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THE PATRONS at the Crepevine, a diner on College Avenue a couple of miles from the Berkeley campus, got an extra treat with their pancakes and bagels on Jan. 4 when Joe Shipp, Amit Tamir and Brian Wethers—Cal's Big Three—met for breakfast a few hours before the Bears' win over Stanford. The Big Three have spent countless hours together working out and hanging out, so an occasional breakfast club was a natural extension. "It's important for us to spend time together to talk about how we feel," Wethers says. "We know our team is going to go as we go."
This season Cal is going much further than anyone expected. The No. 20 Bears improved to 14-2 (7-0 in the Pac-10) with an 80-69 pasting of UCLA last Saturday, giving them their best overall start since 1959-60, when they went 28-2 and lost to Ohio State in the NCAA championship game.
The current record is remarkable considering the program's turbulent off-season, during which 6'11" freshman center Jamal Sampson left for the NBA, 5' 10" junior point guard Shantay Legans transferred to Fresno State, and Cal's top recruit, 6' 7" swingman Kennedy Winston, was released from his letter of intent and signed with Alabama.
Picked to finish fifth in the Pac-10, the Bears were tied with Arizona for first place at week's end, due largely to the performance of the Big Three. Shipp and Wethers, both seniors, and Tamir, a sophomore, had accounted for 68.4% of Cal's scoring, 50.9% of its assists and 49.3% of its rebounding this season, but their contributions go well beyond stats. Says Bears coach Ben Braun, "What I like about them is they've taken on the responsibility of being not just producers but leaders."
A chiseled 6'5", 220 pounds, Shipp, a swingman who through Sunday led the Pac-10 in scoring (20.9 points a game), can muscle his way past smaller defenders or shoot from the outside. In conference play he was hitting 45.3% of his shots from three-point range and 61.9% from the field. Wethers, a 6'5" senior guard, is a slasher on offense and a stopper on defense. Tamir is a 6'11" power forward from Jerusalem who at 23 is Cal's oldest starter. (He played for the Israeli national team and served three years in the Israeli army.) A superb shooter (43.8% from three-point range), Tamir was also the Bears' leading rebounder (6.9 a game) and was second in assists (3.0).
What Shipp, Tamir and Wethers lack is a savvy marketing strategy. Noting that Oregon has gained national visibility with its billboard campaign showcasing Ducks stars Luke Jackson and Luke Ridnour, Tamir recently suggested that he and his mates call themselves the Jab Trio, using an acronym made from the initials of their first names. The three will certainly need their most powerful punch on Saturday when Cal travels to top-ranked Arizona, but they're hardly daunted. "We know Arizona is good, but we're good too," Shipp says. "Our goal is to win the Pac-10 championship, and we're not going to be satisfied until we do that."
Ohio U's Glass Master
Brandon Hunter, a 6'7", 265-pound senior forward at Ohio, believes in setting goals and then pursuing them to the hilt. So it should come as no surprise that after telling his coach, Tim O'Shea, last fall that he wanted to lead the nation in rebounding, Hunter is doing just that, pulling down 12.9 boards a game through Sunday. "Rebounding is all about effort," Hunter says. "Look at some of the greatest rebounders who have played in the NBA—Ben Wallace, Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley. All of those guys are warriors, which is what I consider myself to be."
Hunter, who at week's end was also fifth in the Mid-American Conference in scoring (20.6 points a game), has had some huge rebounding games this season. He grabbed 26 boards (to go along with his 30 points) in the Bobcats' 112-104, four-overtime win over Akron on Jan. 8, eight days after he had pulled down 24 rebounds in a 104-101 victory over St. Bonaventure. After Hunter had 18 points and 16 rebounds in an 83-75 loss to Kentucky on Jan. 4, Wildcats forward Chuck Hayes called him "a beast," adding, "He's the strongest player I've had to guard." Hunter, who declared himself eligible for the NBA draft last spring before withdrawing his name, is indeed a specimen—during a workout with the Indiana Pacers he was measured at 6% body fat and bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times. O'Shea compares his combination of strength and skills to those of Anthony Mason, a 13-year NBA veteran.