Is It Time for Braun to Go?
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 25, 2006

DURING A timeout in the closing minutes of the Cal-Arizona game last Saturday, the television analyst said, “We’ll see what kind of play Ben Braun comes up with.”

Even if you weren’t watching, you know the answer to that. The Bears came out, passed the ball around the perimeter for awhile and then threw up a low-percentage shot. Vintage Braun.

But, that wasn’t even the worst part of the game. Arizona got a whopping 20 offensive boards. In high school basketball, I was taught how to box out for defensive rebounds. Yet, these players don’t know that.

It was much the same against Stanford. Pre-game analysis gave the Bears the edge because they figured to be able to dominate the Cardinal inside, with Leon Powe and Devon Hardin. Yet, it was Stanford, with Matt Haryasz doing most of the damage, that won the battle inside.

A friend of mine was talking to a Cal assistant on Monday and mentioned their problems on the defensive boards. The coach said, “Yeah, that’s what we’ll be working on this week.” Better late than never, I guess.

The back-to-back losses to Stanford and Arizona were back-breakers and, unfortunately, just a continuation of a trend. Braun’s teams are now 0-10 on the road at both Arizona and Stanford. In past years, that was somewhat understandable because the Wildcats and Cardinal had powerhouse teams. Not this year. On paper, the Bears are superior to both teams. But not on the court.

The mistakes are piling up. There’s a tremendous inconsistency in effort for each game. The Bears routed Arizona State (though that’s somewhat misleading because they had only an eight-point lead with about 6 ½ minutes left), then came out flat against Arizona. Even in their best games, the wins over USC and UCLA in Los Angeles, they played poorly at times.

Part of the problem is that the Bears play such an easy pre-conference schedule that they’re not prepared for tough games later. Those easy games fatten their record, but that’s meaningless when they don’t contribute to conference wins.

I was spoiled because I was in school when Pete Newell’s teams started their run which culminated in an NCAA championship and a loss in the next year’s Finals.

Newell’s teams played a suffocating defense with a zone press that disrupted the other team. They played a disciplined offense with a few set plays which were designed to give the Bears high percentage shots inside.

Braun has much superior athletes. Darrall Imhoff was the only player from those Newell teams to go to the NBA, and Imhoff was never more than a backup center. Powe and Hardin, as sophomores, are better than Imhoff ever was, because they’re much more agile and better offensive players. Overall, Braun has the best talent he’s ever had, but he’s doing the minimum with it.

THE QUESTION is: How much longer can Braun last with this kind of performance?

He has some points in his favor, as far as the school is concerned. He’s concerned about his players’ academics – he was a teacher before he went into coaching – and he’s even contributed money to the athletic program. He’s run a clean program, without a whiff of the recruiting scandals of the Todd Bozeman era. He also has the support of some important alumni, including the family whose name is on the arena.

On the basketball front, though, it’s been downhill since his first year, when the Bears were 23-9 overall, tied for second in the conference with a 12-6 record and got to the “Sweet Sixteen” in the NCAA tournament. It’s not a good sign when a coach’s best year is his first one.

Why this regression? In large part it’s because Braun has become more entrenched in his thinking, not willing to take suggestions from anybody, even his assistant coaches. So, the Bears have become very predictable, very easy for other coaches to scout and draw up strategies. Lute Olson told his Arizona players that they could get to the offensive boards against the Bears, and, indeed, they did.

Even Braun’s suppposed talking points are not as strong as they seem. His teams have made four NCAA tournaments in nine years, but 64 teams make those tournaments each year. In his four years as football coach, Jeff Tedford has taken his team to three bowls and would have had a fourth, too, except that Cal was on NCAA probation.

Tedford’s success, in fact, highlights Braun’s weaknesses. Tedford took over a moribund football program. Tom Holmoe had gone 12-43 over five years and the Bears had had just one winning season in 10 years. Tedford produced a 7-5 season in his first year and made quarterback Kyle Boller into a first-round NFL draft pick, and his subsequent teams have gotten as high as No. 4 in the national polls in 2004.

Braun took over a program that had been successful, though tainted. The Bears had gone 17-11 overall, 11-7 in conference play, the previous season, and Bozeman had taken them to the NCAA tournament three times in his 3 ½ years, including a “Sweet Sixteen” spot after he took over for Lou Campanelli in midseason of the 1992-93 season.

Braun’s contract has been extended a couple of times at Cal, and it wouldn’t be easy to fire him. New athletic director Sandy Barbour runs a tight ship and she has made no public comment about Braun, but she’s not reluctant to make tough decisions. Most important, she has the backing of the man who hired her, chancellor Robert Birgenau.

If Braun is fired, Barbour should pursue Mark Few. I don’t know how entrenched Few is at Gonzaga, but he’s interested in being on the main collegiate scene, as evidenced by the very tough non-conference schedule his teams play each season. And, he’s proven to be an excellent coach in that kind of competition.

AT BEST, a coaching change won’t be made until next season, so we’re stuck this year with the Ben Braun reality.

The sad part is that this is the year Braun could have won the conference title, which he has never accomplished. The Pac-10 is really weak this season, currently ranked seventh nationally among conferences. Arizona and Stanford, which have dominated the conference in recent years, are both down. Washington will probably win the conference, but the Huskies are not a truly dominant team.

The brutal fact is the Pac-10 may only get three tournament spots this year. Right now, it doesn’t seem Cal will qualify for one of those spots. With the talent this team has, that’s a disgrace.

NOTE: My schedule is very tight tomorrow, so I may not be able to post a column until late afternoon. So, if you check in early and nothing is up, please come back later.

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