The Arrival

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Ben Braun has never met a fork that he didn't like.

The Cal men's basketball coach is as renowned for his voracious appetite - Braun carries his own eating utensil wherever he goes - as he is for leading a Bears program that is clearly on the upswing.

Cal has reached its own fork in the road and the 2000-01 Bears squad can travel down many different paths this season. But the team's goal is to find the road that has been less traveled in the last three seasons - the one that will lead them to the NCAA Tournament.

The Bears haven't been to the Tourney since 1997, Braun's first season at Cal. But that team was unique in that none of the players had been recruited by Braun.

Should Cal make it to the Big Dance this year, it will be a team that has known no other coach but Braun. Entering his fifth season, the head coach is 75-50 with the Bears.

To reach the Tournament, Braun will have to guide a team through a conference that is one of the Pac-10's strongest in recent history.

"I do know that this is a year where the top teams in our conference will be playoff-type teams," Braun said. "No question that this is as strong as a conference that I've ever seen since I've followed the Pac-10 and been in the Pac-10."

Fortunately for Cal, the team returns all five of last year's starters, and has a full compliment of scholarships.

Heading up Cal's expedition is senior Sean Lampley. The team's Most Valuable Player last season and an All-Pac-10 selection, Lampley paced the Bears in scoring (16.6 points per game) and rebounding (7.4 rebounds per game) as a junior. In his last year at Cal, the forward figures to serve as a leader both on and off the court.

"We're counting on Sean and so far he's done a great job getting our team to play in form and function as a team," Braun said. "The great teams that we see in our league, they all had solid leaders. And for us to be good, we're not going to be an exception. We're going to need leadership beyond just coaches guiding players."

As much a factor in Cal's success is point guard Shantay Legans. Legans started as a freshman in 22 of 33 games and made his presence felt as the team's second-leading scorer. The sophomore finished last season with 9.4 ppg. Legans proved an adequate distributor and will look to improve on his aggressiveness as a shooter.

"Shantay is an unselfish player and that's good," Braun said. "But when you're a good shooter you have to be a little more aggressive. He must do that for us this year. As he does that, he will keep teams honest and that will take the pressure off some of our inside people."

Legans will receive support from fellow sophomore Donte Smith (6.2 ppg). Smith is a versatile player, who has the ability to play at the point or off-guard position. Braun recognizes that the key to Smith's success is becoming more aggressive in his distribution and making better passing decisions.

Legans and Smith will have the opportunity to find more than one option in the low post. Braun said that there will be times when he will play two of his big men together.

Nick Vander Laan (8.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Solomon Hughes (3.3, 2.4) will carry the bulk of the load down low.

Vander Laan, who suffered from mononucleosis for much of last season, looks to provide a stronger and more consistent presence inside. Hughes hopes to build on a strong performance in the second half of the Pac-10 season.

Freshmen Gabriel Hughes and Saulius Kuzminskas will try to provide adequate depth on the inside. Unfortunately, they won't get to do so until their preseason injuries heal. Hughes suffered a first degree separation to his shoulder and will be out of practice for a couple of days until it heals. Kuzminskas has a lateral meniscus tear which may require surgery and could be out for as long as a month.

Cal's wings will return this season trying to contribute a consistent outside shooting threat. Joe Shipp, Brian Wethers, Dennis Gates and Ryan Forehan-Kelly will all compete for starting positions and playing time will most likely go to whoever displays the hottest hand.

Shipp and Wethers both had their moments last season and should be even more of a threat this year. Forehan-Kelly is one of the Bears' most solid all-around players and along with Morgan Lingle, is one of two Cal walk-ons who have been awarded with scholarships. Gates is looking to help the Bears out on defense and in leadership responsibilities.

After tomorrow's final exhibition game, Cal begins competition by hosting Mississippi State on Monday at 9 p.m. in the first round of the Preseason National Invitation Tournament.


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