Cal, USC falling a few shots short
The scores do not distress Ben Braun as they might the casual fan sipping a morning cup of java:
Welcome to Cal basketball today, where a discrepancy in performance from one night to the next is a prescribed fate for such a young team. Cal starts three freshmen, and four of its top seven players are receiving their first extended minutes of Division I ball.
The team many feel can eventually contend among the likes of Arizona and Stanford in the Pac-10 this season continues to move from a crawling stage toward walking.
"If we box out on the last play of the game and beat Cal Poly, are we any better a team?" Braun asks. "No. And maybe if we beat Cal Poly, we don't beat BYU. It's a learning process. It takes time. But I'm not shocked that we're going through growing pains. This is the time you want to go through some of these things instead of late in the year.
"I'm excited about our growth potential. We're not going to turn things around in a week or maybe even several weeks. We're in it for the long haul. We'll have more tough games where we need to fight through some things, find a way to play together and hopefully win. We're not done growing."
Silver linings are more than visible. For starters, while Cal's shooting woes (38 percent from the field, 21 percent on 3-pointers) have not allowed for much offensive rhythm, the Bears have defended consistently well. Also, it's not as though the few who have struggled from the outside are wide-eyed freshmen in danger of losing confidence.
"Of course, no one is happy with the losses we have had," said Tamir, averaging 10.3 points and 6.2 rebounds."But when Richard and I have bad games, we know what to do to get things back. We haven't set a great example yet for the younger players in showing how to win. Once we do that, we'll be able to lead better.
"We see guys getting better every day in practice. We knew there wouldn't be perfect chemistry right away. It can go either way. We have the talent and potential to contend for the Pac-10, but we also know there is a long way to go."
Potential is right. The team is led in scoring and rebounding by freshman forward Leon Powe (15.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg), while first-year players in point guard Ayinde Ubaka (7.5 ppg, 2.8 apg) and forward Marquise Kately 8.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg) are also contributing.
Cal is idle until Dec. 20 for final exams, a stretch where players receive four days off and the gym doors are locked. But when the Bears return to play No. 12 St. Joseph's in one game of the Pete Newell Challenge, they will do so coming off their most impressive outing to date.
Cal beat Wyoming 80-55 on Tuesday night, when a 21-7 run was highlighted by a Tamir 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 53-39, when a lot of that potential started showing its face.
"Our guys are coming along," Braun said. "Life gets easier when shots start falling. When (Midgley) comes in and hits a couple shots and Amit knocks down a three, all of a sudden we're all breathing a collective sigh of relief.
"There are going to be days when the shots don't fall, but as long as we keep defending as we have and become more familiar playing with each other, we'll keep moving forward."
Cal isn't the only Pac-10 team whose early scores have caused some to blink.
USC is 3-2 after a 96-90 overtime home win against Cal State Fullerton on Tuesday. It's the third straight OT game for the Trojans, who earlier lost to visiting UNLV (92-83) and won at St. Mary's (84-83). There is also a season-opening loss at Western Michigan (83-65) and a close home victory against Cal State Northridge (75-69).
This, however, is a USC team that returned all five starters.
"Like a lot of teams, I think right now we're trying to find out what our signature is, who we are and what roles guys need to understand so we can better develop chemistry," USC assistant coach Marvin Menzies said. "A lot of it is the parity of college basketball. Some teams we're playing right now might not have high major reputations, but they're solid teams that will have good RPIs at the end of the season.
"We're going to have a solid year. It's just a matter of the kids buying into what we're teaching them and having faith and trust in us as coaches. I don't feel we're really struggling. If we beat UNLV -- a game we're leading in the final minutes of regulation -- we're sitting here at 4-1."
It is a definite learning curve for the Stewart twins, freshmen Lodrick and Rodrick. The former is averaging 8.6 points and 2.8 rebounds, while the latter is going for 3.6 and 2.2. Each is averaging 22 minutes.
USC now faces its toughest test yet when it plays at BYU on Saturday. The Cougars have won 37 straight non-conference home games.
"We're passing along to the kids the importance of the game and how big it would be to win there," Menzies said. "It's a big-time challenge, but more importantly another chance for us to focus on getting better."
|Games to Watch|
Missouri vs. Gonzaga, Saturday
The Tigers will no doubt like to forget about more off-court scandal involving former player Ricky Clemons at least for a few hours. The game -- to be played in Seattle's Key Arena -- features two of the nation's better frontcourt players in Missouri senior Arthur Johnson and Gonzaga junior Ronny Turiaf. The latter is healthy again and matched his career high of 29 points against George Washington.
Marquette at Arizona, Saturday
Wildcats coach Lute Olson might only have six capable bodies, but most of them looked like pros in running past Texas in the Jimmy V Classic this week. Marquette has begun its post-Final Four season 6-0, but this is by far the toughest test so far for coach Tom Crean's team.
Oregon vs. Kansas, Saturday (ESPN)
It's the third straight season the Ducks and Jayhawks meet, this time at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. Oregon senior guard Luke Jackson had 26 points and nine rebounds in an 84-78 win against Kansas last season. The Ducks thus far have 56 assists on 78 baskets, an outstanding rate of 72 percent.
Nevada-Las Vegas at Stanford, Saturday
The Rebels at 5-1 are off to one of the better Mountain West starts, but now raise their level of competition considerably. Stanford is coming off a 64-58 win against then-No. 1 Kansas in the Wooden Classic. The Cardinal is 4-0 and beat UNLV 77-66 in Las Vegas last season.
As in, how good is either team?
High expectations greeted the Rams this season after their conference tournament championship and close NCAA Tournament loss against Duke in March. But results have varied early depending on the level of opponent.
CSU is 4-3, coming off an 84-78 home loss to Colorado. The Rams' have wins against BYU-Hawaii, Drake, Texas Southern and Gardner Webb. The losses are against Oklahoma State by 33, Auburn by 30 and now Colorado.
New Mexico, meanwhile, is 3-3 with two victories against non-IA opponents. The Lobos have dropped home games to Portland (77-71) and at New Mexico State (67-48).
The team actually played some of its best ball to date against its toughest opponent, a 67-58 home setback to Texas Tech. New Mexico awaits the on-court arrival of Bradley transfer forward Danny Granger, who is eligible later this month.
Ritchie McKay's team needs to take advantage of its schedule now. The Lobos play nine of their first 10 games in Albuquerque and don't leave the state until a Jan. 3 matchup at Wake Forest.
Depth is a problem for now. Terry Pettis is an athletic sophomore wing who was arrested, suspended and eventually sent for drug rehabilitation. There is a chance he will return. Also, senior forward Jonathan Woods has missed three games for violating a team rule. Junior forward Dreike Bouldin has been slowed with a broken finger.
"Our guys like big games. They don't like playing Sisters of the Poor. You look at the schedules of some teams now and wonder, 'How do they get better?' I feel you have to play good teams to get better."
-- Arizona coach Lute Olson on his team's challenging non-conference schedule.
Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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