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:

  • Cal Poly 63, Cal 62

  • Cal 47, BYU 46

  • UNLV 59, Cal 57

  • Cal 65, UC Irvine 57

  • Colorado 78, Cal 60

    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.

    Two of Cal's more stable players -- sophomore guard Richard Midgley and senior forward Amit Tamir -- are combining to shoot 31 percent from the field and 20 percent on threes.

    "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."

    Trojans struggling, too
    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.

    The team's top three players statistically -- senior guard Desmon Farmer, junior center Rory O'Neil and junior forward Jeff McMillan -- combine to
    average 55.6 points and 17.6 rebounds.

    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."

    Around the West

  • If struggling isn't the correct term, mysterious certainly fits Colorado State and New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference.

    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.

  • In the WAC, things could be better for Fresno State. The Bulldogs are 2-3 with losses to Oregon, Santa Clara and Princeton. Second-year coach Ray
    Lopes wants this team to run and envisioned it scoring far more than the 71.6-point average of last season. But after a 66-51 victory at Pacific on
    Wednesday evening, the Bulldogs have yet to net 70 in a game.

    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.

  • Oregon won't be at full strength for its game against No. 7 Kansas at Kemper Arena on Saturday. Freshman forward Mitch Platt (5.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
    started the season's first three games, but sprained his left ankle late against Marshall. The good news: Redshirt sophomore Matt Short, expected to
    start at center to begin the season, should make his 2003 debut after being sidelined with a stress fracture in his left foot.

    Quote to Note
    "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 ed.graney@uniontrib.com.