Question & Answer with Ben Braun
March 14, 2007
BERKELEY - With the 2006-07 season complete, CalBears.com sat down with head coach Ben Braun to get his thoughts on the campaign, as well as his views on next year's team.
The Bears, who finished 16-17 overall and reached the semifinals of the Pac-10 Tournament, lose two seniors in Ayinde Ubaka and Alex Pribble. They return seven scholarship players who saw significant action this season, in addition to three players - DeVon Hardin, Jordan Wilkes and Nikola Knezevic - who missed most or all of the year with injuries. New to the team will be Duke transfer Jamal Boykin, who will become eligible in December, as well as high school recruits Harper Kamp and Omondi Amoke.
What would you say you will remember most about this season and what will this team will be remembered for?
I thought our team got off to a great start this year. Our biggest chore at the beginning of the year - our biggest challenge - was to replace Leon (Powe), and I thought our team really did a good job of moving forward in losing your leading scorer and leading rebounder. A number of guys stepped up. Certainly, DeVon Hardin stepped up and was pretty much averaging a double-double. Going to the Great Alaska Shootout, winning that tournament early with our team, and with some of the young guys making contributions in Jerome (Randle) and Ryan (Anderson), I thought we got off to a great start. Beating Santa Clara, beating them decisively, and beating Kansas State decisively - those were huge wins and our program really moving.
Then, obviously to sustain the injuries was a big blow to our program, but despite the injuries to Jordan Wilkes and DeVon Hardin - to a position that we probably could least afford to lose in terms of depth, I thought our guys really answered the challenge admirably. Theo Robertson moved over and played out of position all year in the post position. Taylor Harrison gave us some minutes where he was very helpful. And Ryan Anderson had a banner freshman year. He did about everything you could do as a freshman. I thought he did a great job.
I'll remember the fight and the competitiveness of our team during this year. I thought we were in every game we played, had chances to win almost every game we played, and that's a credit to the guys on our team. We improved our free throw shooting and became the No. 1 free throw shooting team in the country throughout most of the season, and to finish in the top five in the country is phenomenal. We set a school record in three-point shots made, and I thought our team really took a positive step. We obviously had some difficulties overcoming a lack of inside presence, as teams oftentimes took advantage of our inside in terms of rebounding.
How hard was it for the team to stay mentally competitive with all the injuries early in the year?
I think our coaching staff remained competitive. We never coached our players any differently, even after the injuries. We always had hope, optimism, and at the same time, we were very demanding. We didn't back off on our players in terms of challenging them to do their best. I think our seniors - Alex Pribble and Ayinde Ubaka - bought in to that, and they left it out on the floor. We never took a backseat to anybody in terms of our roles to compete. I thought our players, our leaders, did a great job of keeping that competitive spirit. We believed we were going to win every game we played, and our team played liked it. We had double-digit leads on some nationally ranked teams at their gyms, at Oregon and UCLA, and had chances to win those games, and eventually came back and beat those teams. So, I think that's a great sign for our program of what we were able to accomplish, being somewhat shorthanded and with, pretty much, four freshman as four of our top contributors.
The freshman ended up playing a lot more than maybe they anticipated coming into the year. How much do you think that will benefit them during their years here?
I think the freshman had very valuable experience. They got great experience this year, which will all help them next year. The players that played a lot of minutes this year didn't have any rest spots or areas to relax. Players like Ryan Anderson and Theo Robertson, those guys aren't going to have to play the kind of minutes they played this year, and I think it will help their performance when they can get some rest and they can have guys stepping up. I think their performance will go up.
How much did the wins over Oregon State and UCLA in the Pac-10 Tournament mean?
That was huge to come out and beat a team for the third time (Oregon State). That's two years in a row we've done that. To get to the semifinals was huge; to knock off the top team in our league and one of the top teams in the country in UCLA, basically in their home, is huge for our team. I think that's a great building block for next year. I think it shows our program what we're capable of doing, and I think it can only get better for our team, in terms of optimism and incentive for our team to respond next year, once we get a healthier team.
How much did the leadership of seniors Ayinde Ubaka and Alex Pribble mean to the team?
Alex and Ayinde meant everything to our team. They kept our team afloat with effort, with attitude, their encouragement to the team. Those guys really wanted to win. They wanted to compete in every game, knowing this was their last year. There was never-say-die attitude, and it started with those two guys. We are going to miss those guys, but I think what they've done, even more than any points or rebounds that they could have given our team, they imparted that blessing and that demeanor to our younger players. They can see the dedication it's going to take, not just as a senior, but when you're a sophomore, a freshman becoming a sophomore, a sophomore becoming a junior. Your time as a college player goes fast. Any time you realize that you don't have opportunities forever, it really makes you value the opportunities you do have, your health, your year in school, and the times, the opportunities and challenges you have to play on certain teams.
Are you excited about what you have returning, as well as the incoming recruits, next year?
We are excited about the players that are returning, and if you think about the guys that are coming back, I'd talk about three guys that didn't play this year in DeVon (Hardin), Jordan (Wilkes) and Nikola (Knezevic). To have those three players back is huge. If you could put those three guys into our recruiting class, you'd take them. And then you add Harper Kamp, whose won a third consecutive state championship (in Arizona), with the performances he had and the leadership abilities he has - what a great addition to our program - and Omondi Amoke, who had some huge games for his team and helped his team to a successful program during his career.
Will the front line, which will also include the addition of transfer Jamal Boykin, be the strength of the team next year?
We go from lack of depth to depth in one year, so that's going to be good for our team. To have our depth back, you can't ask for anything more than having the opportunity to play some healthy bodies. And we've had some tough luck over the years, but probably none as tough was we had last year, adding a year when you lose Leon Powe, you lose pretty much four guys. You start and the year goes on, and that's tough, but I really feel good about the guys coming back.
On Ryan Anderson's freshman season and his future at Cal:
I think Ryan Anderson had a lot of expectations on his shoulders, but how could you have any more expectations than what he had this year? I don't think anybody could have more expectations than what he did this year. He was a marked guy every game, and it'll be great to see him have some backup, some reinforcements around him. I think the sky's the limit for Ryan, if he has got the kind of guys around him that can give him a break, a blow here and there, a few minutes where he can regroup. I think he showed by the end of the year that he really plays great post defense. He just needs rest and some support.
On finding a replacement for Ayinde Ubaka at point guard:
You don't replace Ayinde Ubaka, you may find a way to replace his points, but you miss so many intangibles. So, I think leadership is something that grows over the years, but Jerome and Nikola certainly have the ability to lead this team.