ON THE BRINKTo clarify, it's not really a season on the brink, since most of us have resigned ourselves to a sub-.500 regular season. 2007 has played out according to our worst fears - the Bears have run out of gas in the second half of the season, just as they've tired in the second half of games all season long.
I'm referring more to the collective psyche of our basketball program. After Saturday's loss to Wazzu, in which the Bears took the air out of the basketball and scored a grand total of 46 points, Ayinde Ubaka went public with frustration over the game plan. That led to a dressing-down by Braun outside the locker room.
Was Ayinde right? Rusty Simmons apparently thought so, and went out of his way to stress the fact that Cal's few successful possessions came in the transition game. As for us - well, we were surprised by Ben's game plan. The Cougars' twin liabilities are a relative lack of athleticism and a definite lack of quality depth. Their strengths are half-court offense and suffocating defense. Cal has become an ordinary defensive squad that is small but pretty athletic. Why Braun would think that Cal could out-execute WSU in the half court is beyond me.
But regardless of what we or you might think of the game plan, it's clear that the players (and probably Ben himself) are frustrated by what's gone on over the past two-plus weeks. Ubaka is watching his last chance at post-season play evaporate before his eyes. Omar Wilkes can't get a consistent flow going on offense. The freshmen are, by this time, worn out. When Hardin went down, we wrote that we would judge this team primarily by how hard it plays through the end of the season. By that measure, they deserve a solid B for the season. What is disconcerting about the WSU game is that it showed the first cracks to Cal's mental toughness - not on the court, where Cal battled until the end, but off the court for the benefit of the local media.
Regardless of the odds, the Bears have got to keep it together and exit the 2007 season on their own feet. If they need extra motivation, they should consider the rather precarious position of their head coach. As long as the team puts out and stays competitive, everyone agrees that this year is a mulligan for Braun, and that 2008 will be the real test. But if the team shows further signs of internal unrest, or the efforts flags in a noticeable way, I think all bets are off.
Sandy Barbour wants a Top-10 basketball program, period. She expects California to contend for and win conference championships; to make the Sweet 16 more than once a decade; to make a Final Four. So do most of us, and many Cal fans doubt that Ben Braun is capable of these sorts of results. I'm not saying that Sandy is looking for an excuse to make a change this off-season. I'm also not saying that Ben should give her one.