Golden Bears Ready for Action

Oct. 20, 2005

BERKELEY - California's incoming recruiting class consists of a pair of talented freshmen in center Jordan Wilkes and guard Theo Robertson.

But in reality, the quantity of fresh faces added to the Golden Bear roster for the 2005-06 season numbers much more. Not only is guard Omar Wilkes eligible to play after sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, but three players who missed all or parts of the 2004-05 campaign due to injury - forward Leon Powe and guards Richard Midgley and Ayinde Ubaka - are fit and eager to display their talents on the court again.

The most significant addition to the active roster is Powe, the 2004 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year who spent more than a year in rehab following a pair of surgeries to his left knee. Cleared for full activity since last May, he has not experienced any pain or swelling in his knee since and has received medical consent to play without a brace this season.

In his first action since March 2004, Powe earned Most Valuable Player honors in the San Francisco Pro-Am league when he averaged 33 points and 11 rebounds during the summer competition.

Midgley, meanwhile, played with a sprained right shoulder throughout the Pac-10 schedule, missing three games entirely, while Ubaka sat out 11 contests after breaking a bone in his left foot last November.

All of the wounded enter this season with clean bills of health, and head coach Ben Braun hopes to exploit their abilities to their fullest and lead the Bears back into the postseason after a two-year absence.

'We're getting our depth back, so I'd like to put pressure on the ball and push the tempo a bit more this year,' said Braun, who enters his 10th season at the helm with a 166-110 record in Berkeley and a 28-year career mark of 499-345. 'Historically, we've been one of the top teams in the league defensively, and we got away from that last year. Using our depth, we'll be able to play harder for longer periods of time.

'Our goal is to create up-tempo basketball and take advantage of our team quickness,' Braun added. 'The ability to defend and rebound will always predicate our chances to run the fast break. The guys that we have in our program will really help us get on the glass, initiate our fast break and go.'

Braun and his staff got a sneak preview of what the upcoming season may offer when they took the Bears on a 12-day trip to Italy that included five games against international competition. Cal won each contest - four by double-digit margins - and displayed the running and fast-break prowess of a team ready to get up and down the court. The Bears scored at least 88 points in every outing, and topped 110 points in their first two games.

In addition to the players enjoying themselves during a tour that took them to Florence, Venice and Lake Como, the experience had several other desired effects. Powe showed he could handle the physical demands of multiple games in a short period, averaging more than 23 points and 10 rebounds per game; Wilkes shook off the rust from his redshirt season and poured in nearly 18 ppg; and Midgley and Ubaka proved they were back in form with productive performances.

But more than the individual accomplishments, the bonding the players developed among themselves may prove most beneficial in the long run.

'Last year, we had so many combinations on the floor with all the injuries we had,' Braun said. 'Now, we have a whole new team and it's important that they get time together. I thought our team had some very good chemistry during the time we were away.'

Unlike the 2004-05 season when the Bears did not sport a senior on the roster, experience will be a key ingredient to Cal's success this year. Leading the group of three seniors is Midgley, a 6-2 guard who has been a member of the starting lineup since midway through his freshman season.

Midgley, who ranks sixth on Cal's all-time three-point list with 134, played hurt almost the entire Pac-10 season after injuring his right shoulder in the league's second game at Washington State. He sat out three contests in late January and watched his three-point percentage drop from 42.1 percent before the injury to 29.9 percent afterwards. Now, fully recovered, Midgley appears ready for his best season yet.

With 919 points entering the year, Midgley rates second among returning Pac-10 players in career scoring, and he needs just 81 points to become the 34th player in school history to reach 1,000 in his career. He has increased his scoring average each of his previous three campaigns - pouring in 12.9 ppg last season - and is one of the Bears' most reliable free throw shooters with a career mark of 74.5 percent.

'I think Richard is really excited about his senior year and being healthy again,' Braun said. 'There's no question about that. His experience and his leadership will help us, and I think he's going to have a very good year.'

Joining Midgley in the backcourt is 5-11 Martin Smith, a former walk-on who was rewarded with a scholarship for his senior year. With both Midgley and Ubaka ailing last season, Smith started 17 games at the point for Cal. Not only did he lead the Bears with 113 assists, but his assist-to-turnover ratio (1.95:1) ranked fifth in the Pac-10.

Smith dished out eight assists twice - vs. Hampton and at Arizona - and reached double figures in scoring five times, including a high of 12 points vs. Arizona State at home.

'Martin will be very valuable again this season,' Braun said. 'He had an opportunity to play a lot last year, and having him is a real asset for us. He adds to our depth and our stability.'

Completing the senior class is 6-10 forward/center Rod Benson, one of the most improved players in the Pac-10 - if not the country - in 2004-05. A little used reserve during his first two seasons with the Bears, Benson made the most of his opportunity last year and paced Cal in both scoring (13.3 ppg) and rebounding (6.3 rpg), while shooting 54.3 percent from the floor.

Benson tallied at least 20 points five times - with a best of 25 points vs. Colorado and another 24 against Stanford - and he tied for fifth in the conference with six double-doubles. His career-high 14 rebounds at UCLA helped the Bears top the Bruins, 64-51, in Pauley Pavilion.

'Rod comes into the season with a lot of confidence and a lot of experience,' Braun said. 'Having Leon out last year was kind of a blessing for him. He stepped up and proved that he can play.'

In addition to Benson, Cal's frontcourt features three other agile post players who can run, rebound and defend in Powe, 6-11 sophomore DeVon Hardin and 6-11 freshman Jordan Wilkes.

The 6-8, 240-pound Powe led the Bears in scoring (15.1 ppg) and became the first freshman in the history of the Pac-10 to lead the league in rebounding (9.5 rpg) in 2003-04. During that rookie year, he had a conference-best 14 double-doubles, while his 295 total rebounds wiped out the previous Cal freshman record of 249 set by Bob McKeen in 1952.

Powe scored a personal-high 27 points vs. UC Irvine in 2003-04 and had seven games with 20 or more points that season. Now a preseason candidate for the 2005-06 Wooden All-America team, he is ready to prove again why he was considered one of the Top 10 recruits in the country coming out of Oakland Tech High School two years ago.

'I think taking the year off really has helped Leon in terms of maturity - he has a better perspective of the game,' Braun said. 'He gives us toughness and rebounding, and he gives our team a confidence that only certain players can give you. He really is enjoying being back on the court. I am happy for him; it's something he deserves.'

Hardin is another local product who hails from Fremont, Calif., and Newark Memorial High. A starter for 11 games last season, Hardin's best effort came in his first start when he finished with 12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks at BYU. He was also named MVP of the San Diego Slam when he totaled 11 points and five boards in a victory over San Diego State. A strong shot-blocker, he swatted away 26 attempts last season to rank ninth in the Pac-10 with 0.90 bpg.

Wilkes, the younger brother of Omar and son of former NBA star Jamaal Wilkes, was rated the No. 7 prep center in the country at Loyola High in Los Angeles after averaging 20 ppg and 10 rpg last year. A skilled post player with a high basketball IQ, Braun said 'he improves every time I see him.'

On the wing, 6-5 junior Marquise Kately provides both scoring ability and a high degree of defensive pressure. A member of the Pac-10 All-Freshman squad in 2004, he has averaged nearly 10 ppg during his Cal career, with a high of 24 vs. Saint Mary's last year and against Arizona State in '04. Kately withdrew from school for personal reasons in early October and may re-enroll for the spring semester.

Also providing support at small forward are 6-7 sophomore Eric Vierneisel and 6-5 freshman Theo Robertson. Vierneisel saw action in 25 games as a rookie and averaged 3.5 ppg. A good outside shooter, he made a third of his three-point attempts, including a 4-for-4 performance in the opener vs. UC Riverside.

Robertson, from nearby Pittsburg, Calif., finished his career as the No. 2 scorer in De La Salle High School history with 1,220 points and was named league MVP as a senior.

At guard, the Bears have outstanding depth and versatility, with four players capable of handling point guard duties in Midgley, Smith, Ubaka and Omar Wilkes.

Ubaka, who paced the Bears with 108 assists as a freshman, jumped out to a quick start last year, shooting 53.3 percent from the floor, including 5-for-7 from three-point range, through three games before a broken foot disrupted his year. With two seasons of experience under his belt, he is anxious to display his abilities over the course of a full season.

The 6-4 Wilkes, a transfer from Kansas, helped the Jayhawks to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2004 and was considered a national Top 100 recruit out of Loyola High School in Los Angeles in '03.

'Omar has a unique ability to fit into the team environment and make the guys around him better,' Braun said. 'When you watch him play, he has a knack for finding the basket and finding his teammates, coming up with a loose ball, a rebound or a steal. Those are good attributes to have.'

Rounding out the roster are junior guards Alex Pribble and Steve Panawek. The 6-4 Pribble played in 20 games last year and has earned a scholarship for this season, while the 6-6 Panawek is in this third season as a walk-on and has seen limited action thus far.

The schedule takes the Bears on a pair of road trips - to Eastern Michigan and to Kansas City for a match-up with Kansas - prior to the start of Pac-10 play. The Bears also host the 13th annual Golden Bear Class Thanksgiving weekend and face DePaul in the Pete Newell Challenge Dec. 21.

The conference slate opens in Los Angeles at USC Dec. 29 and at UCLA Dec. 31 and concludes with the Pac-10 Tournament March 8-11 at the Staples Center.

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