As we think back about events over the last year and look forward to the coming season, it's a good idea to take stock of where the program is at. Here's my take.
The roller coaster ride started in March last year. As Sean Lampley wined down one of the great Cal basketball careers of all time, Cal finished the season by losing in rather ugly fashion to Fresno State in the 1st round of the NCAA tournament. Shortly thereafter, the foundation recruit of the class of 1998, Nick Vander Laan, decided that neither his basketball career nor his love life was progressing as he had planned and announced he was headed to Virginia (I guess he really believes Virginia is for Lovers). This bit of news was followed by the slightly less traumatic loss of Saulius Kuzminskas, who headed back to Mother Russia. But, Cal fans did not have time to be down, because in only a few short months, the best recruit to ever sign an LOI with Cal not named Kidd or Abdur-Rahim, would walk through Sather Gate. The "Jewel", Julian Sensley had announced he would be entering Cal in the Fall of 2001. Given that Cal would return four starters, all of whom were upperclassmen, Bear fans could not help but salivate. To make matters even better, Jamal Sampson, one of the nations best big men, had also given his pledge to Ben Braun and would be joining Julian Sensley and Erik Bond in a nationally ranked recruiting class which would certainly be the best of Ben Braun's career.
Unfortunately, this is Cal we are talking about. When Murphy set down his laws, apparently Berkeley decided to protest as Cal sports over the past 30 years have made the statement, "anything that can happen will happen" look like blind optimism. The "Jewel" could not seem to achieve a qualifying score on the SAT, much to his and Cal fans dismay. After making every possible effort to overcome his learning disabilities and pass the test, Sensley suddenly threw in the towel, leaving Cal without a star to replace Lampley. To add injury to insult, Erik Bond, a promising young wing damaged his ankle, leaving him to blueshirt his inaugural season. Suddenly the departures of Kuz and VDL looked like they might prove to be fatal, but no one told Ben Braun, who went out late in the summer and bagged himself a veteran big man in Amit Tamir. Fresh out of the Israeli professional league, Tamir was forced to sit out just enough games for the NCAA to figure out that they had no clue what to do with international amateurs who have played in pro leagues overseas.
The season as we discussed earlier was a success by all but the most optimistic of standards. Thanks to the contributions from the two freshman who were able to matriculate and stay healthy, Cal made mincemeat of their non conference schedule and finished 2nd in the Pac 10. Joe Shipp fit comfortably in Sean Lampley's old shoes and Brian Wethers found his rhythm as Cal beat up traditional conference nemesis' USC, Stanfurd and UCLA, taking five of the seven games against that trio. Only Arizona proved to have the key to beating the Bears as they racked up a hat trick of wins against Braun and Cal. Hitting on all cylinders, Cal dispatched an underrated Penn team before succumbing to hometown favorites Pitt in the 2nd round of the tourney. The team was defined by the combination of a tremendous defense and a balanced offense. Truly, it was Cal's prowess on defense that set this team apart. Leading the P10 in almost every significant defensive category, Cal was able to dictate pace and force turnovers which lead to easy baskets.
Looking back on the season, here's a few thoughts about significant contributors to Cal's successful season.
Joe Shipp - This seasons "go to guy", Shipp built upon his sophomore season by getting fitter, stronger and quicker. He became the P10s most versatile scorer as he killed teams down low as well as from deep. Consistency and confidence were Joe's trademarks as he rarely had an off game and made up for some poor 1st halves with strong finishes.
Brian Wethers - Although a starter all season long, Brian's minutes and his confidence continued to go up and down throughout the year. However that all ended when Brian went around, through and over the USC defense in scoring 24 points in LA while hitting the shot of the year (a turnaround 3 pointer from 25') to send that game to overtime. After that his game took off and by the end of the season he was Cal's most effective all around player, grabbing rebounds, playing suffocating defense and driving to the hoop at will
Jamal Sampson - The single largest reason for Cal's success last season was the 6'11" freshman from Mater Dei. His defensive rebounding and shot blocking presence down low was the key to Cal's trademark defense. Defense was what this Cal team was built on and that defense was founded on Jamal. He absolutely eliminated the opponents best post player (including likely NBA 1st round picks Curtis Borchardt and Sam Clancy) forcing teams to beat Cal from the perimeter. His rebounding was the catalyst to a potent fast break and his high basketball IQ allowed him to play a ton of minutes as a young freshman without disrupting the veteran teams chemistry.
Amit Tamir - The oldest freshman in Cal hoops history, Tamir's ball skills and shooting proved to be just what the doctor ordered. When teams collapsed down low and/or took away Joe Shipp, Tamir was the weapon Braun deployed. Every one remembers his coming out party in the double overtime win against Oregon, but Tamir's play earlier in Cal wins against Stanfurd, Wash State and ASU were nearly as important. As his shot left him late in the season, Tamir found a way to contribute by flashing some deft passing skills.
Dennis Gates - The Sheriff was the teams captain and leader on and off the floor. This teams chemsitry was unique and much of the credit for creating that has to go to Dennis. On the floor, if Jamal Sampson was the foundation of Cal's defense, Gates was the glue. Besides his trademark defense, Gates flashed a more rounded offensive game, giving Cal big lifts by hitting crucial shots at critical times. We can only hope Dennis decides the next step in his career will be as a coach for the Golden Bears.
RFK - When was the last time Cal had two graduating seniors you liked as much as Gates and Forehan Kelly? Talk about the definition of student athletes. Ryan had some ups and downs in his senior campaign after a stellar junior season, but again and again his perimeter shooting skills and tough defense were the difference in big Cal wins, including the very sweet destruction of Stanfurd at Haas in January, when Ryan had 19 points. The best former walk on I can ever remember playing in the P10, RFK will be missed next year.
AJ Diggs - Diggs played the role of Mr. Inside to Jamal Sampson's Mr. Inside on Cal's stingy defense. He became akin to a stopper in baseball as Braun inserted him in games when we absolutely had to have a turnover or a stop. Over and over again, he delivered. His fast hands and quick feet caused opposing PGs to break out in a sweat when he entered the game.
Solomon Hughes - Early on, Sol was Cal's best offensive player, but an unfortunate knee injury at the end of the non conference slate forced Hughes to miss two weeks of action and although he came back to play significant minutes, he was never the same player. For Solomon, mental toughness was always a big challenge and somehow the injury seemed to take away the confidence he had worked so hard to build the previous season.
Shantay Legans - A strange season for the gutty three year starter. Cal's quarterback showed his trademark heart, court vision and clutch shooting throughout the year, but Shantay suffered through a prolonged shooting slump. Shantay was asked to do more offensively for Cal and that additional responsibility did not make him a better player. Still, his on the court leadership and toughness were a critical ingredient for the Bears.
Ben Braun - A tremendous year for Coach Braun and a big step forward in his rebuilding of Cal's program. Braun's ability to teach defense, unselfish offense and build team chemistry made the difference for this years team. As a motivator, a defensive tactician and a game planner, Braun is as good as it gets. It's interesting to note that throughout the P10 and NCAA tournament, Cal won the opener of two game sets (in which Braun was able to put the most effort into scouting and game planning) in 8 of 10 instances. His skills as a motivator were proven as Cal only lost back to back games once the entire year.
Coming Soon - Part Two: A look at the second year in row of off season drama and a look forward to 2002-2003