#8 - California Golden Bears

Cal is by far the toughest team in the conference to predict. They lose their entire starting backcourt, but return a potential NBA first round pick at center, and the roster turnover has changed the entire complexion of the team. Depending on how things shake out, they could be significantly better than 8th, but they also have a number of potential problems that loom large.

One thing is for certain though - the upcoming season is going to be a make or break year of sorts for Bears coach Ben Braun.

In Braun's 12 year stint as the California head man, he has had some very successful seasons and several not so successful ones. Most recently the Bears challenged for the Pac-10 title until the final weekend of the season in 2005-2006, and advanced to the conference tournament title game before falling to UCLA in both instances. The Bears went on to exit the NCAA tournament with a whimper, falling decisively to NC State. Braun has had some excellent recruits over the years, the best of whom, probably forward Leon Powe, now of the Boston Celtics. However, despite moderate recruiting success, Braun has never been able to parlay any of his successful seasons into a true recruiting bonanza.

By no means is Braun a bad coach; in fact he's a pretty good one in many ways. He's just doesn't do anything that sets him apart from his peers. He is a solid recruiter, his teams typically play solid defense and are reasonably disciplined on offense. On average they finish around 4th or 5th, sometimes 7th or 8th, sometimes 2nd or 3rd. After 12 seasons, we know who Ben Braun is…he's a solid coach and a good guy. At this point, the administration needs to decide if good is good enough. With a powerful front court and some solid talent throughout the roster, the Bears have enough to make a run at the top half of the conference, but despite their talent, they have some significant weaknesses which will make it very difficult for them to finish in the to make headway in the talent-rich Pac-10. Any discussion of the Bears clearly begins with their outstanding front court.

Stanford and UCLA are getting a lot of hype for their elite front courts, but Cal is right there with them. They have athleticism, scoring, a defensive presence, and depth. Starting at center and returning from season ending injury a year ago is 6-foot-11, 250-pound senior DeVon Hardin. Hardin declared for the NBA draft this off season despite missing most of his sophomore campaign and according to reports, was very close to staying in the draft after showing very well in his workouts. Hardin's upside as an athlete is undeniable and he would have been a possible first round pick if he stayed in the draft. If his offense takes a step forward this year, he has an outside shot at the lottery. Hardin is an outstanding leaper and has good lateral quickness for a guy his size. He knows how to play solid position defense in the post and is a phenomenal shot blocker, particularly as a help defender from the weak side. In his last full season 2005-2006, he was fourth in the Pac-10 in BPG at 1.55, but only played 23 minutes per contest. Last season, in his 11 games, Hardin averaged 1.9 BPG in just 26 minutes per. As a defensive presence, Hardin is every bit the enforcer inside that the Lopez twins were for Stanford last year.

As is common with athletic big men at both the high school and college level, Hardin's defense is more advanced than his offense. He is somewhat mechanical offensively but he has a fairly reliable jump hook and is capable of knocking down the occasional wide open jumper. One issue with Hardin though is that he is a mediocre passer and is not adept at finding the open man; in short he is a bit of a black hole. Two years ago he only had 17 assists for the entire season vs. 37 turnovers. Last season, he only managed five assists vs. 25 turnovers in 11 games. Typically, when the ball goes into Hardin, it ain't comin' back out again. That issue will cause multiple problems in Cal's half court offense, if he doesn't improve. For starters, a huge benefit to having a dominating inside presence is the fact that teams have to cheat and sometimes double the post, leaving shooters open on the perimeter and opening up lanes. If your center can't find those players on the perimeter, your offense is giving up a huge advantage. The other issue is that if teams don't have to worry about Hardin finding open shooters, they can defend the post more aggressively and make it more difficult for him to score.

At the 4 spot is returning freshman sensation Ryan Anderson. Anderson came to Cal with significantly less fanfare than Chase Budinger or the Lopez twins, but performed as well as any of them. Anderson is a true 4, which makes his performance last season even more impressive. He was forced to play the 5 for a significant portion of the season after Hardin went down, with splendid results. He put 16 PPG and 8 RPG despite the position change and should feel very good about moving back to his natural position this season. The 6-foot-10 Anderson's best skill is his ability to shoot it from anywhere on the court (47 percent from the field and 38 percent from three). He is a scorer in every sense of the word. He can post up, shoot it and even put the ball on the floor a bit. All of this is tied together by his excellent offensive feel for the game. Like Hardin though, he is also a bit of a black hole, registering just 16 assists last year compared to 47 turnovers. That said, Anderson played like a veteran from day one last season. Where Anderson really needs to improve though is on defense. Though not entirely his fault due to the position change, Anderson got absolutely man handled in the post at times last season. On the other hand, he is 6-foot-10, so you can't really give him a pass. He also has trouble defending away from the hoop. The loss of defensive enforcer DeVon Hardin, in addition to Anderson's defensive ineptitude, went a long way to contributing to Cal's overall defensive issues, of which they had many.

Another returning front court player that was definitely missed last season, especially in light of Hardin's injury, was his backup Jordan Wilkes. Wilkes is a legitimate 7-footer and while he hasn't had a lot of playing time, is fairly skilled and athletic. The son of former UCLA legend Jamaal "Keith" Wilkes, Jordan has potential to be an excellent post scorer and defender, although he'll probably never be particularly effective outside of the paint. Another returning front court contributor is 6-foot-9 Taylor Harrison. Harrison is strong and fairly athletic. He is also extremely tough and plays with great energy. He is not a very skilled offensive player and is a decent shot blocker, but his aggressive and energetic play makes him a solid rebounder and a decent position defender in the post. Add in freshman power forward and Duke transfer Jamaal Boykin and Cal has a front court that is both talented and deep. One note on Boykin – while Coach Braun may have designs on playing him at the 3 spot, Boykin is probably not quick or athletic enough to be effective at small forward, he will be more productive at the 4.

Another benefit of the return of center DeVon Hardin is that senior Theo Robertson can move back to his more natural small forward position. Robertson is a solid complementary player that does everything pretty well; he hits the open three, scores in the paint, rebounds well, distributes the ball a bit, and defends well. He should again help the Bears' cause with his solid all around play, but again won't be more than a complementary player.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Cal backcourt is as inexperienced, young, and lacking depth as the front court is veteran, deep and productive. After losing senior starting point guard Ayinde Ubaka to graduation and junior shooting guard Omar Wilkes after his decision to leave the team, the Cal backcourt enters the 2007 season without any truly proven options. The clear favorite to win the starting point guard job is diminutive sophomore Jerome Randle. By far Randle's best attribute is his quickness. The guy is an absolute blur in the open court and has outstanding lateral quickness. He is the only player in the conference that can challenge UCLA point guard Darren Collison in that regard. He is a very creative ball handler, but can get careless and is adept at driving the lane, but often over penetrates and gets shots blocked or altered. He is a creative passer, but often tries too hard to make the flashy play rather than the smart play. He has a compact stroke with range, but he takes ill-advised and sometimes selfish shots. He can be an opportunistic defender, but frequently finds himself out of position. But, but, but…what do all these "buts" mean? Randle is a player with potential but is also over-aggressive and does not always play intelligently. If he ever learns to play within his limitations instead of forcing the action he will be a difference-maker for the Bears. Experience should help him to do that and learn to take better shots, but until he can do it consistently, Cal's offense is likely to be inconsistent.

The other option at point guard is another player that is returning after missing all of last season with an injury. Nikola Knezevic was a capable backup two seasons ago in limited minutes. He isn't going to wow anyone with his physical tools, but he is solid player and good distributor. He's a solid backup, but probably not a starter for a top-five Pac-10 squad.

At shooting guard, there is really only one true shooting guard on the team – Patrick Christopher. The back ups at the 2, freshman Omondi Amoke, Theo Robertson, and Eric Vierneisel are all really small forwards. Christopher had an inconsistent freshman year, but showed promise at times. He's bouncy and shoots well off the dribble with good range. He's not overly quick and could rebound a bit better but overall he should at least be a solid contributor. Christopher, like Randle still has a lot to learn about playing perimeter and help defense. Vierneisel is mostly a spot up shooter, but gives good effort.

Overall the biggest issue for the Bears this season will be improving their defense, which was mediocre to bad last year. The Bears did a good but not great job preventing penetration, but overall the perimeter D was barely acceptable. They were even worse on the interior largely due to the losses of Hardin and Wilkes, which forced them to play two freshman, one out of position. Certainly the return of Hardin will help the interior D, but losing their best wing defender in Omar Wilkes will hurt and Randle will also have a tough time replacing the departed Ayinde Ubaka. The Bears' defensive gains in the return of Hardin and Wilkes will probably be a wash with the defensive step back they will take in losing their entire starting backcourt. Compounding the defensive issue is the fact that the Bears' offense is also likely to take a step back, despite the front court additions, due to their lack of depth and experience in the backcourt. Perhaps Randle and Christopher will take a step forward and thrust the Bears into the top half of the conference standings, but the Golden Bears have a serious uphill battle to do it.

The Bears' problem is that while they look to be improved in a lot of ways, they also have significant losses to overcome. Given their 8th place finish last season, the improvement of the conference league wide, and the fact that the Bears' off-season gains and losses are basically a wash, a bottom-half finish is likely.

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