Blue-Collar Bears Find Identity in Team Defense

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Help-side rotation and ball pressure are reasons the Cal men's basketball team is in position to make the NCAA Tournament for a second year in a row.

Athletic wing players, point guards who hound their counterparts and long, athletic post players are the reasons Cal is tops in several defensive categories in the Pac-10.

The Bears (15-5, 6-4 in the Pac-10) are No. 1 in scoring defense (62.8 points per game) and hold opponents to the lowest field goal percentage in the conference (.401).

Cal is second in blocked shots (4.35 per game) and steals (8.85 per game) and leads the Pac-10 in turnover margin (+5.25).

The Bears have also been adept at slowing down opponents' leading scorers. Most recently, Arizona State's Chad Prewitt, who averages 17.3 ppg, scored only nine against Cal.

Braun credits the Bears' depth-he regularly uses 10 players-being crucial in slowing down scorers. Prewitt was forced to deal with a number of bodies coming at him last Saturday.

Two nights earlier, A.J. Diggs forced Arizona's Jason Gardner to work hard to bring the ball up the court while Gardner had to chase Shantay Legans on the other end. Braun said this is important so that his primary scorers don't have to expend all their energy on defense.

"If Ryan Forehan-Kelly is guarding their best player, he's not doing it alone," Braun said. "It's a team effort. Our team has done a pretty good job of playing help defense and zeroing in on that."

Getting a team to buy into a defensive mentality isn't easy, Braun said. But Forehan-Kelly said he enjoys seeing the frustration of the player he is defending come to a head.

"That's the most rewarding part," Forehan-Kelly said. "When they get mad."

Personal satisfaction will have to do because denying post position won't make many highlight reels.

"I've never seen a challenged shot on Sportscenter," Braun said.

One area Braun wants the Bears to improve is rebounding, which is usually a staple of good defensive teams.

Individually, center/forward Jamal Sampson leads the team at 7.2 rebounds per game, despite playing limited minutes last week due to illness. He is No. 7 in the Pac-10.

No other Bear ranks among the conference's top-20 rebounders.

Braun would like to see his wing players take a larger role on the glass. Joe Shipp is second on the team at 4.9 rpg. Brian Wethers pulls down 4.4 a game.

Center Solomon Hughes, who has been hit with the injury bug, is only getting 4.0 rpg, but Braun said that Hughes' numbers will increase with improved timing and conditioning.

Six-foot-10 freshman Amit Tamir's outside game keeps him away from the basket more than most post players, and his 4.1 rpg reflects that.

"If our post guys are out on the floor and they're not going to be primary rebounders, that's fine," Braun said. "There's no reason why our wings can't rebound."

Of late, Wethers has been a force under the basket, pulling down rebounds at crucial moments. Against the Sun Devils the 6-foot-5 guard corralled eight rebounds to offset his 1-for-6 night from the floor. Versus the Wildcats, he got seven rebounds. He has led the Bears in rebounding the last two games.

"He's starting to be more consistent on the boards," Forehan-Kelly said.


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