Monday, November 20, 2006

NO MO POWE

As noted previously, we're picking the Golden Bears to finish sixth in the Pac 10. That's an NIT finish, and that unfortunately sounds about right for this group. Cal was a 1.5 man band last year, and it will be impossible to replace Leon Powe's scoring and post presence. But while the '06-'07 Bears won't be Ben Braun's best team, they very well might be his most interesting.

Good news: The Bears return two major talents at critical positions. Ayinde Ubaka re-invented himself last year into a clutch scorer and team leader. Although he had a dreadful night against SDSU, we've no doubt that Ayinde will be in the running for all-conference honors. He is the one and (for now) the only guy on the team who craves the ball at crunch time.

At center is man-child DeVon Hardin, he of the NBA body and still-evolving offensive game. We haven't seen much evidence of the "new" DeVon on offense this year, but Hardin is an intimidating force on defense regardless of how many hook shots he misses. The unexpected bit of good news is that freshman Ryan Anderson appears to be the real deal, at least on offense. He has hit for 20 points in each of the first two games, and shows excellent range for his size.

Theo Robertson is one of our all-time faves and will be enshrined in the Grigsby HoF because he gets more than he should from his talent. He will need to help out quite a bit on the glass, given how thin we are up front. Like any Ben Braun team, Cal will play sound defense.

Bad news: Cal is really, really thin up front. Jordan Wilkes' season-ender has forced Anderson into the starting lineup. Behind him is...not much: Freshman Taylor Harrison is the only other Golden Bear taller than 6'6". Hardin must log lots of minutes and stay out of foul trouble for Cal to be effective against teams with a strong post presence. Even when Hardin plays 30+ minutes, Cal could struggle on the glass - against SDSU the Bears were out-rebounded 34-24.

Cal's success depends in large part on Omar Wilkes improving his offensive production as the starting SG. Omar looked OK against the Aztecs, but the jury's still out as to whether he can step up and score. It's not clear how effective Nikola Knevecic will be after off-season knee surgery. He is a steady point guard who takes care of the basketball, though he can struggle against quicker opponents.

New faces: In addition to the bigs, Cal welcomes two guys who will contribute immediately: PG Jerome Randle and SG Patrick Christopher. We're excited about both, but particularly Randle, whose speed changes the game and frees Ayinde to slide to the two, which is better suited for his talents. Christopher is athletic and a good jumper and will be an upgrade from one-dimensional Eric Vierneisel as a backup wing.

Philosophy: The inside depth problem could be magnified if Ben doesn't loosen the reins on the offense. We've not been among the chorus of Blues calling for Ben's head on style points alone - plodding and efficient was just fine by us when Leon Powe was your first option in the half court. This year, big teams could eat Cal's lunch in the half court, especially if the Bears can't protect Hardin from foul trouble. Put another way, one of Cal's strengths is a pretty deep bench of athletic points and wings who can run and score. Ben needs to use them this year, or Cal could simply be outscored against a number of Pac-10 foes.

Prediction - Sixth place. Some Bears have speculated that this would be a pivotal year for Braun. We don't see it, unless the wheels completely come off this team. It's far more likely that Cal hangs around in the middle of the pack, tries to sneak into postseason play, and prays like hell that DeVon Hardin stays for his senior year. In some ways, though, this could be a pivotal year - not for Braun's job security, but for his potential to finally bring a conference championship to Berkeley. Can Ben be flexible? Given the personnel he's been dealt, will he finally live up to his annual pledge to jump-start the offense? His detractors claim that his offensive 'style' is driven by personality, not personnel. This year, we'll see.

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