For the first time since arriving in Berkeley in 1996, Cal coach Ben Braun is hearing some grumbling from the Golden Bear faithful.
That's because Braun, who revived a program that was on NCAA probation when he took over, had the audacity to recruit a tremendous freshman class in 2003 and then fail to reach the postseason for only the second time since his arrival.
Now Cal fans will be watching to see if Braun's young talent can get the Bears back to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years.
Braun will likely have to accomplish that feat without power forward Leon Powe, who is recovering from offseason knee surgeries. Powe led the team in scoring (15.1) and the Pac-10 in rebounding (9.5) as a freshman.
"We're not counting on having Leon," Braun told the Contra Costa Times. "We're preparing as if he's not available. That's the intelligent way to go. If he gets back sooner, then great."
FRONTCOURTWith Powe likely not unavailable to push people around inside, the Bears will be seeking a rebounding force to take his place. The rail-thin Rod Benson will be given an opportunity to play more minutes, but he rebounds through effort, not muscle.
"He's gained about 10 pounds and everyone has seen how active he can be," Braun said.
Dominic McGuire displayed his athletic ability as a freshman, and he might be ready to pick up some of the rebounding slack.
Although smaller than McGuire at 6-foot-5, Kately is an athletic and gifted player who has the leaping ability to be more of a force on the glass.
"If it wasn't for Leon, you would have heard a lot more about Marquise," Braun said. "He had a very solid freshman year."
The hope in Berkeley is that 6'10" freshman DeVon Hardin can make an immediate impact. "DeVon has shown he can be very good at blocking shots and rebounding," Braun said.
Cal also expects freshman Eric Vierneisel, a sharpshooter in high school, to be a factor immediately.
BACKCOURTJunior Richard Midgley has played one full season at point guard (as a freshman) and one at off-guard (sophomore), so he should be comfortable wherever Braun decides to place him. Learning the new position appeared to affect his 3-point shot during non-conference play, but he rallied late to prove he still has the touch.
Whether Ayinde Ubaka can improve his 3-point shot (25.9 percent in 2003-04) remains to be seen. Ubaka, one of Braun's prized freshmen last year, was solid handling the ball, but the responsibilities of leading a Pac-10 team might have taken a toll on his outside shooting.
"It's going to be a lot better in the backcourt this season," Midgley said. "Ayinde had a lot of responsibility as a freshman, and he learned a lot. We know how each other plays now."
Braun expects the backcourt to assume some of the scoring load lost in Powe's absence, and he is counting on Ubaka to step up and hit from the perimeter.
"Ayinde is going to be more aggressive," Braun said. "And I thought he handled the pressure well last season."
FINAL ANALYSISDespite all their problems last season -- no 3-point production (31 percent shooting as a team), four freshmen playing key roles, defensive lapses -- the Bears recorded a .500 record in Pac-10 play. A two- or three-game improvement should be enough to place the Bears back in the NCAA tournament, but that may be tough to accomplish with Powe on the sidelines.