Men's Basketball Ready for 2000-01 Season
Oct. 19, 2000
BERKELEY - When Ben Braun takes a look at his team for the 2000-01 season, he finally sees everything in place.
Bound by factors beyond his control during his first four years at Cal, Braun set out to build a strong foundation to make the Golden Bear basketball program among the elite in the nation. Now with a new home arena, a full complement of scholarships and consecutive solid recruiting classes, Braun has Cal heading toward the top.
The Bears are coming off a quarterfinal appearance in last year's NIT and look to use that experience as a springboard to greater success this season. Led by 6-7 senior forward Sean Lampley, each of Cal's top nine scorers returns. Add in a pair talented newcomers, and it's easy to see why Braun is excited about the prospects for his squad.
'Although we're still young, we have a team in place now that, top to bottom is pretty solid,' said Braun, the 1997 Pac-10 Coach of the Year who has compiled a 75-50 mark in Berkeley.
Getting to this point has not been easy for the Bears. During Braun's tenure, the Bears have had to endure:
--The loss of six seniors from their 1996-97 team,
--Playing two seasons at the New Arena in Oakland while Cal's on-campus arena - the 12,172-seat Haas Pavilion - was being built,
--Going those same two years without an on-campus practice facility, instead traveling to the Golden State Warriors practice site in downtown Oakland,
--Having scholarship reductions due to infractions committed before Braun arrived on campus.
Through it all, the Bears have battled well to try to overcome the obstacles. An NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in '97 was followed by an NIT championship in '99 with an entirely new cast of characters wearing blue and gold. And last year's NIT run was accomplished with five freshmen playing significant roles.
Now, with Haas Pavilion beginning its second year and the scholarship level fully restored for this season, the elements are there for Cal to establish a high level of consistency. Although they have just one All-Pac-10 player in Lampley, the Bears possess a solid core of underclassmen, who are prepared to step up their contributions.
Last year, Cal finished with an 18-15 overall record and a 7-11 mark in the Pac-10, and the experience gained should translate into better results this season.
'For our young players to have been through the league wars and played in the NIT, I think that was important to our team,' Braun said. 'Our players realized there were some deficiencies and some areas of weakness last year. I also think our players felt there were some games that got away from us. And that was what was so valuable about last year, the players now know what they need to do to improve. They know they have to get stronger, and they've been committed to that.'
The Bears also have as much depth as they've had in recent years. More than 93 percent of the team's scoring and rebounding are back, and nine returning players started at least 11 games last season.
'After having so many different lineups last year, I'm hoping we can settle into roles this season,' Braun said. 'I think one of the bigger things going for us is that we're going to have some inner competition. Having strong, competitive practices will help drive us to get better.'
At the heart of the lineup is Lampley, an all-conference selection in '99-00 who could contend for national honors this year. As a junior, he led the Bears in both scoring (16.6 ppg) and rebounding (7.4 rpg), while also dishing out more than 100 assists (3.1 apg) and shooting 50.8 percent from the field. Lampley scored at least 20 points 11 times, including a career-high 29 at Oregon and 28 more in a victory at Washington.
With the pressure on during the postseason, Lampley has demonstrated the ability to raise his level of play another notch. In 1999, he was voted MVP of the NIT, and he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds during Cal's 2000 NIT run to the quarterfinals.
Now, Lampley enters his senior season ranked 17th on Cal's career scoring list with 1,171 points and has a good shot of becoming the Bears all-time leading scorer by the end of the year, needing 518 points to surpass Lamond Murray.
'I think Sean has the ability to take our team to another level,' Braun said. 'As his ball-handling, his passing and his range have improved, we've become better. I think it's still an on-going process, but he's dedicated and working hard. I think that's going to be a big key for us. He's kind of a marked man. His ability to handle that will determine our success.'
Also on the frontline is 6-11 junior Solomon Hughes, who played some of the best basketball of his career down the stretch last season. Always an intimidating shot-blocker - he ranks eighth on Cal's career list with 61 blocks - Hughes is working to become a more consistent player to allow him to raise his 5.1 ppg and 3.4 rpg averages from last year.
Hughes started 16 games as a sophomore, including each of the last five. He had his career high with 16 points in Cal's last regular-season home game vs. USC and paced the squad with a 53.2 shooting percentage from the floor.
Nick Vander Laan, a 6-10 sophomore, split time with Hughes at center this past season. Vander Laan jumped out to a great start when he scored 23 points in just his third game against Oklahoma. He also had five double-doubles during Pac-10 play and averaged 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds for the year. Vander Laan was voted honorable mention Pac-10 All-Freshman after leading the league's freshman in rebounding.
All three of Cal's returning big men - Lampley, Hughes and Vander Laan - helped further their development by attending the Pete Newell Big Man Camp in August in Hawaii.
Also at forward, sophomore forward Joe Shipp is one of Cal's best outside shooters, but at 6-5, he is adept at playing close to the basket. He totaled a season-best 22 points twice - at Colorado and vs. Washington State - and made 40 three-pointers on the year. In all, Shipp averaged 9.1 ppg with 17 double-figure games.
The Bears added a pair of towers for the coming season in 6-11 Saulius Kuzminskas and 6-10 Gabriel Hughes. Kuzminskas, a member of the Lithuanian Junior National team, averaged 16.8 ppg and 7.6 rpg at the European Junior Championships last year and gives Cal a versatile big man who can hit the mid-range shot. In high school, he led his team to a pair of Lithuanian championships.
Hughes is Solomon's younger brother and should add depth during his first season at Cal. Considered one of the top center prospects in the country, he averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds during a post-graduate year at New Hampton Prep in New Hampshire last season. As a senior at Bishop Montgomery in 1998-99, Hughes averaged 13 points, 10 boards and 6 blocks while leading his team to a 26-8 record.
Two returning players who provide quality play on the wing are 6-5 sophomore Brian Wethers and 6-5 junior Ryan Forehan-Kelly. Wethers started 18 games - second among Cal's freshmen - and averaged 5.5 ppg and 2.9 rpg with 56 assists. His best game came early in the Pac-10 season when he had a double-double against Arizona State with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
A former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship in the spring, Forehan-Kelly emerged as a key contributor midway through the year and wound up starting 11 games. He had his breakout game with 17 points at Oregon State and later tallied a career-best 20 points at Arizona. For the season, he averaged 3.8 ppg for the year and shot a team-high 45.3 percent from three-point range (24-53).
Point guard Shantay Legans leads Cal's contingent in the backcourt. A deadly outside shooter who made 42.7 percent of his three-point attempts (47-110), he also shot better than 85 percent from the free throw line. Legans scored a career-best 28 points against ASU and ended the year second to Lampley in scoring with 9.4 ppg. In addition to both three-point and free throw shooting, Legans also ranked among the Top 10 in the Pac-10 in steals and assists.
'Last year was a very valuable season for Shantay' said Braun. 'He got thrown into the fire. This is a good opportunity for him to see how much difference a year makes. He knows he has to get stronger, and he's committed to that.'
At 6-2, sophomore Donte Smith is adept at either guard position. A good long-range scorer who made 29 three-pointers as a freshman, Smith averaged 6.2 ppg with a high of 19 points against Oregon State. A former Washington, D.C., prep Player of the Year, he started the first six games of his Cal career and finished with 14 starts on the season.
The role of defensive stopper on the perimeter goes to 6-3 junior Dennis Gates. An intelligent player who understands the game well, Gates' long arms and ability to play the passing lanes make him a nuisance for opposing teams. In two seasons, mostly in a reserve role, he has accumulated 48 steals. Offensively, he scored at a 3.6 ppg clip last year, including a personal-best 13 points in Cal's win at UCLA.
Rounding out the backcourt is senior Morgan Lingle, who joined the Bears as a walk-on as a freshman, but was awarded with a scholarship for his senior season. Recipient of the Cal Hustle Award in 1998 and the Outstanding Student-Athlete Award in '99, Lingle will serve as team co-captain (with Lampley) this year.
During his tenure at Cal, Braun has always relied on a strong walk-on program, and this year he has added two in freshmen A.J. Diggs and Conor Famulener. Diggs is a 5-10 guard who was a three-time all-league performer at Long Beach Poly HS, while Famulener is a 6-5 forward who was a key part of De La Salle HS's state championship run last spring.
With what is believed to be Cal's earliest start ever (records are incomplete prior to 1945), the Bears get underway with a home game against Mississippi State in the Preseason NIT Nov. 13. The slate, which also includes the fourth annual Pete Newell Challenge and the Golden Bear Classic, could feature as many as 17 games against teams that advanced to the postseason in 2000.
With that difficult task ahead, Braun is hoping that the elements are in place to put Cal in that elite postseason company, as well, next March.