Cal Men's Basketball Season Outlook
Nov. 10, 2006
BERKELEY - When the California basketball team takes to the court this season, the Golden Bears' strategy might very well be: expect the unexpected.
One time down the floor, it may be All-Pac-10 guard Ayinde Ubaka pulling up for a three-pointer, with center DeVon Hardin slamming home a thunderous dunk on Cal's next possession. Or it could be forward Theo Robertson slashing to the hoop for a layup, followed by guard Omar Wilkes banking home a runner. Then again, it could be any of the Bears' four talented freshmen finding their own way to get in the box score.
The point is: Cal's opponents may not know where the Bears' next basket will come from, and that's just the way head coach Ben Braun prefers it for 2006-07.
'We're going to be less predictable from a year ago,' said Braun, who enters his 11th season directing the program and begins the year ranked 11th among active Division I coaches with 519 wins. 'We had some players gain valuable experience last year, who stepped up and were instrumental in our run to the NCAA Tournament. But then again, when you're predictable with 20 and 10, that's not bad.'
The 20 and 10 Braun refers to are the average points and rebounds put up last year by departed forward Leon Powe, who took his skills to the NBA in April after earning All-Pac-10 and second-team All-American honors. Powe led the conference in both categories last season despite commanding the full attention of every school the Bears faced.
The result was a 20-11 campaign that included a first-ever trip to the Pac-10 Tournament championship game and a return to the NCAA Tournament field in March.
Now, Cal faces the prospect of life without Powe. And although the task may appear daunting at first, the fact is that the Bears return eight experienced veterans, including starters Ubaka, Hardin and Wilkes, and have added a recruiting class ranked among the nation's Top 25.
Ubaka enters his senior season as the unquestioned team leader. An all-league performer a year ago when he poured in 14.5 ppg and dished out 3.8 apg, he is adept at handling point guard or shooting guard duties.
Ubaka has especially shown his grit in the waning moments of games with the ability to make clutch plays down the stretch. Last Dec. 31 at UCLA, for example, he scored 10 of his 18 points in the final 3:58 of the Bears' 68-61 victory over the Bruins. Ubaka also nailed 41-of-47 free throws in the final two minutes and overtime (87.2%) over the course of the year, and is the top returning free throw shooter in the league after connecting on 83.3 percent of this attempts overall.
Dangerous in the open floor and in the half court, Ubaka drained 61 three-pointers in 2005-06, tying for the third-best total in school history.
'Ayinde has taken on the leadership role since the end of last year,' Braun said. 'We're challenging Ayinde to continue his scoring and get people involved. It's a dual role for him - be a primary scorer and, at the same time, make the guys around him better. He can use his scoring capabilities to create opportunities for his teammates.'
As much of a gauge as Ubaka will be for Cal's success this season, Hardin's development could hold the key. An honorable mention All-Pac-10 pick last year when he averaged 7.3 ppg and 6.6 rpg, the 6-11 junior center will have the task of being the Bears' principal low-post scorer and rebounder.
Hardin provided a glimpse of his potential during the first four games of 2005-06 when Powe was sidelined with a foot injury, and he had to step to the forefront. In those contests, Hardin contributed 15.8 ppg and 9.8 rpg, which included a 23-point, 14-rebound effort vs. Northeastern that earned him Golden Bear Classic MVP notice.
'I think DeVon Hardin has the capability to be a go-to guy for us on the block,' Braun said. 'He runs the floor and blocks shots, and he can be pretty tough to stop.'
If Hardin can attract enough attention inside, it could open the court for Cal's bevy of three-point shooters. The Bears' top returning long-range threats - Ubaka, Wilkes and Robertson - combined to make 109-of-276 shots from beyond the arc (39.5%) last season, led by Wilkes' 45.3 percent rate.
On the opposite end, Cal looks to maintain its place as one of the top defensive teams in the league. Last season, the Bears limited opponents to less than 44.0 percent shooting from the floor for the 10th straight year under Braun. In the previous 25 years, opponents made less than 44 percent just twice.
Cal also set a school record during the 35-second shot-clock era by surrendering only 64.5 ppg in 2005-06.
The Bears' schedule has the potential to include 14 games against opponents that reached either the NCAA Tournament or NIT last year. Cal opens at home against Utah Valley State Nov. 15 and later hosts Bay Area neighbor Santa Clara and the Big 12's Kansas State, in addition to Furman and the annual Golden Bear Classic.
Cal will also try to prove its mettle on the road with visits to defending Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State, as well as to DePaul of the Big East. In addition, the Bears travel to Anchorage, Alaska, for the Great Alaska Shootout, where NIT quarterfinalist Hofstra and 2006 Big West champ Pacific loom as possible foes, and will face the reigning WAC title holder, Nevada, in the 10th Pete Newell Challenge Dec. 3 in San Jose.
The Pac-10 campaign begins away from Berkeley for the third straight year, this time at Arizona, Arizona State and Stanford. Cal wraps up the regular season in Haas Pavilion vs. ASU March 3 before heading to Los Angeles for the Pac-10 Tournament March 7-10.
The Bears feature four veterans at the guard spot, with Ubaka headlining the group, and have added a pair of newcomers.
The 6-4 Ubaka set a school record by playing in 1,156 minutes last season, but greater depth will hopefully allow him to rest more during the season. He scored a career-best 29 points vs. Oregon at home and chipped in another 24 points in a victory at Arizona State, reaching double figures in the point column in 28 of 31 games overall.
Ubaka has also paced Cal in assists two of the last three years, and his career assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.85:1, a rate he has raised to 1.92:1 in Pac-10 contests.
Wilkes brings the experience of 27 starts last season. Perhaps at his best in the open floor, the 6-4 junior averaged 7.6 ppg and led the team from three-point range when he connected on 45.3 percent of his tries (24-53). His personal best of 18 points came in a win over Long Beach State last November, helping Braun to his 500th career victory.
'I think Omar will benefit this year from more of a transition attack,' Braun said. 'He's proven to be highly successful in that role, and if our team can get to be more up-tempo, he will excel even more.'
Nikola Knezevic, a 6-2 sophomore, joined the Bears from his native Belgrade, Serbia, last December and quickly established himself as the team's primary back-up at point guard in '05-06. The familiarity he gained with both the college game and the Pac-10 environments should pay dividends this year.
Knezevic, who contributed 1.0 ppg and 15 assists in 21 games, is a skillful passer and sees the floor well.
'Nikola showed that he has the ability to get the team going,' Braun said. 'He's really good at attacking pressure and zone defenses. He has great court sense and knows how to set guys up to make things happen.'
Senior Alex Pribble, a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship prior to the 2005-06 season, is a hard-nosed competitor who has provided valuable minutes as a sub throughout his career. A two-time Pac-10 All-Academic selection, he has also been honored with Cal's Hustle Award twice.
'We're expecting a lot out of Alex in terms of leadership,' Braun said. 'He's been able to step up and help our team over the years.'
Randle was named the Illinois Class A Player of the Year by the Chicago Tribune last spring after averaging 25 ppg for Hales Franciscan HS in Chicago. He was also chosen co-MVP of the Illinois-Missouri Riverwar All-Star Game after pouring in 31 points and winning the three-point shooting contest.
Christopher, rated the No. 44 recruit in the country by Rivals.com last year, averaged 21 ppg and 9 rpg as a senior at Dominquez HS in Compton, Calif. A first-team All-CIF selection, he was also voted to the Long Beach Press-Telegram's Dream Team.
'Jerome is an explosive player, who creates a lot of excitement and is difficult to cover on the court,' Braun said of the fourth player he has recruited from the state of Illinois. 'Patrick is as athletic a wing as we've recruited over the years. Having a player like him, who can slash to the basket or pull up and knock down some threes, puts pressure on defenses.'
Sophomore Theo Robertson is the top returning scorer among Cal's forwards after contributing 6.0 ppg in a rookie season that included eight starts and honorable mention Pac-10 All-Freshman accolades. The 6-6 wing reached double figures eight times last season, with a high of 18 vs. Oregon in the Pac-10 Tournament semifinals when he sank 4-of-5 shots from the floor and was a perfect 3-for-3 from three-point range.
'Theo really grew to be dependable last year,' Braun said. 'He's a versatile player and can play big guard or small forward. I think he's a hard match-up because of his capability to create mismatches.'
Eric Vierneisel, a 6-7 junior, is the other veteran at the position. He was particularly effective down the stretch in 2005-06, scoring a season-high 10 points in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tourney against USC.
'When Eric shook off a few injuries and gained his confidence back, he gave us a real presence on the court,' Braun said. 'He's quick, he can knock down shots, and he's a solid defender.'
Freshman Ryan Anderson adds his skills to the roster this season after ranking third among the state's high school players last year when he averaged 28.9 ppg for El Dorado Hills HS in Oak Ridge, Calif. A first-team all-state performer, the 6-10 forward scored 50 points and grabbed 18 rebounds vs. Pittman HS in a sectional playoff opener in 2006.
'Ryan has proven he has the ability to score inside and outside,' Braun said. 'But as many points as he scores, he's unselfish and is always willing to help the team.'
In addition to his scoring and rebounding capabilities, Hardin is an outstanding shot-blocker, who swatted away 48 blocks last year - fourth in the Pac-10 with 1.55 per game - and already rates sixth on Cal's career list with 74 blocks.
Wilkes, the younger brother of Omar, burst onto the scene in the '05-06 opener with 11 points at Eastern Michigan. Through hard work in the offseason, he has increased his strength and lifted his bodyweight to 230 pounds.
'Jordan's skill level is very high,' Braun said. 'He made significant contributions last year, especially early when we had some injuries. By the end of the year, he became a pretty durable player for us, and he has improved tremendously from a year ago.'
The hard-nosed Harrison rounds out the trio. A second-team selection on the Long Beach Press-Telegram's Best in the West squad, he averaged 16.1 ppg and 11.1 rpg for San Clemente HS in San Clemente, Calif., as a senior.
'Taylor gives us a rugged post player who prides himself on how hard he works,' Braun said. 'He really enjoys contact, and that's a good trait to have for a post player.'