this young Cal team seemed to find its identity when it won four of five games, including tough wins on the road against UCLA and ASU. Fast forward just three games and the gains are gone. The discouragement comes not simply from the Bears anemic offense and uneven leadership from its back court, but rather from a brand of defense not seen in Berkeley since Ben Braun arrived.

Has Cal ever given up back-to-back 50% shooting nights at home? Has Cal's leading scorer ever done worse than 3-26 over a three game span? With performances like this, Cal suddenly finds itself at risk of even missing the Pac-10 tournament.

Ben Braun is a good basketball coach and he brings a tremendous blend of integrity, leadership, and a love for Berkeley to the table. His tenure at Cal can't be seen as anything other than successful; in fact he's arguably the second best basketball coach in the history of the program. Yet, if you are Sandy Barbour, how can you not start thinking about a new direction?

The football program has taken off and not only created a financial windfall for the athletic department but raised long dormant expectations for Cal's revenue sports teams. While the basketball program has suffered during the past few years from under-funding, Jeff Tedford has proved that alumni wallets will open when fans believe.

The Cal basketball faithful were likewise poised to contribute after three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and a top 5 recruiting class. But that emerging support after the long road back from probation (and the Oakland Coliseum) has evaporated in the disappointments of the past two seasons. Fans aren't even showing up for home games, much less looking to write checks to the program.

For the first time since coming to Berkeley, Ben Braun's back is against the wall. With four games remaining prior to the Pac-10 tournament, there is little room for error as Braun does his best to win over his new AD while trying to recreate some sense of hope in the Bear's fan base. If this team can't relocate its intensity and confidence, one has to wonder if Ben Braun will be back next year.


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Expectations weren't high for this season. The Pac-10 coaches poll predicted the young Bears would struggle, and pegged them for 9th. Those expectations took further hits as injuries to Cal's starting back court of Richard Midgley and Ayinde Ubaka left the Bears with a badly depleted lineup. So with the Bears at 50% overall and 5-9 in conference play, why would anyone hit the alarm bell?

It comes down to progress and improvement. Is the team playing up to its ability? Are they getting better? Even with a young roster and the cascading effects of injuries, is the team competing? Are fans seeing the kind of effort and intensity, as distinct from talent and experience, which give evidence of a well-coached team?

The worries start with attendance. There are a lot fewer fans in Haas Pavilion today than just eighteen months ago, and the trend line is not positive. Since Haas opened five years ago, it has been loud, full, and a tough place for visitors to get a win. Coming off back-to-back home drubbings by UCLA and USC, the Bears are below 50% at home this season and the average attendance of the 12,500-capacity arena is under 8,500.

Two weeks ago this young Cal team seemed to find its identity when it won four of five games, including tough wins on the road against UCLA and ASU. Fast forward just three games and the gains are gone. The discouragement comes not simply from the Bears anemic offense and uneven leadership from its back court, but rather from a brand of defense not seen in Berkeley since Ben Braun arrived.

Has Cal ever given up back-to-back 50% shooting nights at home? Has Cal's leading scorer ever done worse than 3-26 over a three game span? With performances like this, Cal suddenly finds itself at risk of even missing the Pac-10 tournament.

Ben Braun is a good basketball coach and he brings a tremendous blend of integrity, leadership, and a love for Berkeley to the table. His tenure at Cal can't be seen as anything other than successful; in fact he's arguably the second best basketball coach in the history of the program. Yet, if you are Sandy Barbour, how can you not start thinking about a new direction?

The football program has taken off and not only created a financial windfall for the athletic department but raised long dormant expectations for Cal's revenue sports teams. While the basketball program has suffered during the past few years from under-funding, Jeff Tedford has proved that alumni wallets will open when fans believe.

The Cal basketball faithful were likewise poised to contribute after three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and a top 5 recruiting class. But that emerging support after the long road back from probation (and the Oakland Coliseum) has evaporated in the disappointments of the past two seasons. Fans aren't even showing up for home games, much less looking to write checks to the program.

For the first time since coming to Berkeley, Ben Braun's back is against the wall. With four games remaining prior to the Pac-10 tournament, there is little room for error as Braun does his best to win over his new AD while trying to recreate some sense of hope in the Bear's fan base. If this team can't relocate its intensity and confidence, one has to wonder if Ben Braun will be back next year.


©Copyright 2005, BearInsider.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.

If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this very active online Cal community and get access to the members-only content from the nation-wide Scout.com network.

Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.

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