Oct. 10, 2001
BERKELEY - Upon his arrival at Cal five years ago, head coach Ben Braun talked at length about his desire to build not so much a team, but a program - one that not only participated postseason on a regular basis, but also graduated its student-athletes.
And during his short tenure in Berkeley, that is exactly was Braun has produced.
Under Braun, the Golden Bears have extended their seasons well into March four times, gaining berths in a pair of NCAA Tournaments, as well as two National Invitation Tournaments. Cal advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1997, won the NIT in '99, reached the NIT quarterfinals in 2000 and returned to the NCAA's last year. In fact, this season's squad has a chance to be the first since Pete Newell's Bear teams of 1957-60 to go to the postseason four straight years.
Leading the way for Cal is a trio of seniors who have twice reached the 20-victory plateau and attained a high level of success both on and off the court. In addition to entering 2001-02 with a combined 60 wins and 80 starts to their credit, all three will receive their degrees in four years or less. Guard Dennis Gates even went so far as to earn his B.A. in only three years and will compete this season as a graduate student.
To those outside Cal basketball, the immediate task ahead may appear daunting. After all, the Bears are without 2001 Pac-10 Player of the Year Sean Lampley, who graduated along with his averages of 19.5 points and 7.2 rebounds. But with 11 lettermen, including four starters, returning to campus, as well as the addition of a highly regarded recruiting class, Cal should be right back in the hunt for another NCAA Tournament appearance.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this year and last is that the Bears will present a much more balanced attack. After relying so heavily on Lampley the last couple of seasons, this year's Bears have a vast array of talent to provide scoring support.
"We're going to have to manufacture some more points," said Braun, who enters his sixth season at the helm with a 95-61 record with the Bears. "We don't have that one go-to guy like we had last year. But I think the other side of that is that we may have more balance. We're hoping that depth will also be a big factor for us. We're returning almost everybody and adding some top recruits."
Cal is coming off a successful season in which the Bears went 20-11, splicing together a seven-game winning streak in December and posting its largest win over UCLA (92-63) since 1922-23. However, it was the invitation to the NCAA Tournament that highlighted the year.
"Having been to the NCAA Tournament is really important," said Braun. "It was an accomplishment to get to the tournament. Now, I hope our players are thinking more about playing at a high level and challenging for a Pac-10 championship. That would be a great goal."
Facing the Bears is a pre-conference schedule that includes up to five games against teams that played in the postseason last year. In the Black Coaches Association Classic, Cal opens with defending Ivy League champion Princeton and could meet preseason Top 15 St. Joseph's in the second round. The Bears also host NIT quarterfinalist New Mexico, have a rematch with 2001 NCAA first round foe Fresno State and may face Penn State - which reached the NCAA Sweet 16 last year - in the ninth annual Golden Bear Classic.
The league slate starts with back-to-back games vs. Stanford and concludes with the Pac-10 Tournament at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Heading the returning group is junior point guard Shantay Legans (5-10, 175), who already has nearly two full seasons of starting experience. Legans averaged 9.5 ppg and 4.8 apg last year, in addition to a team-leading 47 three-pointers and 43 steals.
"I think Shantay really improved from his freshman to his sophomore year, and I anticipate he'll make another jump this year," said Braun. "He'll be our most experienced player on the floor in terms of minutes played, pressure and handling the ball. He's been through a lot of that already."
Legans ranked third in the Pac-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio last season (2.31:1) and had 13 games with at least six assists, including a career-high 11 in Cal's opening victory over Mississippi State in the Preseason NIT. He already ranks among the school's Top 10 in three-pointers (7th, 94) and three-point percentage (6th, 40.3%), in addition to having a career free throw rate better than 80 percent.
Joining Legans at guard is junior Brian Wethers (6-5, 210), who has both the touch to fire away from three-point range and the power to drive strongly to the basket. Wethers increased his scoring output 3 ppg from his freshman season to 8.5 ppg last year, and ranked in the Top 10 in the Pac-10 in field goal shooting (51.7 percent). He also made 43.9 percent of his shots behind the arc.
"I think Brian Wethers certainly was our most improved player," said Braun. "He really started to come into his own last year. He took a big step from his freshman year and we expect a lot out of Brian this year."
Wethers had a breakout game against Georgia when he soared for 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the floor. He later made the Golden Bear Classic all-tournament team with a pair of double-figure outings, and tallied a career-best 27 points, including five three-pointers, in a victory over Arizona State.
Also looking to make solid contributions in the backcourt again this season are seniors Ryan Forehan-Kelly (6-5, 195) and Dennis Gates (6-3, 195), junior Donte Smith (6-2, 190) and sophomore A.J. Diggs (5-10, 160).
Forehan-Kelly started 21 games last year at both guard and forward, providing tough perimeter defense (38 steals) and deadly long-range shooting (41.8% on three-pointers). He averaged 7.2 ppg - almost double his output from a year earlier - with his best games coming vs. Yale (17 points), at Arizona (16 points), vs. UCLA (16 points) and vs. Arizona State (18 points).
Gates is another strong defender and heady player on the outside. He averaged 3.4 ppg as a junior, making 90.3 percent of his attempts from the free throw line, and had 36 assists with only 13 turnovers. A two-time Pac-10 All-Academic selection, Gates received Cal's Most Inspirational Player Award last year.
Smith (2.4 ppg) is a true combo guard and may be the Bears premier player at driving to the basket. He tallied a season-high 10 points vs. UCLA and had strong performances vs. Washington (8 points) and Washington State (7 points). Smith is also an outstanding free throw shooter, making more than 80 percent in his career.
Diggs emerged as the team's primary backup at point guard last season after arriving at Cal as a walk-on. He didn't play in the Bears' first two games, but became a regular contributor thereafter. Although he doesn't look to score much (1.2 ppg), Diggs gives Cal a high energy defender who provides steady play on the offensive end.
Two other walk-ons hope to contribute to the Bears this year - 6-3 sophomore Ronnie West and 6-3 freshman Tashaan Forehan-Kelly. West, younger brother of former Cal and NBA star Kevin Johnson, played in 12 games last season and scored a best of three points vs. Albany. Forehan-Kelly, younger brother of Ryan, also has family ties to Cal. He was a two-time all-league performer at Woodbridge HS in Irvine and can play both the point and off guard spots.
Cal enters the season with four players standing 6-10 or taller, giving the Bears the potential to have one of the biggest front lines in college basketball.
Senior center Solomon Hughes (6-11, 225) leads the returning frontcourt players. Hughes, who has increased his scoring, field goal shooting and rebounding every year he's been in Berkeley, averaged 8.2 ppg last season while leading the Pac-10 in field goal accuracy at 62.9 percent. That rate was the third best season mark in school history, and his career percentage of 57.3 percent ranks second on the Bears' all-time list.
An intimidating presence in the paint, Hughes is also on track to finish his career No. 2 at Cal with more than 120 blocks. As the Bears' leading returning rebounder (4.0 rpg), he will be asked to take up much of the slack left by the departure of Lampley, who led Cal on the boards each of the past three seasons.
"Solomon was a very solid player for us last year, and I expect he'll be even better this season," Braun said. "He is one of the most athletic big men in the conference and gives us a high level of maturity in the middle."
Hughes' younger brother, Gabriel Hughes (6-10, 215), is back for his sophomore year. He spent his freshman campaign learning the intricacies of the college game, seeing action in 19 contests. Hughes showed flashes of his potential early in the year against Albany when his stat line read two points, two blocks and four rebounds in 10 minutes.
New to the lineup is 6-11, 235-pound freshman Jamal Sampson, a third team Parade All-American from Mater Dei HS in Santa Ana. Sampson, considered a Top 30 national prospect by most recruiting services, is another athletic post player who has a chance to evolve into one of the premier centers in the country. He averaged 15.5 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 2.4 bpg while leading his Mater Dei team to the 2001 California state title, a 33-2 record and a No. 4 ranking by USA Today.
Freshman center Amit Tamir (6-10, 245) joins the Bears this season from Jerusalem. A member of the Israeli National team who has already served a three-year stint in the Israeli Army, Tamir gives Cal another experienced frontcourt player.
Sophomore walk-on Conor Famulener (6-5, 225) brings strength and tenacity to the lineup. He was part of De La Salle's state championship in 2000 and saw action in 10 contests last year.
Out on the wings are junior Joe Shipp (6-5, 220) and freshman Erik Bond (6-7, 190). Shipp averaged 8.4 ppg last year with a high of 21 points against Oregon. He has a shooter's touch around the perimeter, having sunk 74 three-pointers over the last two seasons. In addition, Shipp is also a factor under the boards, where he uses his strength and quickness to take advantage of smaller players.
Bond, the Washington Player of the Year as a junior at Seattle Prep in 2000, averaged better than 20 points his last two seasons of high school. He comes from a basketball family, as his father and two older brothers all played at the collegiate level. Bond possesses a 37-inch vertical leap and took second in the state high school track meet last spring with a mark of 6-8 in the high jump.
"What I like about our players coming in is that they're all used to winning," said Braun. "As good as they are, as talented as they might be, they have a pretty good sense of team. That's what I like about them - they're team players."
Team players who are now part of the overall Golden Bear program.