Men's Basketball Ready to Take the Next Step

Oct. 22, 2003

BERKELEY - Over the course of his tenure as men's basketball coach at the University of California, Ben Braun has elevated the program to a status few teams around the country can match:

* 6 trips to the postseason in the past seven years;
* 3 consecutive berths to the NCAA Tournament;
* a National Invitation Tournament title in 1999;
* an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in 1997;
* Top 25 rankings the last two years.

'Our goal was to establish consistency in the program, and we're doing that,' said Braun, who enters his eighth year at the helm this fall with a 140-79 record at Cal. 'There's nothing greater than to be in the tournament on a yearly basis and be regarded among the nation's Top 25 teams.'

Now, Braun, with the help of one of the nation's best recruiting classes, has the Golden Bears poised to take another leap forward.

Led by Parade All-Americans and Oakland products Leon Powe and Ayinde Ubaka, Cal's incoming group has earned a consensus Top 10 ranking - giving the Bears their highest rated class in nearly a decade.

And with an experienced and talented set of returning lettermen, Cal has not only put itself in position for a chance at the Pac-10 championship, but also an opportunity for a deep run into the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

Despite losing starters Joe Shipp and Brian Wethers - two of the Top 15 scorers in school history - to graduation, this season's Golden Bear unit exhibits more depth, rebounding ability and ball-handling skills than any in recent memory. The result is that this unit is ranked in several preseason Top 25 polls.

'We would like to be able to pick up the tempo with this year's team,' Braun said. 'We'll also try to create more of an inside presence, which will open up our outside game. If we can set ourselves up inside, we have guys who can knock down three-pointers.'

That means that Cal has a chance to improve on last season's 22-9 overall record and 13-5 mark in the Pac-10. After reaching the second round of the NCAA playoffs the past two years, the Bears are also hoping they can keep their season alive even longer, reaching the Sweet 16 and, perhaps, beyond.

The focal point of the offense could very well center around 6-10 senior Amit Tamir. An All-Pac-10 choice in 2003 when he averaged 14.9 points and 6.5 rebounds, Tamir presents as many problems for opposing defenses as any player in the country. Cal's leading rebounder last year, he also connected on a team-high 61 three-pointers, shooting 39.4 percent from behind the arc.

Tamir owns five double-doubles on his resume - all coming last season - and he has scored at least 20 points 10 times during his career, including a 39-point outburst vs. Oregon in 2002. Last season, he set a Gill Coliseum record with seven three-pointers (11 attempts) on his way to 27 points at Oregon State and established a school mark for most three-pointers without a miss when he shot 5-for-5 from behind the arc vs. Arizona State at home.

In addition to his long-range bombs, Tamir's rebounding and passing skills add to his all-around ability. He snared at least 10 boards on seven occasions in '02-03 while also ranking second on the squad with 93 assists, including seven at both Cleveland State and USC.

'If Amit can have the same type of jump that he had from his first to second years at Cal, he's going to be a terrific player for us this season,' Braun said. 'He brings back experience, scoring and knowledge. He's committed himself to getting stronger and becoming a force that can get to the foul line and score inside consistently.'

Two others starters from 2002-03 - sophomore guard Richard Midgley and senior center Gabriel Hughes - also return for the Bears.

Midgley, a member of the Pac-10 All-Freshman squad after averaging 9.2 ppg and 2.7 assists during his rookie campaign, will likely cede many of his point guard responsibilities to Ubaka and move over the shooting guard position in '03-04. A hardy competitor with nerves of steel, Midgley nailed several of Cal's most unforgettable buckets last season - a decisive three-pointer with 1:39 left vs. Washington and a nothing-but-net trey in the closing seconds of the Bears' 76-74 overtime win over North Carolina State in the NCAA Tournament.

Midgley also set a school freshman record by making 44.9 percent of his three-point attempts in '02-03 - a figure that ranked second overall in the Pac-10. He drained four three-pointers during a career-best 23-point effort vs. USC at home and added four more treys against Oregon State in the Pac-10 Tournament.

'Richard is just a tough, disciplined player who is also very unselfish,' Braun said. 'It's nice to have a skilled player who is not afraid to take big shots.'

Hughes, at 6-11, is an intimidating shot blocker (team-high 32 blocks last year) who provides ample support under the basket. He made his biggest impression on the NCAA stage, soaring to career highs with 14 points and nine rebounds in the NC State victory. After a productive summer in the weight room, Hughes' improved offensive skills should help add to his 3.0 ppg average from last season.

The most considerable impact on the front line, though, will come from the 6-8, 245-pound Powe, a McDonald's All-American out of Oakland Tech High School who scorched the nets for 27.4 ppg, 14.2 rpg and 3.1 blocks per game as a prep senior last year. One of the Top 10 recruits in the country, Powe earned Gatorade Player of the Year honors for the state of California and area Player of the Year awards from the San Francisco Chronicle and ANG Newspapers.

'Leon Powe is a strong, hard-nosed, fearless player,' Braun said. 'He is somebody who will be giving us the aggressiveness we need on the inside.'

A first team Parade All-American, Powe once scored 40 or more points in three consecutive games and he averaged 33 ppg and 14 rpg in last year's state playoffs. After the end of his senior season, Powe became the first player in the history of Oakland Tech to have his jersey - No. 44 - retired.

Fellow freshmen Ubaka, Dominic McGuire and Marquise Kately bring their own impressive set of credentials to Berkeley. Ubaka, a fourth team Parade All-American from Oakland High, earned first team all-state honors from Cal-Hi Sports and a Top 50 rating from nearly every recruiting service. He averaged 23.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg and 5.0 apg as a senior, with a career-best 35 points vs. Powe's Oakland Tech team.

McGuire hails from San Diego's Lincoln High, where he poured in 19 ppg, 12 rpg and 6 bpg last season. Perhaps his most impressive game came against Upland High when his final stat line read: 18 points, 18 rebounds and 18 blocks.

Kately, another Top 50 recruit, is a former state Player of the Year from Riordan High School in San Francisco. He averaged 22 ppg as a senior in 2002 before earning first team all-league honors during a post-graduate year at Maine Central Institute in '03.

'We have a very gifted group of players coming in who I think will help make improvements in our team,' Braun said. 'In addition to being standout players, they're also complementary players. That's what stands out about them - they make their team better. I believe our practices will be as competitive as they've been since I've been here. They're going to raise the level of our play.'

Seniors A.J. Diggs and Conor Famulener should continue in their valued support roles for the Bears. Diggs, a 5-10 point guard, may be the quickest player in the Pac-10. He led Cal with 57 steals last season - ranking third in the league in that category - including a school-record-tying eight at Cleveland State. And with 120 career steals entering the year, the former walk-on is one steal away from joining Cal's all-time Top 10. Diggs also swiped six steals in the Bears' win over North Carolina State in the NCAA Tournament and added five more vs. UC Santa Barbara.

Braun calls Famulener, a 6-6 forward, the most fundamentally sound player on the team who can hold his own despite battling against players four or five inches taller. Another former walk-on, he averaged 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds last season, including a high of 10 boards in a win over UCLA at home.

'A.J. made an impact in every game he played last year,' Braun said. 'He helped us down the stretch in so many games. Conor was the ultimate role player for us. Every time he got in the game, our team seemed to play a notch higher.'

Look for a pair of sophomores - 6-7 Erik Bond and 6-8 David Paris - to increase their roles this season. Both players used their rookie campaigns to gain a good understanding of the college game and should provide additional scoring and rebounding for the Bears.

Bond is fully recovered from an ankle injury that caused him to redshirt in 2002. He tallied 1.8 ppg last year, with a best of seven points against Grambling and Stanford. Paris also had seven points to go with four rebounds in the win over the Cardinal. For the season, he averaged 1.7 ppg in 26 contests.

Like Paris, Rod Benson and Jordi Geli are a couple of sophomores who improved their games during the offseason. Benson is an active big man with prep volleyball experience who uses his 6-10 frame to its fullest on the defensive end of the court, while Geli, who also stands 6-10, is more of a perimeter player who can beat his defender off the dribble.

Second-year walk-ons Martin Smith and Joe Abrahams round out the roster. Smith, the son of the late Phil Smith - a two-time NBA All-Star - played a key role as a reserve last season, especially on the defensive end. Perhaps more importantly, he did not commit a turnover from his point guard spot. Abrahams also provides support at guard, particularly with his long-range shooting ability.

The schedule features five non-conference games against teams that played in the postseason last year, including road contests at UNLV (NIT) and Colorado (NCAA). In addition, the Bears face St. Joseph's in the Pete Newell Challenge in Oakland, and welcome BYU and Wyoming to Haas Pavilion. The Pac-10 schedule begins at home Jan. 2 vs. Washington and concludes March 6 at Washington State.

Following three consecutive 20-win campaigns - all accompanied by NCAA Tournament berths - the Bears are accustomed to being a part of March Madness. Now, the parts are in place for California to make an even more significant splash on the national stage.

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