Pac-10 Preview: Cal

During the first eight years of Ben Braun’s tenure as head basketball coach at Cal, the Bears have overcome NCAA sanctions, a cupboard left bare of players (after the initial season) while being forced to play off campus. Given the constraints, the results were surprisingly strong. Season after season saw clear progress in terms of wins and losses, with postseason invitations becoming a regular event - resulting in a consistently full Haas Pavilion.

The last hurdle seemed to be the recruiting of the top-flight talent that could take Cal from a solid program to a great one. And that appeared to be accomplished with the landing of a nationally ranked top-5 class in 2003. It looked as though the final piece was in place for Braun and Cal to take their place as a top 20-basketball program.

2005 - 2006 California
No Name
Pos 
Ht
Wt
Class  Hometown
0 Rod Benson
F-C 
6-10 
220 
Senior  San Diego, CA 
1 Ayinde Ubaka
6-3 
200 
Junior  Oakland, CA 
2 Omar Wilkes
6-4 
185 
Sophomore  Los Angeles, CA 
12 Steve Panawek
6-6 
205 
Junior  Moraga, CA 
13 Nikola Knezevic
6-2 
190 
Freshman   
14 Eric Vierneisel
6-7 
205 
Sophomore  Algonquin, IL 
15 Richard Midgley
6-3 
195 
Senior  Burgess Hill, UK
20 Martin Smith
6-0 
175 
Senior  Escondido, CA 
24 Theo Robertson
6-5 
240 
Freshman  Pittsburg, CA 
31 Alex Pribble
6-4 
215 
Junior  Fairfax, CA 
32 Ivan Kovacevic
6-6 
210 
Freshman  Long Beach, CA 
33 Jordan Wilkes
6-11 
225 
Freshman  Los Angeles, CA 
35 DeVon Hardin
6-11 
235 
Sophomore  Newark, CA 
44 Leon Powe
6-8 
240 
Sophomore  Oakland, CA 
50 Sam Rayburn
7-0 
270 
Freshman  Portland, OR 

Going into the 2003-4 season, expectations for the Bears were sky high. Haas Pavilion had packed them in during the preceding season and local fans were beyond excited about the prospect of watching three of the Bay Area’s star prep players take the court wearing the blue and gold. The team had a senior leader in Amit Tamir, a burgeoning star in Richard Midgley and a deep cast of role players to compliment the four fabulous freshmen.

What could go wrong?

The better question might have been what wouldn't go wrong. Over the next two seasons, wins become the exception instead of the rule, team chemistry could best be described as absent, and player transfers and departures happened at a rate that made the roster as hard to follow as Jennifer Lopez’s love life. Capping it off was a rash of injuries that decimated what remained of the team’s scholarship players.

Now, entering the 2005-6 season, it’s easy to believe the past two seasons were just an unexpected speed bump - and that the program is ready to regain and perhaps even accelerate from the momentum of 2002-3. With the team finally healthy, the return of four starters including All American candidate Leon Powe, the Bears have the talent and experience necessary to make a run for the Pac-10 crown.

"I really think we can challenge in this league," said Braun. "Our goal is the get into the postseason. I've told the guys it's time for us to step up. We want to pressure the ball and push the tempo a bit more. Historically, we've been one of the top teams in the league defensively and we got away from that last year.”

Cal may have one of the nation’s most formidable front lines, anchored by the now healthy Leon Powe. Powe, who entered Cal as the program’s most decorated recruit since Jason Kidd, lived up to expectations, earning all conference honors to go along with the Pac-10 freshman of the year award. Powe’s immense strength and broad shoulders make him almost unguardable down low and his quick first step and improving jump shot allow him to be almost as effective facing the basket.

" Leon is going to have a real impact on the Pac-10”, Braun adds. “I think he could be our conference's best player."

Powe has a chance to be the Pac-10’s player of the year this season but to do that he will have to improve on several facets of his game. Defensively, Powe moves his feet well, and his long arms and quick hops allow him to be a formidable defender. However, Leon too often concedes post-position to his man and is slow to react on help-side defense.

Offensively, Powe will see a lot of double teams. His ability to react and find open teammates for open scores will go a long way to determining the effectiveness of Cal’s entire offense. While Powe was dominating at times during his freshman year, the result was not a lot of Bear victories. A different metric – assists - will be used more than any to monitor the success of Leon’s comeback.

Leon will be joined down low by the return of Cal’s leading scorer and rebounder from last season in 6-9 Rod Benson. Benson is bean pole skinny but plays like the energizer bunny, displaying outstanding quickness and offensive skills around the basket. Benson was clearly the Pac-10's most improved player last season and his aggressive style on both ends of the floor figures to be a good match for Powe’s blacksmith-like strength.

In what almost seems like an embarrassment of riches, the Bears also have perhaps the conference’s most athletically gifted post player in 6-10 Devon Hardin.

Hardin is a sculpted 240 lbs and can run and jump with the best big men in the nation. The sophomore is still learning the nuances of the game and his skill level lags behind his natural ability, but he is improving rapidly and figures to be a force on the offensive glass and in transition.

Where the team needs Hardin most is on the defensive end of the floor. Devon showed flashes of shot blocking ability as a freshman, but needs to do a better job denying his man low-post position - while also learning to stay down on pump fakes.

“He can block shots and get rebounds high off the glass, but he's got to work on his positioning and his footwork. No one on our team can match his athletic ability,” said Ben Braun.

The final element in the post is 6-11 freshman center, Jordan Wilkes. Omar’s brother comes to Cal with a resume that includes very polished ball and shooting skills for such a young big man. Wilkes can face the basket and shoot effectively out to 15 feet and handles and passes the ball with an ease that belies his length. Jordan will need to add 20 lbs of muscle before he can bang and rebound effectively down low, but even now can provide an immediate offensive spark.

The perimeter offers more questions than answers. Richard Midgley returns for his senior season, hoping to regain the form that made him an instant fan favorite in his freshman campaign. A hard-nosed, physical player who plays all out all the time, Midgley has had flashes of offensive brilliance followed by unexpected scoring droughts. A shoulder injury at midseason last year robbed Richard of what looked to be a promising shooting year.

Richard is now healthy, has trimmed down 12 lbs to maximize his quickness and seems poised to be the backcourt leader this team craves. A strong defender who uses his strength and smarts to compensate for average quickness and length, Midgley is also a surprisingly good rebounder. As the teams sole three-point shooting threat last year, Richard was able to overcome extended defensive pressure to get into the paint regularly.

The challenge is for him to finish - or find a teammate once he does get by his man. More importantly, Richard needs to overcome a tendency to beat himself up for mistakes and apply unnecessary pressure on himself to insure the team wins.

“Richard can help us whether he's scoring or not”, Ben Braun commented. “Like I said, he can help us defensively. He can help us in leadership, with his toughness. He is such a threat on the floor that he always makes it a factor. I like making sure Richard is on the same side as our post ups because you're not going to double off him.”

Ayinde Ubaka will join Richard in the backcourt. The former Parade All American looks to be ready for a breakout season after a solid non-conference campaign. Ubaka has an outstanding handle to compliment an improving jump shot and very good body control.

Ayinde is a legitimate 6-2 and uses his length and handle to create a slew of midrange opportunities. Not blessed with great quickness and with a tendency to rely on his ball handling skills rather than his body to get by his man, Ubaka needs to work hard to consistently get into the lane and finish at the rim.

Ben Braun comments, “What I like about Ayinde too - and I think some of it is because of our team - is that he has the ability to be aggressive with the ball because we also have some wing players. Our wing players actually now can shoot. We have range at the wing. Because of that, he has more ability to break down his defender because there aren't people sagging in at the wings. Sagging off of people a year ago - that was what we faced, one and usually two guys sitting in the paint waiting for penetration.

“We had a tough time breaking our defender down. This year with our perimeter shooting and our ability to carve out some space in the block, our spacing is better and our driving angles are better. I think as a result, he (Ubaka) has prospered. Now he has the ability to break his guy down."

Ubaka’s floor game is improving and he can be a deadly passer in transition and on those occasions when he does get in the lane. Defensively, he’s able to use his size and strength advantage to lock down quicker opponents, though he is prone to relaxing once his man picks up his dribble - which has lead to the Bears giving up some easy buckets.

The third member of the perimeter crew is Omar Wilkes, the sophomore transfer from Kansas. Wilkes is a future star for the Bears as he combines a very smooth floor game with a tremendous basketball IQ. A solid outside shooter, Omar is aggressive off the dribble where he can use his athleticism to finish inside.

After playing sparingly at Kansas, Omar will be playing catch up on defense and he lacks the ideal length or strength to rebound effectively from the small forward position.

Off the bench, senior Martin Smith will provide relief for both Midgley and Ubaka. Blazing fast in the open court with the ball and possessed with an instinct to get to the rim every time he touches the ball, Smith is the Bear’s most aggressive offensive player.

Surprisingly for someone who attacks as much as Martin does, he takes exceptional care of the ball and was among the leaders in the Pac-10 for assist to turnover ratio. While Smith isn’t going to scare defenses with his jump shot, he can make the open 15 footer and will hit his free throws. Martin’s biggest deficiency is on defense. He is a liability against quicker point guards as he struggles to keep them in front of him. Expect Smith’s minutes late in close games to be limited as a result.

Freshman Theo Robertson and Sophomore Eric Vierneisel will provide important minutes at the wing off the bench. Theo is a strong bodied, fundamentally sound player who is capable of playing both the wing and big forward positions. A decent perimeter shooter, Robertson can also post up and score. His defense is likely to be his biggest contribution during his freshman season. Vierneisel has shown flashes of ability. An aggressive player with good length, Eric can shoot the three and get to the rim. He has yet to find a rhythm on the floor and will occasionally play out of control on offense. Defensively, his lack of lateral quickness limits him.

There are some big plusses to this year's Cal team. In Powe, they have a go-to player and likely the conference’s dominant inside scoring threat. Ubaka, Midgley and Wilkes will greatly improve the Bears' perimeter shooting and all three should take good care of the ball. Hardin and Benson are athletic big men who can run, block shots and score. There’s plenty of experience with Ubaka, Midgley, Benson and Smith all having played extended minutes in their careers.

The challenges are in areas where you normally would not expect to find them with a Ben Braun team. Defense is the squad’s biggest concern as they will miss Dominic McGuire's and Marquise Kately’s ability to shut down the type of athletic wing men that dominate the Pac-10 (players like Brandon Roy, Hassan Adams, Nick Young, etc).

None of the Cal big men is going to make anyone forget Jamal Sampson on defense - and the bench, outside of Theo Robertson, is not going to provide any solid defensive answers.

Perhaps more important is the team’s psyche. No one save for Midgley remembers what it is to be part of a winning Cal team. While the past two seasons have been marked by injuries and poor shooting, what’s been more disturbing have been mental lapses and a lack of will to overcome adversity.

While the ingredients are in place for this team to make a run at the conference championship, we do not yet know if the team has the confidence and killer instinct needed to beat the conference’s very best teams.

Predicted Finish: 4th Place


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