Cal Cal Bears Win the Pac-10?
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 17, 2006

THE CAL BEARS in first place in the conference? Who would have thought it?

I was very critical of Cal coach Ben Braun earlier in the season, when the Bears were seriously underachieving, so it’s only fair to say now that Braun has shown more flexibility I would have thought him capable of in correcting the problems that hampered the Bears earlier. Among them:

--Offensive rebounding. The Bears hit a low point when they lost to the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson, surrendering 21 offensive rebounds. That was a breakdown in fundamental basketball because players were not blocking out on the defensive boards.

Last night, in the rematch against the Wildcats at Haas Pavilion, the Bears showed that they’d learned from their mistakes. This time, the Bears did the job on the boards at both ends, with a 29-23 edge.

--Slack defense on opposing star players. It seemed there was always one player who lit up the Bears, but last week, they shut down Stanford’s Chris Hernandez by double-teaming him every time he got the ball. Last night, they shut down Hassan Adams, who had been averaging 18.3 points a game but got a season-low seven.

Freshman Theo Robertson, who has been playing very well in recent games, was the chief defender on Adams, but he got help at times, too.

Another amazing note: Arizona got zero points off the fast break. This is a team which lives off the easy transition baskets. That’s how the Wildcats fuel the runs which often propel them into the lead. Last night, they didn’t get those baskets, and the Bears led, wire-to-wire.

--Getting Leon Powe more actively involved in the offense. They’re actually running some plays designed to get Powe free, setting high screens or setting up a high/low post with DeVon Hardin in the high post, passing to Powe underneath.

Powe has also gotten more active inside, making his own moves to get free – or to get fouled.

Powe is much the same type of player that Ike Diogu was at Arizona State for three seasons. Diogu always got double-teamed, but usually, he either made the shot or drew a foul. When I talked to him at the Warriors media day this year, Diogu said his coach had told him he needed to learn to shoot free throws because he’d be fouled frequently. Diogu practiced diligently, and his free throw percentage rose each year he played.

The same pattern seems to be emerging for Powe, who hit 12-of-15 from the floor in his 32-point effort against Stanford and 10-for-14 last night (and also 10-for-14 from the floor). That's a cumulative percentage of more than 75 per cent.

The Bears still hit those stretches when they just pass the ball around the perimeter before taking a bad shot, but they had much better ball movement last night than probably any other game this year.

--The intensity level. Earlier in the season, the Bears had problems maintaining consistency because, after a good effort, they’d come out flat in the next game. The most notable example of that was the loss to Oregon State at Berkeley. They’re putting out a consistent effort now, though, because there’s been no letdown in intensity. They play every game as if it’s the most important on the schedule, which is the main reason they’ve been able to put away games at the end. Hopefully, that pattern will continue tomorrow night and there will be no letdown against the cellar-dwelling Arizona State Sun Devils.

THIS IS THE last time a Cal team has been in first place in the conference this late in the season since 1960, when Pete Newell’s team won its third straight conference title and went on to a runnerup finish in the NCAA tournament, after winning the tournament the previous year.

Much has changed since then. There were only 16 teams in the NCAA tournament in 1960, so the only way Cal could qualify for the tournament was by winning the conference championship. Now, as many as four Pac-10 teams may make the conference, and there’s the added possibility of getting in by winning the conference tournament.

This team is much different than Newell’s teams, too. Newell’s teams had only one player, Darrall Imhoff, who went on to the NBA, and Imhoff is known mainly for being one of three players who tried vainly to stop Wilt Chamberlain in Wilt’s 100-point game. On this current team, Powe, Hardin and Ayinde Ubaka are definite NBA prospects, and it’s possible that Robertson and the Wilkes brothers, guard Omar and center Jordan, may eventually wind up there.

Newell’s players were very well disciplined, and they ran carefully designed plays which gave them good shots within 10 feet from the basket. Because of their relative lack of athletic ability, they seldom ran the fast break. They broke open games with their full court press, which led to steals and easy baskets.

With its athletic ability, this team should be running much more, and Braun finally seems to be realizing that. The Bears were more productive with their fast break than the Wildcats – and when’s the last time that happened? Probably not since Jason Kidd was in school.

Last night, even Powe got into the act, going more than half the court and dribbling behind his back en route to a first half layup.

THE BEARS are hardly home free. They’re tied with UCLA at 10-3 with Stanford just one game back. Pre-season favorite Washington is 8-5 in fourth place. The Bears play both Washington (at Seattle) and UCLA (at home) in the final two weeks of the season.

The NCAA may only take three conference teams this year because of the Pac-10’s low national ranking, seventh among the conferences. If Washington is the fourth team, the Huskies would probably make it because they were 11-0 in nonconference games. UCLA and Stanford both had tougher nonconference schedules than Cal; Braun always schedules weak opponents outside conference play.

So, it would behoove the Bears to win the conference and eliminate all doubt. For the first time, I believe they can do that.

LETTERS: I’ll be updating this section later today.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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