LOCATION: Berkeley, CA
LAST SEASON: 22-11
CONFERENCE RECORD: 8-10 (t-5th)
STARTERS LOST/RETURNING: 4/1
NICKNAME: Golden Bears
COLORS: Blue & Gold
HOMECOURT: Walter A. Haas Jr. Pavilion (12,100)
COACH: Ben Braun (Wisconsin '75)
record at school 57-35 (3 years)
career record 390-270 (22 years)
ASSISTANTS: Scott Beeten (Lehigh '71)|
Charles Ramsey (Eastern Michigan '91)
Louis Reynaud (San Francisco State '82)
TEAM WINS: (last 5 years) 13-17-23-12-22
RPI (last 5 years) 108-59-15-124-38
1998-99 FINISH: Won NIT championship.
Finally, in his fourth season on campus, the Ben Braun Era is ready to officially begin.
It's not like Braun didn't get plenty accomplished in his first three years in Berkeley. In his debut season, hired in the wake of scandal and the quick dismissal of controversial coach Todd Bozeman, Braun merely guided the Bears within minutes of an Elite Eight berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Cal struggled in Year II, but finished strong last season, ripping through the NIT to bring home its first postseason title since winning the NCAA crown in 1959.
But the 61-60 victory over Clemson in the NIT title game at Madison Square Garden closed a chapter of Cal basketball that was, in many ways, a long and often awkward transition period. "It's a whole new beginning," Braun said.
There is no getting around the fact that as the new Millennium approaches, Cal is poised to make a fresh start of its own.
With the new century comes a new, youthful roster and the new $50 million Walter A. Haas Jr. Pavilion.
"It's kind of like we're moving in at the same time as we're really starting with a lot of young players," Braun said.
For the time being, at least, the arena is sure to be more impressive than the Bears. The 12,100-seat facility_built on the same foundation as popular old Harmon Gym and boasting grand views of the Golden Gate Bridge across the San Francisco Bay_has been in the construction mode for the last two seasons.
The Bears were virtually homeless during that time, happy to play their home games at the new Oakland Arena and work out in the Golden State Warriors' flashy training facility. But neither was their own, and logistical problems became part of everyday life.
Haas Pavilion is a state-of-the-art building that's sure to have a magnetic recruiting pull.
"It just gives us an identity," Braun said. "It gives us a real homecourt feel, an advantage, we hope. It gives us a little more time on our hands, not having to travel to practice. We stayed in hotels before an afternoon game because we didn't have a place to go.
"We'd check into the hotel to eat our pregame meal and have film sessions. It was just an amazing two years. I don't know how we survived it."
Many of those who persevered through the inconveniences won't be around to reap the benefits. Gone are five players from that team who combined to contribute nearly 53 points and 20 rebounds per game. Seniors Geno Carlisle, Thomas Kilgore, Mike Gill and Francisco Elson and junior Carl Boyd (who left school early) came to Cal with the dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament.
They never made it, but Carlisle_the one-time scoring whiz from Northwestern_made the winning basket in the NIT finale.
"I was happy for our seniors who won," Braun said. "They really put themselves out there for us."
Now the Bears begin anew, with only 6-7 junior forward Sean Lampley (12.4 ppg, 8.8 rpg, .492 FG, .634 FT) returning from the starting lineup. But he is a nice place to start.
Promising but erratic through much of his first two years, Lampley blossomed spectacularly late last season. The Chicago native averaged 15.6 points and 9.0 rebounds over the final nine games, including a 28-point, 14-rebound effort versus Fresno State in the opening round of the NIT. Lampley wound up winning MVP honors for the postseason event.
"I think the experience he had last year was a very valuable one," Braun said. "I think he saw the ups and downs happen for a reason. His effort level can never vary. He's going to have off shooting nights. He can't have an off day at practice."
Lampley, who has worked as a counselor the last two summers at Michael Jordan's camps, probably will remain around the basket, where his rebounding is invaluable to the Bears. Braun would like to see him be able to step away on occasion and hit the mid-range jumper, but personnel needs may dictate he stays at the power-forward slot.
Most importantly, Braun needs Lampley to be a leader.
"He just has to be, " Braun said. "He's been there, and we're going to count on Sean to provide more than points and rebounds."
The transition isn't likely to be an easy one for Lampley, a friendly sort who enjoys being one of the guys.
"It may be his biggest challenge because it's going to push Sean to be more aggressive and, in some respects, more vocal," Braun said. "Now he's got to be an extension of the coaches. That's an adjustment for anybody. When you're the captain, not everyone likes you all the time."
Most often, Lampley will be surrounded by freshmen and sophomores. The Bears have just two scholarship seniors on the roster, and neither figures prominently in their plans.
Senior Raymond "Circus" King, a 5-10 product of nearby Richmond, never has fit Braun's ideal point-guard mold. King (2.6 ppg, 1.6 apg, .433 FG, .267 3 PT, .545 FT) considered leaving school last spring. He decided to stay and finish his college days at Cal, but he may be no more than the Bears' third-string point guard.
With an open scholarship available, Braun rewarded 6-2 senior walk-on guard Robbie Jones (1.6 ppg, 1.1 rpg, .583 FG), who saw action in just 12 games last season. That opportunity may not expand this year as the Bears rely on youth.
"We're going to have our hands full," Braun said "We're counting on young players, but we're ready to go with those guys. There's no sense in being concerned about it. They'll have a few bumps, but they'll also give us some high moments."
At the very least, the Bears expect to man the point-guard position with a player trained to do the job. Try as they did, neither Carlisle nor Kilgore really fit the role the last two years, and the Bears suffered without that playmaking mentality on the floor.
Freshmen Donte Smith (28.3 ppg, 6.2 apg, 5.7 rpg in 1997-98 at Anacostia HS/Washington, D.C.) and Shantay Legans (24.0 ppg, 9.0 apg, 6.0 spg, Dos Pueblos HS/Goleta, Calif.) both will get turns with the controls in their hands.
The 6-2 Smith originally figured to be part of Cal's freshman class a year ago, but wasn't academically cleared to enroll until an NCAA appeals committee gave him the OK in December. By that time, he and Braun agreed the best course of action was to redshirt and return with four years of eligibility.
Smith, the Washington D.C. Player of the Year two seasons ago, missed most of Cal's practices late last season after suffering a stress fracture in his lower back. The injury appears to be fully healed.
"He gives us versatility," Braun said of Smith. "If he had to, he could float over to the off guard."
That might happen if the 5-7 Legans shows the ability to run the point.
Rated among the top 20 point-guard prospects in the country by several scouting services, Legans is a pure point who thinks pass first and shows great court vision.
"He has a real knack for passing the ball," Braun said. "I think guys who pass the ball are hard to find. He brings a lot by getting our team in place. He's very much a prototype point guard."
The other primary candidate for an immediate starting job on the perimeter is 6-5 wing Brian Wethers (27 ppg, 10 rpg, Murietta Valley HS/Murietta, Calif.). Wethers was a member of the Orange County Register's Fab 15 and was rated the No. 25 prospect in the country by Recruiting USA.
"Because he's a scorer, he's a guy who could step in as a freshman. He's going to play a lot for us," Braun said.
Bidding for an expanded role is 6-3 sophomore guard Dennis Gates (2.5 ppg, 0.9 rpg). A former teammate of DePaul star Quentin Richardson at Chicago's Whitney Young High School, Gates earned his keep last year as an effectively reckless defensive player.
"He was a great role player for us last year, someone who's used to winning and was one of our leaders, even as a freshman," Braun said. "Dennis has got to get consistency on his jump shot and work on his ballhandling. His improvements will be important."
Rounding out the perimeter candidates is 6-5 freshman Joe Shipp (27.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.0 apg, Fairfax HS/Los Angeles, Calif.), an excellent long-range shooter who signed with Cal late last spring.
"He'll have an opportunity because he's a good three-point shooter," Braun said. "He has a chance. He's got to improve his quickness and defensive ability."
Joining Lampley up front is a contingent of raw big men, including 6-10, 250-pound freshman center Nick Vander Laan (19 ppg, 14 rpg, St. Thomas More Academy/Oakdale, Conn.). A native of Sacramento, Vander Laan helped lead St. Thomas More to a 28-4 record in the fierce New England Prep School Class A league.
At the Kent School in Connecticut the previous year, against lesser competition, Vander Laan recorded a quadruple-double with 48 points, 22 rebounds, 11 blocked shots and 10 assists in a 101-97 double-overtime victory.
Vander Laan, who attended the Pete Newell Big Man's Camp in Hawaii last summer, will provide the Bears with some much-needed bulk and energy, but remains an unpolished offensive player.
Still, Braun likes his upside.
"Nick gives you some toughness," Braun said. "He's a rugged player. He'll rebound, set screens, score around the basket. He's a real solid player for us."
Vander Laan figures to compete for the starting center job with 6-11, 230-pound sophomore Solomon Hughes (3.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg, .524 FG). Hughes has decent offensive skills and aggressiveness, but must become stronger to execute against Pac-10 frontcourt players.
Also available is 6-10, 250-pound sophomore Shahar Gordon (1.2 ppg, 1.2 rpg, .263 FG, .565 FT). A native of Israel, Gordon is a good passer but has no quickness and little scoring ability. Hughes and Gordon are atrocious foul shooters.
Blue Ribbon Analysis
BACKCOURT C+ BENCH/DEPTH D+|
FRONTCOURT B INTANGIBLES C
The Bears are a tough team to peg. They are too young, too few in numbers and lack muscle. Nearly 73 percent of their scoring from a year ago is gone, and their inexperience may show up most on defense.
There are some reasons to believe the Bears may be able to compete for a spot near the middle of the pack in the conference. At the heart of that optimism is Sean Lampley, who is a dynamic and relentless interior player when he wants to be. If he has turned the corner as a consistent worker, he could be an all-conference player.
Beyond that, coach Ben Braun loves the young players he has brought to Berkeley, as much for their demonstrated ability to mesh in a successful team atmosphere as for their raw skills. He is convinced the Bears will be, at some point, solid at point guard and smart enough to execute what he wants.
"You always aim high," he said. "We want to be competitive in our league. We want to get a chance to play in the postseason."
That may be a reach for this team, although a winning record and a 12,100-seat arena likely would lure a return invitation from the NIT.
Mostly, this will be a starting point. The Bears occasionally will have horrid outings, and a season opener versus Texas Christian at the Top of the World Classic in Alaska seems daunting. But the youngsters should also trigger high-level enthusiasm from the crowd at Haas Pavilion, where the potential decibel level is reputed to be higher than it was at raucous Harmon Gym.
How it all adds up remains to be seen. At least the trip from the classroom to the practice floor will be shorter.
|The 19th edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook is on sale now. To order, call 800-828-HOOP (4667), or visit their web site at