Led by three hungry Bears, Cal has surged to the top of the
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 Pac10, 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
Ohio U's Glass Master
Hunter Is Lord Of the Boards
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
13year NBA veteran.
By Hunter's own admission his competitiveness can sometimes get
the better of him. Last season O'Shea suspended him for one game
after Hunter lost his temper in the locker room following a
one-point loss to Akron. Hunter says the incident was good for
him because it taught him to handle adversity better, a lesson
that has come in handy while the Bobcats have stumbled to a 2--4
start in the league (5--9 overall). "I've learned that I'm a
perfectionist, but I can't expect everyone else to be as hungry
as me all the time," he says. "There's no such thing as a perfect
season, but I know we can get a lot better." The secret, as
Hunter can attest, is in the effort.
Why the Road Is So Rough
The night before Brigham Young's Dec. 4 game at Arizona State,
Cougars coach Steve Cleveland outlined for his players several
keys to winning on the road, including defending and rebounding,
making free throws, not settling for jump shots and maintaining
composure. The plan worked--that night, anyway. BYU defeated the
Sun Devils 64--60, but since then the Cougars have gone 1--3 on
opponents' courts, bringing their road record to 7--20 over the
last three years. That mark is especially glaring because BYU had
the nation's longest home court win streak--44 straight--before a
79--75 loss to Utah last Saturday. "Maybe if we weren't so good
at home, people wouldn't make such a big deal that we have
trouble winning on the road," Cleveland says.
The Cougars are hardly alone in their struggles away from home.
Through Sunday No. 23 Alabama was 9--1 at home and 0--4 on the
road; No. 22 Oregon was 11--1 at McArthur Court and 2--2 on the
road; and unranked Miami was 7--1 at home and 1--6 on the road.
Over the last two decades NCAA statistician Gary Johnson has
calculated home court advantage about a dozen times, and each
time he has found that the home team won almost exactly 66% of
the games. That's a higher rate than the most recent figures in
major league baseball (54.2%), the NHL (55.3%), the NFL (58.9%),
college football (62.2%) or the NBA (62.8%).
"Schools have done a great job creating the most frenzied
possible atmosphere," says Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, whose
team had won 28 straight at home before losing to Kentucky 63--46
last Saturday. In addition most coaches agree that their players
don't shoot as well in unfamiliar environments. Then there's the
delicate matter of officiating. "We tell our players to expect
five to 10 bad calls against us when we go on the road," Oregon
coach Ernie Kent says.
Identifying the cause of a problem is not as easy as finding a
solution, which is why Texas A&M coach Melvin Watkins prefers not
to address the topic. "Players grow up hearing about how hard it
is to win on the road," he says. "Maybe if we coaches stopped
talking about it, it wouldn't be such a big deal."
Read Hoop Thoughts by Seth Davis every week at
1. The player of the year race is wide-open. Nick Collison
(Kansas), Hollis Price (Oklahoma) and Dwyane Wade (Marquette)
lead the field, but as many as two dozen players--the largest
number in recent memory--are in the picture.
2. Top-ranked Arizona is head and shoulders above everyone else.
The Wildcats didn't panic even when down by 20 points at Kansas
last Saturday, roaring back to outscore the Jayhawks 52--22 in
the second half en route to a 91--74 victory. Arizona is 10 deep
and will get even better once senior forward Luke Walton (right
ankle sprain) is 100%.
3. Michigan State is falling fast. At week's end the Spartans
(10--8), who were ranked 14th on Dec. 30, had lost six of their
last eight, and their 60--58 defeat at Michigan on Sunday was
their first loss to the Wolverines in five years.
Which One Would You Draft?
An NBA scout weighs in on the pro prospects of two of the
nation's top point guards:
"I think Duhon will play in the NBA, but I would take Nelson.
Nelson's height [6 feet] is a bit of a concern, but he's
extremely tough and he's a true leader. He's also shooting it
well, whereas Duhon is not. I think Duhon is a solid player, but
I'm not crazy about the way he delivers the ball. In my eyes, he
doesn't have a natural feel for passing. Nelson really knows how
to get the ball where it's supposed to go. Overall, I think he
has a better sense of how to play the position."