2004 Pac-10 top frosh is back, maybe better?
In the midst of a season he would term "incomplete," one that ended with his Bears finishing three games under .500 and tied for eighth in the Pac-10, Cal coach Ben Braun came up with an idea.
Italy. In August.
Sure, teams take summer foreign trips all the time. You're allowed to take one every four years. Cal actually hadn't taken one in nine years.
But the reason for this trip, at this time, is pretty simple.
Get Leon Powe games. Meaningful games.
Cal needs to get the 2004 Pac-10 freshman of the year back on the court following two major surgeries on his left knee and allow him to play with Kansas transfer Omar Wilkes.
"We knew we would have this [European] opportunity once we knew Leon wasn't going to play [last season]," Braun said. "He could have played at some point last season, but it wasn't a smart decision. He took his time and he's healthy. This is the first opportunity to see. He's cleared to play overseas, cleared to play in real games, against good competition."
Well, so far, after a week's worth of practices in preparation for the Aug. 12-23 trip to Florence, Rome, Venice and Lake Como, the trip already is a success and the team hasn't even left Berkeley yet.
"I'm making great progress," said the 6-8 Powe, deemed to be the successor to Arizona State's Ike Diogu as the best post presence in the Pac-10. "The doctors did a good job. I averaged 35 points a game and was MVP in the San Francisco Pro Am.
"We've been going up and down in practice, we're pushing the ball and getting up the court quicker," Powe said. "[Going to Italy] was a good idea because I wanted to get some games in before the season so I can see what everybody can and can't do on the court."
Senior point guard Richard Midgley said Powe's explosion is back, and so is his tenacity on the boards, where he averaged 9.5 rebounds a game (along with 15.1 points) as a freshman.
"He's better now than when he was a freshman," Midgley said. "He's rebounding better [and] when he's double-teamed, he's finding the open man and letting the game come to him. You can tell he watched the game for a year and is implementing the stuff he has learned."
Senior Rod Benson said he felt the pressure of not having Powe last season. The 6-10 Benson led the Bears with 13.3 points and 6.3 rebounds a game.
"I'm happy to have him back and [be able to] focus on my defense this year," Benson said. "He's almost night-and-day different. He's got a lot to prove to himself and people around campus."
Wilkes doesn't have as much to prove, although he was an afterthought in his brief tenure at Kansas. Wilkes (1.4 ppg, 0.9 rpg, 3.5 mpg in 2003-04) was recruited by Roy Williams but said he didn't fit Bill Self's coaching style. Transferring to Cal made sense since it was closer to his Los Angeles home. His brother, Jordan, will be a freshman this season at Cal.
Jordan Wilkes and fellow freshman Theo Robertson from Concord, Calif., are the only two players not allowed to go on the trip. The NCAA allows only players who were in the program the previous year to go on foreign trips.
Braun said Powe and Wilkes were two of the most productive players in practice last season.
"This trip is huge for both of them since we're [essentially] adding Leon and Omar to the team," Midgley said. "This will help with the chemistry. It shouldn't take too long since both are good players."
Wilkes said the trip should take some heat off him and Powe because they will have played with their teammates prior to the season.
"I couldn't ask for better timing," the 6-3 Wilkes said.
Benson says he and Powe (along with Wilkes and DeVon Hardin) comprise one of the best frontcourts in the Pac-10 and "[Cal's] guard play is excellent."
"We've got Richard and Ayinde Ubaka back and now with Omar Wilkes, too," Benson said. "I'm not sure what he was like at Kansas but he does amazing things here."
"He can get into the lane and create shots that I haven't seen other people do," Benson said. "He's got a 40-inch vertical leap and him only being 6-3, he could be the X-factor on our team."
The Bears did lack perimeter shooting last season, shooting only 32 percent on 3s. Midgley was the best on the team at just 34.7 percent while Ubaka was at 29.7 percent. Washington State was the only team in the Pac-10 worse than Cal, shooting 31.8 percent from the arc.
Braun said the shooting issues can be corrected with Powe, Midgley, Ubaka and Wilkes.
"All of these guys can shoot the ball with range and consistency," Braun said. "And Rod can hit the mid-range shot."
Braun also said Eric Vierneisel, who made 18-of-54 3s as a freshman, will be one of their better shooters, as well.
The Bears won't miss the 3-point shooting of transfers Dominic McGuire (16.7 percent) and Kevin Langford (none attempted) had they stayed.
"My response was that was a good thing," Midgley said. "If anyone doesn't want to play for Cal, then I don't want to play with them."
Also, forward David Paris (7.2 ppg) was deemed academically ineligible.
"Dominic, David and Kevin were three of my closest friends on the team so I was sad, but you've got to move on -- and we're still good enough to win the Pac-10," Benson said.
Benson's bold statements aren't a stretch as far as Cal's concerned. The Bears truly believe that, with a healthy Powe, an impact addition in Wilkes, and the return of Benson, Midgley, Ubaka and Marquise Kately (9.3 ppg), they have enough to make a run at one of the top spots in the Pac-10.
The chase begins in Berkeley this week in practice, continues in Italy and will begin in earnest in October when practice resumes.
If all goes well, the Bears could go from barely making the Pac-10 tournament to being a lock for the NCAAs.
"We definitely have the potential to do that," Midgley said. "If we stay healthy, we've got a chance to improve a lot. These practices and the games [in Italy] will help us a lot and get us going a lot earlier [than most everyone else]."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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