Marty Lurie Talks San Francisco Giants Baseball

Ben Braun In Control: Bad Idea

BEN BRAUN always has to be in control, and that personality trait will prevent the Cal basketball team from reaching its full potential this season.

Braun can’t take even the slightest criticism. When I’ve written that he needs to get an assistant who could fix his offense, he always makes a comment about that the next time we meet.
Marty Lurie’s postgame show drove him crazy because former Cal assistant (and player) Jon Wheeler would critique Braun’s strategy, as would other coaches on the show. So, Braun worked on KFRC, through then sports information director Bob Rose, to drop the show. Now, Marty has his own pre-game show which runs on KYCY 1550 AM. It will air tomorrow night at 5:30 p.m., and I’ll be a guest on this week’s show.

Though Lou Campanelli, who had a similar coaching style, thrived when he brought in Gary Colson to run the offense, Braun wouldn’t tolerate an assistant who brought in his own system because he wants to control everything on the court.

That works fine with the defense, because Braun teams usually play tight defense, except for a lamentable inability to defend three-point shots. It doesn’t work at all on offense because, well, because Braun basically has no offensive system.

With the athletic ability on this team, the Bears should be running from the tipoff. In fact, though, they seldom use the fast break. They also don’t use the basic plays most of us learned on the playground, like the simple give-and-go. They seldom use an inside screen. They don’t cut across the middle of a zone to take a pass for an open shot. They don’t move without the ball. This is all pretty elementary stuff, but the Bears don’t do any of it. It makes me wonder what they actually practice but none of us knows because Braun keeps practices closed. Of course.

The Cal offense often seems to have one play: A guard throws the ball in to Leon Power, who is almost always double-covered. Powe either forces a shot up or kicks it back out for a three-point attempt. Sometimes that works, but it’s a basketball axiom that teams which live by the three-point shot also die by it. When the shots aren’t falling, a team can be out of a game very quickly.

Otherwise, the Bears just pass the ball around the perimeters. Sometimes, they do that so many times, the shot clock runs out.

The Bears’ lack of offense was especially embarrassing in their loss to Oregon State. The Beavers are neither big nor especially talented, but coach Jay John had devised plays which had his players passing the ball, then cutting to the basket to take a return pass for an open shot inside. Otherwise known as the give-and-go.

Meanwhile, Nick DeWitz was hitting three-pointers outside. DeWitz set a school record with seven three-pointers against Cal last season. What a surprise.

IT PAINS ME to see this because, when Braun first came to Berkeley, he seemed to be a great fit. Following the scandal-ridden regime of Todd Bozeman, he was and is the kind of coach Cal should have, one interested in his players’ academics as well as their athletic accomplishments.

He had immediate success, going 23-9 in his first season, tying for second in the conference at 12-6 and then getting his team to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Two years later, his team won the NIT.

His early teams had players who were overachievers, some of them transfers from other schools. Sean Lampley was the only heavily-recruited player early. Players on those team listened to Braun and did what he asked, which fit his style of coaching. The first season remains the pinnacle of Braun’s Cal career (because the NIT gets only leftovers now, an NIT championship isn’t equal to making the NCAA Sweet Sixteen), but he had moderate success in the four years following his NIT championship, going again to the NIT the following year, then three straight years to the NCAA, though never advancing beyond the second round.

From the start, the questions about Braun were: (1) Could he recruit the top athletes? (2) If he did, could he coach them?

The answers so far are (1) Yes; (2) No.

He certainly has been able to recruit top talent. This year’s team has Powe, point guard Ayinde Ubaka and center/power forward DeVon Hardin. Powe is the same player he was when he came to Cal, capable of overpowering defenders inside. Hardin has improved tremendously from his freshman year. Ubaka has finally come into his own as a junior.

The question is: Why does it often take outstanding players so long to develop under Braun? Why did Chris Hernandez blossom so much faster at Stanford than Ubaka at Cal? Why couldn’t Marquis Kately, a former state Player of the Year and two-time northern California Player of the Year at Riordan, ever do much for the Bears? I think we know the answer.

On a team basis, the results aren’t there, either. Imagine what it would be like if Lute Olson were coaching this team. They’d be running opponents right out of the arena.

EVEN AN underachieving Cal team will probably make the NCAA tournament. The Pac-10 is woefully weak this year, with only two top teams, Washington and Arizona. Four conference teams should make the tournament, and right now, Cal and UCLA look to be the other two, possibly in reverse order.

But don’t expect the Bears to go deep in the tournament. They should, with their talent, but they won’t with their coach exercising such tight control.

CORRECTION: I mistakenly wrote yesterday that Joe Paterno was talking about one of his players. Actually, he was referring to a Florida State player who had been sent home because of a sexual assault charge against him. I changed that reference in mid-afternoon, but those of you who read the column earlier would have seen the mistaken reference.


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