No Worries For Braun In Face of Exodus

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Ben Braun isn't panicking and neither should any of the Cal faithful.

Since the end of the 2001-02 season, Jamal Sampson has declared for the NBA Draft, Gabriel Hughes has decided to transfer and top recruit Kennedy Winston is expected not to be in Berkeley at the start of next season.

Ask Braun how things are going around Haas Pavilion these days and he's as positive as can be.

"Things are going fairly well," he said. "We put in a solid season and we're building for the future."

Braun has no choice but to do so.

Sampson stated from day one his goal was to play in the NBA, and he'll more than likely realize that dream come June when he's selected in the draft.

Players transferring has become commonplace in today's college game. While Braun believes Hughes is passing up a golden opportunity by not returning to Cal, he also realizes he can't sit and sulk over players who don't want to wear the blue and gold.

Photo/Ian Buchanan
Ben Braun remains confident of the Bears prospets for 2002-03, despite losing a total of seven players and recruits in the past two years.

"You're going to be better with players who want to be here," Braun said.

Winston's situation is different in that Braun could easily force him to honor his letter of intent. But with an ill mother back in Alabama, Braun is doing the right thing in granting Winston his release. Braun said he has always supported Winston if he chose to stay closer to home under these circumstances.

Despite the recent fallout, Braun doesn't feel his program is in shambles. It's not the first, nor will it be the last time a player decides he doesn't want to play for him and transfers. Any college coach who lands a player 6-foot-9 or taller with any semblance of talent knows the NBA will beckon.

And there's never any guarantee that a recruit will ever play for the school he signed with. Remember that Julian guy?

"Each player has to make a personal decision," Braun said. "I'm not going to condemn personal decisions."

Braun appears content with what the future holds for next season.

He still returns three seniors-Shantay Legans, Joe Shipp and Brian Wethers-who played major minutes last season. The fourth senior, Donte Smith will have the opportunity to contribute a lot, Braun said.

"It's always great to have seniors in our program," Braun said.

Along with the seniors, Braun will look to A.J. Diggs, Amit Tamir and Conor Famulener to keep things together. Erik Bond will join the rotation after redshirting this season.

Stanford could lose its two best players to the pros. Last year, Arizona lost four starters to the NBA. It would have been five had Jason Gardner not returned to school after finding out he wasn't projected as a first-round pick.

So life really isn't all that bad.

"Every program goes through changes," Braun said. "It's how you handle the ups-and-downs and changes that define you."

If history repeats itself, Braun will have another defining moment this coming season.

When Braun arrived at Cal in 1996-97, the Bears were in the midst of NCAA sanctions. All he did was lead the Bears to the Sweet Sixteen. He worked with those sanctions, utilizing transfer and walk-on players to help stabilize the program.

This season, Cal wasn't predicted to do more than finish in the middle of the Pac-10 and possibly get into the NCAA Tournament. Braun's team played inspired basketball all season-save that game in Tucson-and advanced to the second round of the Tournament. Not a monumental step, but further than the Bears went in 2001.

If anything, this situation serves as an opportunity.

Braun is considered one of the best coaches in the Pac-10, and next season will give him the perfect forum to showcase his skills with the Xs and Os.

He and his staff will have to adjust the style of play to accentuate the talents of his returners, but that will be no problem. Whether it meant grooming the offense to fit Sean Lampley or playing defense that allowed the big men to become forces, the Bears know how to adapt.

Part of this means forgetting about the players who were here or the ones that never arrived.

"Our energy is directed toward the guys that are here," Braun said.

If it were directed anywhere else, it would only be a disservice to the returning group of players.

The outlook for the upcoming season has been altered quite a bit.

But things aren't as gloomy as they may appear. Braun promptly went out and landed a commitment from Rod Benson, a 6-foot-9 prep from Torrey Pines High School in San Diego to help fill the void left by graduation and defection.

We all know Braun will continue to search for talent, home and abroad. Tamir made the conference All-Freshman team, but wasn't signed until last summer.

No wonder Braun doesn't seem all that bothered with everything that has hit the Bears in the last few weeks.

"I don't think people should worry," Braun said. "Our program, we're going to move forward."

And until Braun starts to worry, we probably shouldn't either.

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