Oct. 7, 1999
BERKELEY - Tradition calls for the California men's basketball team to be known as the Golden Bears, a nickname that has graced the school's athletic teams for more than 100 years.
But, perhaps, an exception should be made for the 1999-2000 season. With eight freshmen and sophomores among the 11 scholarship players - including five newcomers - a more appropriate moniker may be the Cub Club. This season's squad is the youngest ever to take the court in Berkeley, with only two seniors and one junior on the roster.
And although the experience level is far below what would be considered ideal, the amount of talent on the Cal squad has the coaches excited about the team's potential.
"We're going to have a young team and we're ready to go with those guys," said head coach Ben Braun, who enters his fourth season at Cal with a 57-35 record at the school. "There's no sense in being concerned about it. Those players will compete and they'll learn. They will be an exciting group to follow."
Much of that excitement certainly will come at home, where these callow Bears will have a chance to grow up in a new building. The $57.5 million, 12,300-seat Walter A. Haas Jr. Pavilion - a remodeled and expanded version of old Harmon Gym - opens on campus this fall after two years of construction. As simple as it may seem, just the fact that Cal will be practicing and playing in the same facility should provide a big boost to the team.
"For a young team, this is a good time to grow as a group, to rally around coming back into our own facility," said Braun, who guided Cal to a 22-11 record last year and has a three-year mark of 57-35 with the Bears. "It's going to be nice to have our own locker room and our own place to practice. Harmon Gym was a tremendous advantage for our team, and we're anticipating Haas Pavilion to be an extension of Harmon."
When Cal plays its first home game against Pacific on Nov. 27, the Bears will be looking to keep two streaks alive. When Harmon closed on March 6, 1997 with an 84-66 victory over Arizona State, Cal won its 18th-consecutive game on campus - the second-longest streak in school history.
In addition, the Bears ended the 1998-99 season on a five-game winning string, with all of the victories leading to Cal's first National Invitation Tournament title. The Bears battled four tough teams to reach the final in Madison Square Garden, and when senior Geno Carlisle's three-point play with 4.7 seconds left lifted Cal to a 61-60 victory over Clemson, the Bears had their first postseason crown since Cal won the 1959 NCAA championship.
Despite Carlisle's heroics, the Most Valuable Player of the NIT was awarded to a Bear who was just completing his sophomore season. Now, forward Sean Lampley enters his junior year clearly as Cal's most experienced performer. The 6-7, 225-pounder - Cal's only returning starter - averaged 12.4 ppg and a team-leading 8.8 rpg last season, including 10 double-doubles. But it was his play in the NIT that showed his capabilities on the national stage. Lampley scored a career-high 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in Cal's first-round win over Fresno State. He then had another 14 rebounds at DePaul to lead the Bears back from a 17-point deficit, before averaging 15.5 ppg in the NIT Final Four. Overall, Lampley paced Cal on the boards 24 times in the 32 games he played.
"Sean needs to show some leadership and be ready to take that step," said Braun. "He realizes that our team counts on him to provide rebounding and scoring punch. We're going to depend on him from that standpoint. He's the most experienced player we have, and we hope that with a young team, he can help us in that regard."
An honorable mention All-Pac-10 choice last year, Lampley has been named a preseason first team selection by Athlon for 1999-2000. Other honors that have come his way during his brief Cal career include MVP of the 1998 Golden Bear Classic, Pac-10 All-Freshman in '98 and honorable mention Freshman All-America.
Surrounding Lampley are five other returning scholarship players who accumulated a combined nine starts last year. Those players, who served mainly in a reserve capacity in 1998-99, will most likely move into leading roles this season.
Up front, 6-11 sophomore Solomon Hughes and 6-10 sophomore Shahar Gordon provide two different looks to the forward line. Hughes (3.3 ppg, 25 blocks) is an agile player who is a threatening shot-blocker and runs the floor as well as any big man in college basketball, while Gordon (1.2 ppg, 1.2 rpg) is a physical banger who is comfortable both under the basket or out on the perimeter.
Hughes showed flashes of his potential right out of the gate in '98-99, going for eight points against Coppin State and a season-high 10 points versus both BYU and Eastern Kentucky in the first month of the season. The team leader in field goal percentage at 52.4 percent, Hughes gained two starts during the year - at USC and at Arizona. In the offseason, he worked hard on improving his strength and enters the fall at 230 pounds, an increase of 35 pounds from just two years ago.
Gordon is a developing player who has a wealth of international experience with national teams in his native Israel. An adept passer - he paced all Cal centers with 17 assists last year - Gordon played on the Israeli Junior National Team over the summer. As a freshman, he started consecutive games against Stanford, USC and UCLA in February.
The backcourt has three returning guards in seniors Raymond "Circus" King and Robbie Jones, and sophomore Dennis Gates.
King (2.6 ppg, 47 assists), a former transfer from San Diego State, has more than 40 starts during his career and has dished out 136 assists during his last two years with the Bears. Last season, he had a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (47-24) and played a key role in Cal's NIT championship win over Clemson with a team-high five assists.
Jones, in his fourth year with the Bears, is a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship by Braun over the summer. As a junior in 1997-98, he started 10 games - including nine in the Pac-10 - and had a high of 11 points in a season-ending victory over Oregon. Although his playing time was reduced last season, Jones still showed the ability to provide a lift off the bench and, when not in the game, was always an enthusiastic supporter from the sidelines.
Gates (2.5 ppg) is a defensive wizard who also ranks as one of Cal's top three-point threats. An intelligent player both on and off the court - he was a co-winner of the team's Most Outstanding Student-Athlete Award last year and the Chicago All-Academic Player of the Year in high school - Gates tied for third on the squad with 28 steals last year, with a high of five against Eastern Washington. In addition, he committed just 11 turnovers in the 28 games he played, which included starts versus both USC and Washington.
The freshman class is five players strong, and all of the newcomers should get a chance to contribute early in their careers.
The Bears added two point guards in 6-2 Donte Smith and 5-10 Shantay Legans. Smith, who redshirted last season after enrolling in January, was the 1998 Washington, D.C., Player of the Year when he averaged 28.3 points and 6.2 assists at Anacostia HS. Listed as one of the Top 50 players in the country by the McDonald's All-America committee, Smith once scored 44 points in a high school game, including 11 three-pointers. He is also the third player in recent years to join the Bears from the Washington area, following in the footsteps of Anwar McQueen (1994-97) and Michael Gill (1998-99).
Legans could prove to be one of the quickest players in the league. While playing at Dos Pueblos HS in Goleta, he set school records for assists, steals and scoring. As a senior, Legans averaged 24 points, 9 assists and six steals en route to league MVP honors and a No. 7 point guard rating from Recruiting USA.
Cal also signed two 6-5 players in Brian Wethers and Joe Shipp, who were both named first team all-state in California in 1999. Wethers, out of Murietta Valley HS in southern California, ranks among the Top 30 recruits in the country, and Shipp averaged 27.2 points at Los Angeles' Fairfax HS.
A member of the Orange County Register's Fab 15 and the Long Beach Press-Telegram's Best of the West, Wethers averaged 27 points and 10 rebounds as a senior. He adds a degree of versatility to the lineup with his ability to post-up on the block or step out to three-point range.
Shipp, who signed with Cal in the spring, provides another long-range threat for the Bears. He was rated the seventh-best prep small forward in the country by FastBreak magazine and was one of 50 players invited to try out for the U.S. Junior National team in 1998.
Up front, 6-10, 250-pound center Nick Vander Laan will give the Bears a strong presence under the boards for years to come. The Sacramento native averaged 19 points and 14 rebounds at St. Thomas More Academy in Connecticut last year - the same high school as Cal sophomore Shahar Gordon. Judged the No. 5 prep center in the nation last year by Recruiting USA, Vander Laan once had a quadruple-double with 48 points, 22 rebounds, 11 blocks and 10 assists in a double-overtime victory.
"This is a team that's going to have to learn a lot by experience," said Braun. "It's a team we're going to have to bring along. The good news for a lot of the young players is that there's going to be a lot of playing time. That's how you learn. We're going to count on everybody's contributions, and they will all have an opportunity to help us."
Much of that experience-building will come at home, where Braun has scheduled 18 games to help break in Haas Pavilion. After opening the season in Fairbanks, Alaska, at the eight-team Top of the World Classic, the Bears only leave Berkeley once more - for a trip to Colorado Dec. 4 - before the start of the Pac-10 season in early January. Among the home opponents for Cal this year are defending Ivy League champion Penn in the Golden Bear Classic and Elite Eight team Gonzaga in the third annual Pete Newell Challenge.