Pac-10 Conference Preview (Part Two)

Pac-10 Conference Preview (Part Two)
Oct 18, 2005, 12:33 am
Projected order of finish

1. Stanford
2. Arizona
3. Washington
5. California

6. Oregon
7. Oregon State
8. Washington State
9. USC
10. Arizona State

Out with the old, in with the new – that should be the theme for the Pac-10’s 2005-2006 season, as many of the big names around the West Coast have either graduated or headed pro.

Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye are professionals, and the new headline makers at Arizona could be Mustafa Shakur and Hassan Adams. Washington’s deadly perimeter trio is old news, just in time for Brandon Roy and Bobby Jones to emerge. Teams like Stanford, Oregon, and UCLA underwent their transformations last season, but their key players remain relatively new to the Pac-10 spotlight. California’s Leon Powe replaces lottery pick Ike Diogu as the conference’s premier big man.

While the Pac-10 hasn’t exactly measured up to other heavyweight conferences in recent years, that could change in 2006. Pac-10 coaches are recruiting better than ever, and this is the year it starts to pay off.

There are four teams primed for NCAA tourney contention here, in Stanford, Arizona, Washington, and UCLA. All four have a case for being the preseason favorite, though some recent injures might bump the Bruins down a bit. California would be the sleeper to jump into the top half of the conference. The Golden Bears are very talented on paper, but must stay healthy and prove it on the court this year.

While the marquee faces are new, the talent level may have gone up a bit in the Pac-10. This is a conference that should improve quite dramatically over the next couple of years, and it starts right now.

DraftExpress 2006 Preseason All Pac-10 Teams and Awards

All Pac-10

1st Team

PG Jordan Farmar, UCLA
SG Malik Hairston, Oregon
SF Hassan Adams, Arizona
SF Brandon Roy, Washington
PF Leon Powe, California

2nd Team

PG Chris Hernandez, Stanford
PG Gabe Pruitt, USC
SG Dan Grunfield, Stanford
PF Matt Haryasz, Stanford
PF Nick DeWitz, Oregon State

3rd Team

PG Aaron Brooks, Oregon
PG Mustafa Shakur, Arizona
SG Jawann McClellan, Arizona
SG Nick Young, USC
SF Bobby Jones, Washington

All-Newcomer Team

PG Antwi Atuahene, Arizona State
SF Marcus Williams, Arizona
SF Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, UCLA
PF Jon Brockman, Washington
C Abdoulaye Ndiaye, USC

MVP: Leon Powe, California
Defensive Player of the Year: Bobby Jones, Washington
Most Improved Player: Jawann McClellan, Arizona
Newcomer of the Year: Jon Brockman, Washington
Coach of the Year: Ben Braun, California


2005 Record: (18-13, 11-7)
Postseason: NCAA, lost to Mississippi State in the 1st round
Head Coach: Trent Johnson

Key Losses:

SF Nick Robinson (8.2 ppg)
C Rob Little (9.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg)

6’1 PG Mich Johnson, Seattle, WA
6’4 G Anthony Goods, Corona, CA
6’8 F Lawrence Hill, Glendale, AZ

PG – 6’2 Chris Hernandez, sr
SG – 6’4 Tim Morris, so
SF – 6’6 Dan Grunfeld, sr
PF – 6’11 Matt Haryasz, sr
C – 6’10 Peter Prowitt, fr

G – 6’2 Jason Haas, sr
SF – 6’5 Fred Washington, jr
PF – 6’8 Taj Finger, so
PF – 6’8 Lawrence Hill, fr

Last year, it was easy to be a skeptic when it came to Stanford. The Cardinal would have to adjust to life without star Josh Childress, longtime coach Mike Montgomery, and several other major lineup cogs. While incoming coach Trent Johnson had a nice run at Nevada, he clearly had a major task in front of him in keeping Stanford amongst the contenders in the Pac-10. However, Johnson was able to do just that. Juniors Dan Grunfeld and Matt Haryasz didn’t have much on court experience, but both were almost ready for the label of “star” by midseason. Longtime Stanford backcourt staple Chris Hernandez held things together at the point guard spot, earning first team All Pac-10 honors. Grunfeld going down with a torn ACL in mid-February put a damper on a very promising season, but Johnson has certainly answered the question of whether he can keep this program performing at a high level. While he does have to find a replacement for graduated center Rob Little, the senior trio of Hernandez, Grunfeld, and Haryasz returns. This team doesn’t have a staring lineup full of future NBA stars, but they will play like how you expect Stanford to play - skilled, intelligent, and as a team. In a Pac-10 that could be wide open, there isn’t a better team to crown preseason favorite.

Senior PG Chris Hernandez (15.2 ppg, 4.0 apg) has overcome a few serious injuries early in his career, and blossomed into perhaps the top floor general in the conference last season. He isn’t going to beat you by himself, but he will play mistake free basketball, hit the outside shot when open, and get everybody involved. Hernandez has had a busy offseason, declaring for and then withdrawing from the draft, and then joining the US national team for the World University Games. If Hernandez were to go down again, senior Jason Haas (3.3 ppg) and freshman Mitch Johnson will be ready.

Dan Grunfeld (17.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg) was finally given a chance at the wing, and blew up into one of the league’s top scorers. Not exactly a specialist in one particular area, Grunfield is a relentless worker, dependable outside shooter, and a crafty off the dribble scorer. However, Grunfeld will have to establish himself all over again as he returns from ACL surgery. His ability to return to his early 2005 form will be crucial if Stanford wants to make a deep run into March.

Johnson has a couple of other options at the wing, in junior Fred Washington (4.3 ppg) and sophomore Tim Morris (7.4 ppg). Washington is a bulkier defensive specialist, while Morris is more of your traditional shooting guard. Morris was declared ineligible in early January and missed the remainder of the season, but is expected to be back on the team this winter. Both are among the top athletes on the team, and will be relied upon to infuse the lineup with a bit more explosiveness from time to time. Also in the mix is freshman combo guard Anthony Goods.

The number one post option is senior Matt Haryasz (12.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg), who also broke out in his first season as a full time starter. Haryasz is one of the most skilled big men in the country, displaying beautiful mid range shooting touch and all sorts of crafty ways to score with his back to the basket. He is also a premier rebounder and posted 11 double-doubles last year. Haryasz ended last season on a tear, and at 6’11, has plenty of upside left. He should significantly improve on last season’s numbers.

Johnson will have to find somebody to step up and replace Rob Little’s production. Sophomores Taj Finger and Peter Prowitt are the most likely candidates. At 6’10 and 250, Prowitt is an inside bruiser that may have the inside track. Also available is touted freshman Lawrence Hill, a sleek, 6’8 combo forward. While players with his skill set often take a bit longer to develop, Hill is destined to become a major contributor down the road.

While the competition at the top of the Pac-10 should be brutal, Stanford is prepared to take on all challengers. The “big three” might not have the athletic credentials that some of the other league stars display, but they make up for it with skill and experience. Expect at least one player off the Stanford bench to break out, as it usually happens every year. Looking to the future, Johnson already has landed commitments from big men Brook and Robin Lopez, perhaps the best set of twins to suit up since the Collins brothers. It’s obvious that Trent Johnson has this program headed in the right direction, and 2006 should be a great season for Stanford.

Recruiting Update: Trent Johnson made his first big splash on the recruiting path when he locked up the Lopez twins early. Both will rank among the premier big men on the west coast from the moment they step on the floor. Sweet shooting forward Will Paul is also committed. A Stanford admission is always a big hurdle, and it doesn’t look like there are any other imminent commitments for 2006.


2005 Record: (30-7, 15-3)
Postseason: NCAA, lost to Illinois in Elite Eight
Head Coach: Lute Olson

Key Losses:

G Salim Stoudamire (18.4 ppg)
C Channing Frye (15.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg)

6’7 G JP Prince, Memphis TN
6’7 WF Marcus Williams, Seattle, WA
6’6 F Fendi Onobun, Houston, TX

PG – 6’3 Mustafa Shakur, jr
SG – 6’4 Jawann McClellan, so (in Pac-10 play)
SF – 6’4 Hassan Adams, sr
PF – 6’10 Ivan Radenovic, jr
C – 6’10 Kirk Walters, jr

G – 6’4 Chris Rodgers, sr
G – 6’3 Daniel Dillion, so
G – 6’6 JP Prince, fr
G/F 6’7 Marcus Williams, fr
F – 6’5 Fendi Onobun, fr
PF – 6’9 Isaiah Fox, sr
C – 6’9 Mohammed Tangara (rs) fr

Just two minutes away from another final four, somehow Arizona’s veteran-laden squad let a seemingly insurmountable lead slip away against Illinois. The historic loss ended the careers of Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye just a couple of wins short of the promised land. Nonetheless, both were four year stalwarts and will be sorely missed. Stoudamire will go down in history as one of the truly greatest shooters ever.

Lute Olson does return every other major contributor from last year’s roster, and there was quite a bit of depth. This is a team that will need some time to find a new identity, most likely behind explosive senior Hassan Adams. Lute Olson does have a few things to overcome this year, including the stigma of last year’s historic collapse, and the loss of two contributors in the backcourt. However, the program retains the support of its fans, and the roster is deep enough to withstand the temporary personnel setbacks. There is also an outstanding recruiting class that only adds more depth to a truly stacked roster. While most teams couldn’t hope to contend for a conference title the year after losing two players like Stoudamire and Frye, Arizona is a position to do just that.

Hassan Adams (12.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg) is the team’s returning standout. He is perhaps the most explosive leaper in the entire nation, but struggled through a down year last season. Adams is best when he can use his athleticism in the open floor or near the basket, but has really struggled to develop a half court game. When his jumper is on, as it was during last year’s tourney run, he is a formidable presence. Adams has been a show-stopper since his freshman season, and now it’s time for him to develop into a star.

The rest of the backcourt will be unsettled well into the preseason, as senior Chris Rodgers (5.5 ppg) and sophomore Jawann McClellan (5.8 ppg) are both likely out for the first semester. Rodgers, a talented yet underachieving combo guard, is missing time with a knee injury. McClellan, a rising star at shooting guard, is academically ineligible and also recovering from a problem with his Achilles. Both players have some nice upside, and will be major contributors when they return to the court sometime before the start of Pac-10 play.

Junior Mustafa Shakur will run the show for the third straight season, though the highly touted point guard has yet to develop into the star he was predicted to become. Shakur is blessed with NBA physical attributes, as he packs a lot of athleticism into his 6’3 frame. Nonetheless, Shakur is still learning to balance creating for others and looking for his own offense, and usually appears to be a tentative decision maker. The light goes on every now and then, and the results are spectacular. Due to the early losses, there will be some playing time available. Sophomores Daniel Dillion and Jesus Verdejo will look for increased minutes in the preseason, but will be pushed by freshmen JP Prince and especially Marcus Williams. Prince is a lanky combo guard that may see a few minutes backing up Shakur until Rodgers returns. Williams is equally skinny but has the type of sweet stroke that the Wildcats might be able to take advantage of early in their thin backcourt.

There are a few more question marks in the front court. Ivan Radenovic (8.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) is the proven returnee, and will be expected to do a lot more now that Frye is gone. Radenovic doesn’t jump out at you in any one area, but is decently skilled and puts up a good fight in the paint. He will be joined up front by junior Kirk Walters and senior Isaiah Fox. Walters was a project coming out of high school, and could be close to delivering on the potential that won him a scholarship. Fox is a chronic underachiever whose career at Arizona has been undermined by numerous injuries and behavior issues. This is his last chance to put it all behind him and produce on the court. Other big men in the picture include the talented yet raw redshirt freshman Mohammed Tangara, and 6’6 bundle of energy Fendi Onobun.

While things look a bit unsettled at the moment, it’s hard to see Olson not having this team ready to roll by the time Pac-10 play begins. The depth and explosiveness in the backcourt is nothing new for Wildcat fans, but this group will wow nonetheless. There are plenty of variables here. Will Adams develop into a true star? Will McClellan and Rodgers make it back and contribute? Will the freshmen be ready to contribute right away? Will a go-to presence emerge in the frontcourt? The nice thing about having a loaded roster is that Olson doesn’t need to answer all of the above questions to have a successful season. While there is no guarantee Arizona will be in a position to rise above last year’s demons and advance to the final four, this is a team talented enough to do just that.

Recruiting Update: Lute Olson has landed yet another world class perimeter player in wing Chase Budinger. Budinger is a standout athlete with the skill and shooting touch to be a star. Also on board is big man Jordan Hill, who broke out as a top 100 player this past spring, and point guard Nic Wise. Olson covets New Jersey forward Lance Thomas for his last scholarship, and it looks like Arizona will be battling it out with Duke for his services.


2005 Record: (29-6, 14-4)
Postseason: NCAA, lost to Louisville in Sweet Sixteen
Head Coach: Lorenzo Romar

Key Losses:

PG Will Conroy (9.4 ppg, 6.4 apg)
G Nate Robinson (16.4 ppg, 4.5 apg)
WG Tre Simmons (16 ppg)

6’2 PG Ryan Appleby, so, transfer from Florida
6’0 PG Justin Dentmon, Carbondale, IL
6’5 SG Harvey Perry, Henderson, NV
6’7 PF Jon Brockman, Snohomish, WA
6’8 PF Artem Wallace, Toledo, WA
7’0 C Joe Wolfinger, Beaverton, OR

PG – 6’2 Ryan Appleby, so
SG – 6’4 Joel Smith, so
SF – 6’6 Brandon Roy, sr
PF – 6’7 Bobby Jones, sr
C – 6’7 Jon Brockman, fr

PG – 6’0 Justin Dentmon, fr
SG – 6’5 Harvey Perry, fr
PF – Jamaal Williams, sr
PF – Mike Jensen, sr

It only took Lorenzo Romar three seasons to take a stagnant Washington program to the top of the Pac-10. Along the way, he instituted his up-tempo, guard-oriented system, a system that the conference has yet to find an answer for. Last season’s #1 seed and sweet sixteen appearance wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Yes, Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, and Tre Simmons will be missed. They were the players that powered Romar’s fast break attack. However, Romar has more than enough bodies to keep this team in the upper tier of the Pac-10. One of Romar’s first recruits, the versatile Brandon Roy will be thrust into a position of leadership, and, if healthy, should finally cash in on the immense potential he has flashed over the past three years. Players like Jamal Williams and Bobby Jones are also more than capable of taking on bigger roles. Meanwhile, Romar continues to benefit from the explosion of prep talent in the Seattle area. After signing blue chip PF John Brockman for this fall, he fended off Roy Williams and UNC to sign local super prospect Spencer Hawes. This would have been unheard of five years ago. Even with Hawes’ arrival a year away, Husky fans have to be optimistic about this season as well. This team might not be able to keep the tempo as fast as last year’s did, but this group has more size and balance. With players like Spencer Hawes signing on, Romar’s program is looking more and more like a national powerhouse every day.

Washington succeeded last season with a guard-oriented attack that could leave teams relying heavily on traditional big men in a lot of trouble. This season’s backcourt might be a bit more conventional, but the fast paced acrobatics are likely to remain. The focal point this season will be senior wing Brandon Roy (12.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg), a versatile, high-flying wing. Roy will use his strength and athleticism advantage to beat up on guards closer to the basket, and is capable of scoring in all sorts of ways in the mid range. Where Roy has problems is when he gets too far away from the basket. He is below average as a shooter, and teams are going to dare him to shoot all season long. Roy also has to put a streak of injuries behind him if he wants to develop into a real star. If he can stay healthy, he is one of the Pac-10’s premier players.

The rest of the backcourt is on more unsettled terms. With Conroy and Robinson gone, Romar has lost two spectacular ball-handling, penetrating leading guards. Stepping into some very large shoes will be Florida transfer Ryan Appleby, who played his high school ball in the area. Appleby didn’t look very comfortable bringing the ball up the floor as a Gator, so Winchendon Prep standout Justin Dentmon will get his chance as well. Promising sophomore Joel Smith (4.6 ppg) impressed in limited minutes last season, but the fact that he was able to get on the court at all last year says something about his potential. He will now play a much larger role. Freshman Harvey Perry will also contend for a few minutes in the backcourt.

Romar often went with three or four guard lineups last year, and even then, usually went with the perimeter-oriented Mike Jensen or the undersized Jamaal Williams at the five spot. Both players are back this season, though the sweet shooting Jensen (6.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) will miss a significant portion of the year with an injury. Williams (9.9 ppg in 17.0 mpg) was a revelation last season, his brute strength and quick post moves allowing him to score almost at will. While he isn’t quite the rebounder or defender that he could be, Williams will continue to provide vital bursts of instant offense as the 6th man. Physical swingman Bobby Jones (11.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) is another holdover from last season, unique in that his area of emphasis came on the defensive end. Jones is a natural small forward, but plays a lot more four in Romar’s system.

The Huskies earned a #1 seed and a trip to the Sweet 16 without a traditional big man last year, but will certainly have a few more options in the paint this year. Jensen’s injury opens up a starting spot for McDonald’s All-American Jon Brockman, your prototypical blue collar power forward. Where everybody in the lineup had to contribute on the boards last season, Brockman should really shore this area up as a traditional source of rebounding. Also available are freshmen big men Artem Wallace and Joe Wolfinger, with Wallace largely considered a top 100 recruit.

This team certainly isn’t without its question marks. Players like Robinson and Conroy weren’t just talented, but actually made Romar’s fast break attack work. This year’s lineup is much more traditional, with less in terms of ball-handlers and penetrators, and a lot more size. Does Romar stick with the system that has worked over the past two seasons, or does he adjust to the players on his roster? Now that Washington is an established favorite, this program definitely has a target on its back. These are all issues that the Washington Huskies will have to work through, but the framework is there for another very successful season.


2005 Record: (18-11, 11-7)
Postseason: NCAA, lost to Texas Tech in 1st round
Head Coach: Ben Howland

Key Losses:

G Brian Morrison (7.4 ppg)
SF Dijon Thompson (18.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg)

6’0 PG Darren Collison, Rancho Cucamonga, CA
6’5 SG Mike Roll, Aliso Viejo, CA
6’7 SF Luc Mbah a Moute, Cameroon
6’8 PF Ryan Wright, Mississauga, ON
6’8 PF Alfred Aboya, Cameroon

PG – 6’2 Jordan Farmar, so
SG – 6’6 Cedric Bozeman, sr
SF – 6’5 Arron Afflalo, so
PF – 6’8 Ryan Wright, fr
C – 7’0 Ryan Hollins, sr

PG – 6’0 Darren Collison, fr
SF – 6’5 Josh Shipp, so
SF - 6'7 Luc Richad Mbah a Moute
PF – 6’8 Lorenzo Mata, so
C – 7’0 Ryan Hollins, sr

The universe seems to slowly be righting itself for UCLA fans, thanks to the efforts of Ben Howland. After the storied program hit almost historic lows, Howland brought in a spectacular recruiting class last season, got the most out of his veteran Dijon Thompson, and guided UCLA back to the NCAA tournament. The three freshmen guards, led by consummate floor general Jordan Farmar, took a few lumps early but were more than ready by the time Pac-10 play began. Heading into the next phase of the rebuilding project, Howland has now restocked the frontcourt with young talent. Thompson must be replaced, but every other key player returns. There is now depth at every position, so all this team needs is a bit more experience. Farmar should blossom into the best point guard in the conference, while a few upperclassman holdovers such as Michael Fey and Cedric Bozeman still remain. While UCLA might be a year way from true final four contention, Howland certainly has this program headed in that direction.

Don’t be surprised to see sophomore Jordan Farmar’s (13.2 ppg, 5.3 apg) name popping up on All-American teams as the postseason nears. While he didn’t have the perfect freshman season, Farmar is a cerebral player that is a natural when it comes to running a team. He doesn’t appear to be the greatest athlete in the world, but he makes defenses pay the way that Deron Williams did at Illinois. Farmar tried to do a bit too much too early last season, and like most freshmen, struggled with turnover issues at times. However, his ability to find teammates and control the tempo makes him an emerging star. The backup will be freshman Darren Collison, whose role will be to keep the team above water while Farmar catches his breath.

The two other members of last year’s impact freshman trio are Arron Afflalo (10.8 ppg) and Josh Shipp (9.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Afflalo came in as a McDonald’s All-American and with a bit more fanfare, but Shipp may have proved to be the better all-around game. Both players are well built, play tough, and will heat up from the outside from time to time. Shipp recently underwent hip surgery, and will miss the Bruins’ non conference slate. This isn’t as crippling a blow as it may seem, however, as senior Cedric Bozeman returns after missing last season with a blown ACL. Bozeman has been a disappointment at UCLA, but was never truly comfortable playing point guard. He could be much more effective playing off the ball. Freshman shooting specialist Mike Roll could be an interesting change of pace off the bench.

It’s been a while since UCLA fans have been able to brag about their frontcourt. While it’s doubtful that this is going to be a standout group in 2006, Howland has brought in a few intriguing newcomers, and will at least have the bodies to play a bit bigger this season. The underachieving senior duo of Michael Fey (8.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Ryan Hollins (4.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg) have infuriated the Bruin faithful for years now, but both are capable of putting up a fight. It’s not that they are terrible basketball players, it’s just that the two obviously talented 7-footers should be able to contribute a lot more than they ever have. The seniors have the task of initiating three talented freshmen into the next level of basketball while at the same time keeping their spots in the rotation. PF Ryan Wright was considered a top 50 recruit by most, and could be the starter at the 4 spot. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a talented, versatile swing forward that has been recieving rave reviews in early UCLA practices. Fellow Cameroon native Alfred Aboya, who recently went down with an injury that will deprive him of invaluable preseason practice time, could also challenge for minutes. Also around is athletic sophomore Lorenzo Mata, who is relentless around the basket yet still very raw.

With the majority of last year’s roster back and levels of talent and depth that haven’t been seen at UCLA in several years, could this team be ready to take the next step? It’s a fair assumption that the sophomore guards will continue to improve, and just having to compete for playing time might light a fire under Fey or Hollins. Shipp and Afflalo should make life miserable for opponents on the wings, just like Howland’s old tandem of Julius Page and Jaron Brown did at Pittsburgh. Thompson was invaluable as a go-to scorer and shot creator last season, but the team may be better off as a defensive unit without him. This team is balanced and deep, and depending on how a few of the new pieces fit in, should fight it out right near the top of the Pac-10.

Recruiting Update: Howland already has a potential McDonald’s All American committed for 2006 in PF James Keefe. Due to the numbers and pedigree in his last two classes, Howland might have a tough sale in front of him when pitching to other 2006 recruits. He has already lost out on touted California big men Deon Thompson and Alex Stephenson to east coast schools.


2005 Record: (13-16, 6-12)
Postseason: None
Head Coach: Ben Braun

Key Losses:

SF Dominic McGuire (7.2 ppg)
PF David Paris (7.2 ppg)

6’3 SG Omar Wilkes, so, transfer from Kansas
6’5 SG Theo Robertson, Concord, CA
6’11 C Jordan Wilkes, Los Angeles, CA

PG – 6’3 Ayinde Ubaka, jr
SG – 6’2 Richard Midgley, sr
SF – 6’3 Omar Wilkes, so
PF – 6’8 Leon Powe, so
C – 6’10 Rod Benson, sr

PG – 5’11 Martin Smith, sr
SF – 6’5 Marquise Kately, jr ??
SF – 6’7 Eric Vierneisel, so
C – 6’10 DeVon Hardin, so
C – 6’10 Jordan Wilkes, fr

When it comes to basketball, one player truly can make all the difference. Last fall, Ben Braun was counting on the return of his stud big man Leon Powe, who had averaged nearly 15 points and 10 rebounds per game as a freshman. Unfortunately, a high school knee injury that never really went away cost Powe his season. With him went California’s hopes for a successful 2005 campaign. Instead, Braun was forced to try and mold a group of role-players into a competitive Pac-10 unit. Along the way, he faced even more injuries, roster attrition, and a trip to the bottom of the conference standings. As bad as last season was, as soon as it became clear that Powe would fully recover, optimism began creeping back into the Golden Bear program. Now, those role-players that struggled to shoulder the load have an extra season of experience, and will be that much more capable of supporting Powe. Some extra baggage has been shed (wing Dominic McGuire transferred to Fresno State, while power forward Kevin Langford jumped ship to TCU), and several new players (most notably Omar and Jordan Wilkes) are there to pick up the slack. While it’s too early hand them an NCAA berth, Braun’s team appears to be in great shape heading into 2006.

This team’s success or lack thereof will start and end with Leon Powe. He was spectacular as a freshman, even while struggling with swelling in his bad knee. Supposedly his ACL is completely healed, and Powe played to rave reviews both on the team’s summer trip to Italy and in the local summer league. Powe might be a bit undersized but has the long arms, athleticism, and brute strength to make up for it in the NBA someday. He enters the season as the logical successor to Ike Diogu as the premier post player on the west coast.

Braun will surround Powe with a group of players that struggled to win by themselves last season, but will be much better role-players for it. The slim Rod Benson (13.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) gives Braun a legitimate second scoring option in the paint. Benson, a senior, surprised everybody last year by earning a starting spot and becoming one of the conference’s more productive big men. He will be pushed by sophomore DeVon Hardin (4.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who is blessed with an NBA body. Hardin’s skill set remains well behind his athletic, 6’10 frame, but he is a player that will blossom with time. Also expected to achieve great things in a California uniform is freshman Jordan Wilkes, a raw yet promising true center.

The backcourt doesn’t have a Powe type star to anchor things down, but there is enough here to keep the offense flowing and opposing defenses honest. Junior Ayinde Ubaka (6.1 ppg, 2.7 apg) struggled through an injury plagued sophomore season that was dampened even further by transfer rumors. Ubaka has yet to play up to his high school billings, but is still explosive enough to develop into a first class Pac-10 floor general if he stays healthy and content. Helping Ubaka out at the point guard will be his polar opposite, senior Martin Smith (5.6 ppg, 3.9 apg). Smith is a former walk-on that takes care of the ball and can be counted on to show up every night.

At the wings, Ben Braun hoped to return senior Richard Midgley (12.9 ppg) and junior Marquise Kately (9.3 ppg), both starters a year ago. However, Kately didn’t make the trip to Italy this summer, and it was recently announced that he is not on campus this fall. Braun left the door open for Kately to return in January, but that is probably a longshot. Likely taking Kately’s place in the starting lineup will be Omar Wilkes, brother of Jordan and a transfer from Kansas. Wilkes didn’t receive much playing time as a freshman under Bill Self, but has impressed in practice since joining the team. Midgley struggled with his increased role last year, shooting the worst percentage of his career. However, he should benefit greatly from Powe’s return. There aren’t many players better equipped to take advantage of teams doubling down on Powe, which will undoubtedly leave shooters open. Providing a bit more depth will be lanky wing Eric Vierneisel (3.5 ppg), who is still developing but has good size and a nice a shooting stroke, and freshman marksman Theo Robertson.

While it’s tough to go overboard on a team that was so far down last season, it’s hard not to like what this team has going for it on paper. Powe might have been ready to take over as the best player in the conference last season had it not been for the knee injury. There are quite a few interesting role players around as well, though it remains to be seen if things will mesh better than they did last year. Clearly, the guards must play much more efficient basketball this year. The situation with Marquise Kately is one to monitor, as the athletic, powerful wing would provide a dimension that this team might not be able to replace. Either way, look for the Golden Bears to make a significant jump up the Pac-10 standings in 2006.

Recruiting Update: Braun recently finished up his 2006 recruiting haul, and it’s a very solid one for a program looking to claw its way out of the middle of the pack. Top 50 wing Patrick Christopher committed and opened things back up before picking Cal a second time last month. Also coming with lofty expectations is 5’7 PG Jerome Randle, as well as California big men Taylor Harrison and Ryan Anderson.

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