Cal's Problem: Pac-10 Will Be Better
This was the season of opportunity for the Bears. Ben Braun had his best overall talent since he’s been in Berkeley, and Leon Powe was returning after missing a year because of knee surgery. Arizona and Stanford, which have been powerhouses in recent years, were both down. Stanford ultimately would not make the NCAA tournament, losing in the second round of NIT play. Arizona was racked with discipline problems throughout the season and was not the dominant team of recent years.
It was UCLA which seized that opening, though, as the Bruins shot to the top of the conference. Cal had a typical Braun season, good but ultimately disappointing. The Bears finished third in the conference, got to the finals of the conference tournament – and then had a quick one-and-out in the NCAA tournament.
It’s not going to get any easier for the Bears because the conference will be stronger in years to come.
Stanford, which had not recruited well the last couple of years, has letters-of-intent signed by the seven-foot Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, from Fresno. Lute Olson has made his point at Arizona and is not likely to be challenged again. Olson always recruits talented athletes and the Wildcats will be in the race for No. 1 in the conference again.
A couple of also-rans in recent years may also become factors. Tim Floyd is laying the groundwork at USC, just as Ben Howland did at UCLA in his first two seasons. Basketball has long been the stepchild at USC, with its great football tradition, but Floyd has been reaching out to the Trojan basketball greats of the past, establishing a community to give him moral support in recruiting.
The departure of Rob Evans at Arizona State led to an opening, and reportedly, the school has hired Herb Sendek, who has been the North Carolina State coach. (Rick Majerus was earlier rumored to be a candidate.)Sendek is clearly a step up from Evans, who was regarded as the conference's weakest coach.
Washington, though it will lose Brandon Roy, Player of the Year in the conference, has mostly a young team which could be even better next year. UCLA is a very young team which has far exceeded expectations this year. Now that Howland has his system solidly in place, the Bruins could be in for a long successful run.
Cal? If Powe jumps to the NBA – which is conditional based on how he does in workouts for teams – the Bears could fall back to the Pac-10’s second division next season.
IN ONE important way, UCLA reminds me of the Pete Newell teams at Cal. Newell’s Bears would come up against a top offensive team and just take that team out of its game. That was true especially of John Wooden’s teams at UCLA: Newell won the last seven games that he faced Wooden on the opposite sideline.
In the NCAA tournament, UCLA has done that to every team but one, Gonzaga. The Zags ran their offense well and Adam Morrison had a good game – until the final few minutes. They self-destructed and the Bruins came away with an incredible win.
That showed another trademark of Howland’s teams: They play hard for the whole game. If the Bruins hadn’t kept fighting, even when they fell behind by double-digit margins, they would never have been in position to take that game.
Howland’s team is always well-prepared. Right after Cal won in overtime against Oregon in the Pac-10 tournament semi-finals, Howland gathered his team to go over the Cal offensive plays. All three of them. When they played the next day, the Bruins knew all the Cal plays. When Braun signalled one in, they knew exactly what was coming.
Another characteristic of Howland’s teams: They always play well in the opening minutes of the second half, when so many games are decided, because he makes adjustments at half time.
For years under Steve Lavin, the Bruins had the reputation of being underachievers, star players who never formed a consistent team. This year’s team is just the opposite. Howland has stressed the team concept, with a nine-man rotation. There are some natural leaders on the team – point guard Jordan Farmer, shooter Arron Afflalo – but it is the team concept that wins for the Bruins.
Again, that’s very much like the Newell teams, which seldom had really talented individual players but always had outstanding team play.
IT REALLY wouldn’t take much for Cal to rise to the championship level. Braun has shown that he can recruit well, which was a concern when he first came to Berkeley, but to get the most out of his talent, he needs to hire an assistant who could get the Cal offensive scheme out of the 19th century.
He won’t do it, of course, because he’s so stubborn. He wants to be in charge. Though many alumni are unhappy with him, he won’t be fired – and he shouldn’t be. There are too many positives about Braun, including the most important: His players graduate.
So, what we saw this year is probably as good as it will get with Braun.
I might as well root for the Bruins tonight.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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