1st things 1st: 2002-03

<font face=verdana size=2 color=navy><b>News & Notes surrounding Cal Basketball</b> <p>Recruiting might be the most tantalizing aspect of College Basketball (or any college sport for that matter), and I certainly know it's a never-ending ‘war' that lasts 365 days per year.

In fact, as I write this...someone in the world of big-time college hoops is either thinking about where they are going, or some school is thinking about who they could sign. It's a phase of collegiate athletics that truly has no clock, no shadow, and no time-line in ever ceasing. In fact, coaches and programs really have no set boundaries on who they'll go after, and either do the players...whether there's a criminal history in place or a recruit that lives in a country that's only reachable by parachute. On the other hand, the NCAA certainly has enough policies in place to make coaches feel like their being watched by the Secret Service.

So what does all this have to do with Cal? Well, Ben Braun and his staff are in the midst of putting together what could likely be the finest recruiting class ever to enter Berkeley. It could be the top class in all of College Basketball for the 2003-04 Season...though it'll probably be rated top 10 Nationally when you factor in what part of the USA those lists are put together. But there are two phrases in those two sentences that you have to keep in mind, and the 1st one is ‘Could Likely Be'. When it comes to recruiting, ‘Could Likely Be' is another way of saying....we hope everyone who committed signs during the signing period, stays healthy during their Senior Years, and passes their SAT's respectively. And since it's a guessing game about who can make it through those obstacles, getting the verbal commitment and having the player end up attending school can sometimes be two completely different matters. I think most Cal supporters can name at least one verbal from each of the last 3-4 classes that ended up being swayed, did not pass the SAT, or ran into personal problems (Justin Davis, Julian Sensely, Kennedy Winston).

The other statement that needs to be denoted is that it's a class that would start school in ‘2003-04'...and that's a full year off. We still have the current team to talk about, and watch for a full season. And this is a team that includes four Seniors that have a chance to go down as the most successful post mid-1960's Cal Class ever. For me, that's something I will not forget - despite how encouraging it is that the Cal program is on terra firma in the horizon.

The bottom line with recruiting is that it usually takes "YEARS" to complete. That's why after spending that much time and effort, its important to get a solid end result - a good fit for the student/athlete, as well as for the program. That's something at Cal that the supporters and coaching staff have had different views on, and I think the road has been better weathered by the Coaching Staff then the fans. Truthfully, the Cal players and coaches did not hang their heads when Julian Sensely could not gain eligibility last year, and as a program...they handled it with class. Much this year has been made about the early entry to the NBA by Jamal Sampson, and again...this was handled extremely well by the players and coaches. Ditto on the way the Kennedy Winston situation was handled. I honestly believe that the people who work and play inside the program understand why its hard for the fans to build off key losses like those, but the one aspect that fans don't seem to evaluate is the "who is leaving divided by who is entering" the program question. Additionally, it's more important for the supporters to be even more proud of the program for their effort in not quitting, and sticking with their goals. One of the best things a fan can do is applaud the Coaches for going through the process and handling each of those set backs with pride, and the attitude that those losses will not detract from trying even harder to find the right fit.

Recruiting truly has no 2nd place, and the rewards that come from doing a great ‘clean' job are usually thankless. That's why at Cal, one of my big hopes for the supporters is that we make an effort to not just recognize Ben Braun, Louis Reynaud, Jon Wheeler, and Joe Pasternack...but we applaud them too. It's not hard to write something recognizing the work that these individuals do for the Program that we enjoy so much, and truthfully...who hasn't wanted a pat on the back when they do their job? These guys might not ever shoot a jumper, or make a key steal in a game...but you have to know that they are out there teaching and pushing this program in the right direction, especially on the recruiting side. Despite some of the set backs they have encountered, they are still lining up some of the best talent on the West Coast. More on that a bit later.

Erik Bond - 6'7, 190 lbs Freshman; Small Forward
A.J Diggs - 5'10, 160 lbs Junior; Point Guard
Conor Famulener - 6'6, 220 lbs Junior; Power Forward
(Yaniv Green - 6'9, 235 lbs Freshman; Power Forward/Center}
Shantay Legans - 5'10, 175 lbs Senior; Point Guard
Richard Midgely - 6'1, 185 lbs Freshman; Point Guard
David Paris - 6'8, 260 lbs Freshman; Power Forward
Joe Shipp - 6'5, 220 lbs Senior; Small Forward
Donte Smith - 6'2, 190 lbs Senior; Shooting Guard
Amit Tamir - 6'10, 250 lbs Sophomore; Power Forward
Brian Wethers - 6'5, 210 lbs Senior; Shooting Guard

The above is the approximate weight and height of the 2002-03 Cal Bears Team in alphabetical order, with the bold denoting who will likely start. I don't know if anyone has typed it out, or saw it on paper yet...but this is the group that we'll see. We'll talk more about Yaniv Green later on as well. When I view this list, I see a program that has a bunch of new faces, as well as an intriguing blend of inexperience & experience. I also see some important things as a team they'll need to work on to become a challenger to Arizona & Oregon for the Pac-10 title.

Anytime you want to start off a short preview, you have to look at what the strengths will be first. I'm sure some of you have heard me say this before, but name another Senior-trio as good as Wethers, Legans, and Shipp? It would be tough to find one, and this is a group that mixes backcourt agility, toughness, and two solid inside-out scoring threats. Last year, USC had Clancy, Bluthenthal, and Granville....and though we are talking about different positions, you can see how great their impact was on the Conference. When you have a trio like that leading your team, you're going to do well in any conference. Wethers might be the best athlete in the Pac-10, and Joe Shipp is the constant presence of scoring. I don't believe there's a statistic table for what Shantay Legans does for the team either, as you simply can't track energy and heartbeat by how many shots a guy puts up. So the backcourt is the obvious strength of this team. The frontcourt spots are going to be thinned out some from last year, and there certainly won't be as much height. The Bears do return standout Amit Tamir, and Israeli-born 22 yr old Sophomore who was a major impact player for the team a year ago. Not only is he 6'10, 250 lbs...but he's offensively gifted and probably the best big man passer on the West Coast. And though Tamir didn't start but a handful of games for the Bears last year, he played almost the entire game. The other starting spot will be interesting to watch, but most people feel that newcomer David Paris will likely fill that spot. The Bears will need some solid post minutes from this former 49'ers All-Pro (Bubba Paris) son, and most believe he can fill that need. He has the size and the body, and his upgraded his offensive game every single year he has aged. He certainly won't be asked to carry any kind of load offensively though, and I think the Bears would love for him to just provide the rebounding..

On a side note, another newcomer to perhaps watch is Israeli-born Yaniv Green...a close friend and former teammate of Tamir's. After announcing he would attend Cal, there's been recent news that he might not be able to due to a possible NCAA violation. I don't know if there's much that Coach Braun's staff can do since this story just broke, but we'll have to watch and see how this all turns out. Green is definitely more of a post player, and his rebounding prowess is well documented. If Green & Tamir ever do get the chance to play alongside each other, I think they'll be quite dominant in league play...and despite both being underclassmen, their prior experience in Europe, plus their maturity learned during their service commitment via the Israeli military should make them tougher than any interior combo. Amit Tamir alone showed that mentally he's far and above any other freshman newcomer, and he drew raves from most of the coaches in the Pac-10.

"Amit Tamir has a lot of experience. His body has been through a lot of games and he's a veteran experienced player that knows how to get it done. If Luke Jackson or Freddie Jones were his age, they would've had an easier time with him." ~Ernie Kent

Ernie Kent wasn't alone either, as Mike Montgomery chimed in on Tamir's "age" and experience value. And those are some the exact same things we'll see brought to the court every night if Yaniv Green is eligible too. Stay Tuned.

Even without Green services though, this is a starting five who can flat out score with the best of them. They'll be a very underrated group as well, since there's not one 7-footer...and most of the seniors truly aren't NBA prospects. But for the purpose of winning games...this will be a squad that'll be very tough for sure. It'll be a core who can spread the court, and drive or shoot from the outside. The Bears have four legitimate players who can knock down a three-pointer in their starting line-up, as well as four guys who can post up down low and knock down a bucket. So if there's a weakness to exploit, the 2002-03 Cal Bears will have a great shot of doing so with the versatility they offer in their starting five. Joe Shipp & Brian Wethers make that happen with the way they attack the rim.

Judging by how Coach Braun uses his bench, I don't believe the newcomers that start the season will be inexperienced very long. A.J Diggs should likely be the 1st guy into the game, and I believe A.J is the key player overall for this team. It should be his focus to energize and lift Cal's reserves, to spark them when they step on the court, and to inspire them to play the game the way A.J does. It'll be a tough job, but as far as getting in someone's face and telling him how to do it...that's something that Diggs has always done extremely well. Erik Bond, Richard Midgely, and Rodrique Benson will know A.J inside-out by the end of their first season. I think quality minutes from Conor Famulener and Donte Smith could really help this team as well, and Conor more than Donte since the back court is so versatile and has depth. The frontcourt needs a player who can spell Paris & Tamir every so often, plus hit a 12 footer, and add in five quality fouls. Hopefully, that'll be Conor.

That's just a snippet of what I believe we'll see from the team this year, some of how their roles will play out as individuals. I think it'll be fun to breakdown and compare the teams in the Pac-10 as we get closer and closer to the Season....and I'm sure that I'll be working on my Pac-10 Preview soon enough.

Lastly, I would like to follow-up some on all the excitement with the 2003-04 Cal Recruiting that I first talked about. Obviously, it's a class filled with some of the top talents at both the small forward, 2-guard, and power-forward positions. The Bears have four prep players who have committed, and they are; Wesley Washington, Dominic McGuire, Marquis Kately, and Leon Powe. Two of these players are from NorCal, and two are from the Southern California area. The highest regarded talent so far to commit is Leon Powe, and he's been rated as high as the #2 player overall in some magazines...all the way down to #12 in others. Most recruiting experts rate him as a top 10 National Player though, and a sure-fire McDonald's All American. He is by far the most dominant young post player to commit to Cal since Shareef Abdur-Rahim. If that doesn't say enough, he's the favorite to win California State Player of the Year honors. Dominic McGuire should get McDonald's All American consideration as well, since most people believe he is the top small forward on the West Coast this year....with his explosiveness and outside game being the key. Kately will be attending prep school this season, and he's already a consensus top 50 player. Washington might not make a ton of top 100 lists, but he is extremely versatile and a ‘rising' young 2-guard who has received more attention for his toughness & ability in the past year. All four of these players might actually fit into a group of five or six, and I think adding McGuire to start things off...getting a major top 10 National Player in Powe are already high impact future moves for the Cal program. The lingering buzz still in the air with Cal Recruiting specifically is that one of the top five High School Senior Point Guards in America is Oakland native, Ayinde Ubaka...a young star with a creative flash unlike many. Ubaka has somewhat leaned towards a commitment to the Bears in recent weeks - with some citing the fact that Ubaka, Kately, and Powe are solid friends , while others close to Ayinde have said that he sees a chance to start and play for a Major D-1 who is nearby his home, and who has already signed two of his other Bay Area summer teammates. Whatever the case may be, Cal has already done very well...and adding a point guard that brings in the talent that Ubaka does would make this is a surreal type of class. It's still a long way off, but you have to love the job that the Cal staff has consistently done over the past 4 years.

"If you believe in making a program consistently better, then the Bears are doing that...step-by-step, year-by-year under Ben Braun."

That was one of the last things I wrote last year after the loss in the NCAA Tournament to Ben Howland's Pitt Panthers in Pittsburgh, during the Round of 32. This is a Cal program that has played in two straight NCAA Tournaments, and I truly believe is headed to its 3rd...and as I said after the 1st Tourney appearance - ‘Cal should be at the start of a very long consecutive streak appearing in the field of 64'.

Last year saw the graduation of Senior leaders Dennis Gates & Ryan Forehan-Kelly, plus the early departure of Jamal Sampson to the NBA...as well as the transfer and graduation of the Hughes brothers. My overall feeling is that both Dennis & Ryan will be missed the most, but I think their toughness will remain in the ability of Shantay Legans & Brian Wethers. I also feel that if Yaniv Green becomes eligible, he will add a freshness to the program much like Jamal did, and that he'll do some of the offensive things much better. And I think if you asked anybody in the Pac-10 if they'd trade Gabriel and Solomon Hughes for David Paris and Rodrique Benson - you'd get a sound affirmative for the Frosh pair.

Is Cal going to be better than they were a year ago? I think they will, and I really like the changes overall in this program. There's a lot to be positive about. There are a number of other programs in the Pac-10 that it's easy to feel that way about too, and Oregon & Arizona are the 1st two that come to mind. I certainly believe that all three will be playing again in March Madness...and hopefully even deeper than they all did this past year. For Cal, it's going to take leadership, execution, and confidence from their starters, and maturity from the youth on their bench. I hope the soul of the team plays as A.J does, cause if they do...Haas will be one hot ticket again.

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