Oct. 23, 2007
BERKELEY - 7-2. 7-0. 6-11. 6-10. 6-10. 6-8. 6-8.
In many ways, those numbers - representing the height of each Cal post player - could define the California basketball team for the 2007-08 season.
One year after being forced to battle with an injury-depleted frontline, the Golden Bears return to the court with their biggest roster ever, including a pair of seven-footers for the first time. But the most important factor is that the players, as the season begins, are healthy.
Cal entered the last campaign believing it had the necessary depth down low for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Before the season was a month old, though, both 6-11 DeVon Hardin and 7-0 Jordan Wilkes were lost to surgery - Hardin with a stress fracture in his foot and Wilkes with a torn patella tendon.
As a result, the Bears were left with only two players taller than 6-7 - both freshmen - and occasionally suited up as few as seven scholarship players. By season's end, five players had undergone surgery for a variety of ailments.
"We are pleased to be back at full strength up front - that's a bright spot," said head coach Ben Braun, who enters his 12th season in Berkeley ranking 10th among active Division I coaches with 535 wins. "We went in last year thinking we had good depth on the front line. This year, we think that should be a major strength of the team."
Hardin, who has fully recovered and returned to Cal for his senior year, and 6-10 sophomore Ryan Anderson present a unique inside-outside combination that can be difficult for opponents to defend. The leading returning shot blocker in the Pac-10 with 95 entering the season, Hardin can use his explosiveness and athleticism to score in a variety of ways in the paint. Anderson, meanwhile, showed he has the ability to step outside as needed when he drained 58 three-pointers on 38.2 percent long-range shooting as a rookie in 2006-07.
The duo teamed for 11 games last year before Hardin's injury and helped the Bears to an 8-3 mark, including the Great Alaska Shootout championship and a 78-48 victory over Kansas State, an eventual 23-game winner. During that early stretch, opponents were limited to less than 41 percent shooting from the floor and just 61.4 ppg overall.
Cal's fortunes, however, changed once Hardin went to the sidelines. The Bears, with Anderson forced to move to center and 6-6 Theo Robertson holding down a power forward spot, were unable to sustain their defensive pressure over the final two-thirds of the year.
Cal did upset then-No. 15 Oregon, 63-61, in February and stun then-No. 4 UCLA, 76-69, in overtime in the Pac-10 Tournament quarterfinals. But the Bears surrendered 73.0 ppg and nearly 50 percent shooting without their starting big man to finish with a 16-17 mark.
"We weren't the defensive team we had been in the past, and I think a lot of that was due to our lack of depth and size," Braun said. "Still, I was very proud of last year's group, given the set of circumstances and some of the match-ups that our players had to endure. We were able to get some big wins. They gave us everything they had, and our team was able to do a lot of good things, even with the injuries. We should be a lot healthier and much improved."
Hardin's presence in the middle will certainly help. Despite playing in just 11 games last season, he paced the Bears in blocks with 21. Wilkes is another long-armed post who can affect shots near the basket, while Robertson, who won Cal's Best Defensive Player Award last season, possesses the strength, quickness and versatility to play most anywhere on the court.
On the offensive end, the 2006-07 Bears benefited from being one of the best shooting teams in school history. Not only did they set a Cal record with 249 three-pointers - obliterating the old mark of 196 - but they also sank a school-record 76.9 percent of their free throw attempts, a rate that stood as the third highest in the country.
Although the Bears' starting backcourt of Ayinde Ubaka and Omar Wilkes is gone from the roster, the current unit appears to have the firepower to keep up the pace. Cal returns four players who made at least 25 three-pointers last season, including senior Eric Vierneisel, who paced the team with a 38.8 percentage.
At the stripe, sophomore guard Jerome Randle drained his first 12 free throws of the year and finished with a team-high 81.4 percent, while Hardin (80%) and Anderson (79.8%) also connected on four out of every five tries.
After having their schedule rated as high as sixth strongest in the nation last year, the Bears' 2007-08 slate could be even tougher. Cal's non-conference opponent list includes eight teams that won at least 20 games last season, six of which played in the postseason. The Pac-10 should be as difficult as ever after a record-tying six schools earned NCAA Tournament bids in '07, and all six have earned Top 25 mention for 2007-08.
Tabbed as "one of the best frontcourts in the nation" by collegehoopsnet.com, the Bears have a deep and talented pool from which to draw at the post. Headlining the group is 6-11 senior center DeVon Hardin, who elected to return to Cal for his final campaign after testing the NBA Draft waters last spring.
Hardin contributed 10.7 ppg and 8.4 rpg - both career bests - through 11 games last season before suffering a stress fracture to his left mid-foot vs. Furman Dec. 19. Even during his limited action, he put together some impressive highlights: Great Alaska Shootout all-tournament team, career-high five blocks vs. Santa Clara and three double-doubles.
"I think DeVon wants to go through a whole year without any injuries," Braun said of Hardin, who has bulked up to nearly 250 pounds. "DeVon made a commitment to come back to Cal, and he really zeroed in on being back with his teammates and his coaches. He's as healthy as he's been in a while. A healthy DeVon means a healthy Cal basketball team."
Ryan Anderson, a 6-10 sophomore forward, hopes to build on an outstanding freshman campaign that saw him earn a wide array of accolades - MVP of the Great Alaska Shootout, Pac-10 All-Freshman, All-Pac-10 Tournament and second-team Freshman All-America (Basketball Times).
The leading returning scorer in the conference, Anderson was the only player in the league to rank among the top five in both scoring (16.3 ppg) and rebounding (8.2 rpg) last season. Not only does he possess skills to play close to the basket, but he can also step outside, connecting on 58 three-pointers (38.2%) a year ago - just two shy of the Cal freshman record. Anderson scored in double figures 30 times in 33 games and collected a team-high eight double-doubles.
"I think that Ryan and DeVon proved that when they were playing well and fresh together, it made a big difference for us," Braun said. "When those two guys are on the floor, they complement each other and really put pressure on the other team."
The recipient of a medical hardship waiver over the summer, 7-0 center Jordan Wilkes returns for his sophomore campaign after missing all of 2006-07 following preseason knee surgery. He has increased his body weight to 235 and seems poised to have a strong year for the Bears.
"Jordan is moving well, and it's great to have him back," Braun said. "We really missed him last year."
The Bears sport two other centers in 6-10 sophomore Taylor Harrison and 7-2 freshman Max Zhang. Harrison has recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery, an injury he sustained in the Pac-10 Tournament in March, and brings a physical presence to the post. Zhang, the tallest player in school history, was a late addition to the roster, having signed with Cal in August. A native of Yantai, China, who has been playing basketball only since he was 15 years old, he has quickly proven to be an adept shot-blocker.
"Taylor really came on for us late and played with a lot of heart and determination," Braun said. "Max has improved significantly over the past two years and is still developing physically. He has the ability to change games, as well as the potential to score inside and outside."
The Bears sport two others posts who will be making their Cal debuts this season in 6-8 sophomore forward Jamal Boykin and 6-8 freshman forward Harper Kamp.
Boykin is a transfer from Duke, where he played just over one year and was part of an NCAA Sweet 16 squad in 2006. He will become eligible Dec. 21, one day after fall final exams. The Gatorade state Player of the Year as a senior at Los Angeles' Fairfax High School, he has the ability to play down low or step out to the perimeter.
Kamp also won a state Player of the Year award, earning the honor as a sophomore at Mountain View High in Mesa, Ariz. He led his team to three straight Arizona titles - a feat that had not been accomplished in 46 years.
"Jamal brings a lot of enthusiasm and experience, and he's a very good competitor - he's used to winning," Braun said. "Harper, likewise, competes very hard, and he's fundamentally sound with a strong drive and attention to detail."
Finally, Cal has three forwards who are at their best on the wing. Eric Vierneisel, a 6-7 senior, was the team's Most Improved Player last season after sinking 38.8 percent of his three-point attempts (26-67) and contributing 4.3 ppg. Vierneisel's hottest streak came just after Hardin's injury when he reached double figures in five of the Bears' next seven contests, including a personal-best 13 at Oregon State.
"Eric made a huge difference for us last year, and he's playing with a lot of confidence," Braun said. "He's a knock-down shooter, and he's got good quickness. I think this should be his best year."
Perhaps Cal's most versatile player, 6-6 junior Theo Robertson has been asked to fill in at every position but point guard during his career. The Bears' injury situation last season forced him to perform as an undersized power forward much of the time, and he contributed 8.8 ppg and 4.3 rpg, along with a team-high 27 steals.
Robertson, who underwent hip surgery this past April and is expected to be cleared in December, brings the experience of 41 career starts and has been on the court for more minutes (1,726) than any other Cal player entering the year.
"We want to get Theo back healthy and strong again," Braun said. "He understands his role, and he's not afraid to take on challenges. Theo really is our glue."
Freshman Omondi Amoke, at 6-6, is another athletic wing who offers size and strength on the perimeter. A two-time league MVP at Oxnard High, he averaged 20.3 ppg and 13.4 rpg as a senior last year.
"Omondi gives us size and strength, he's very good defensively, and he's a pretty explosive player," Braun said.
Cal features an all-sophomore backcourt in guards Jerome Randle, Nikola Knezevic and Patrick Christopher, and each will be expected to contribute in a major fashion this season. Randle, a 5-10 dynamo, is one of the quickest players in the Pac-10 with the ability to fly from baseline to baseline. He averaged nearly 18 minutes per game as an understudy to point guard Ayinde Ubaka as a freshman, tossing in 6.5 ppg and dishing out 93 assists against just 57 turnovers.
"Jerome had a valuable season last year and was able to play both the point and off-guard because of his shooting ability," Braun said. "With his speed and quickness, we're expecting him to step up defensively and help us in the transition game to get some easy baskets."
Knezevic is a 6-2 guard who sat out all of '06-07 following preseason knee surgery. An adept passer and solid defender, he saw action in 21 games as a freshman after joining the Bears mid-year from his native Serbia.
"I see Nikola and Jerome both being able to play the point," Braun said. "They both can be a factor for us, and if they are excelling, then we'll find a way to get them some time."
Christopher gained valuable experience as a freshman last year, gaining starts in 14 of Cal's final 22 games. The 6-5 guard poured in 6.9 ppg on 47.6 percent shooting in Pac-10 games and showed off his ability with a 24- point, 11-rebound effort vs. Oregon State at home.
"Patrick really stepped up and made some big strides," Braun said. "When he had the opportunity and his confidence, he did a great job for us. We're going to ask him to do it again this year, and we expect him to really help on both ends of the floor."