Ben Braun is probably just a year away from being fired as the Cal men’s basketball coach. He got a pass this season because early injuries to big men DeVon Hardin and Jordan Wilkes left the Bears seriously shorthanded, but if his team
doesn’t do much better next year, he’s gone.
When Braun first came to Cal, he was a breath of fresh air. Todd Bozeman had been successful, but the university was put on NCAA probation for Bozeman’s recruiting violations. Star player Jason Kidd had made a mockery of the "student-athlete" label, not even going to class for his last semester because he was turning pro.
Braun’s first year was all good. With players mostly recruited by Bozeman, the Bears went 23-9 and made the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
Braun was Pac-10 Conference Coach of the Year.
Unfortunately, that was the high water mark. In four subsequent appearances in the NCAA Tournament, Braun’s teams haven’t gotten past the second round.
Last season, they were bounced in the first round — and that was the only time they’d been in the tournament in three years. The Bears will get there this year only if they win the conference tournament. Don’t hold your breath.
Meanwhile, Jeff Tedford’s success with the football program, which had hit rock bottom under Tom Holmoe, has shown that Cal doesn’t have to settle for mediocrity.
By now, we know what a Braun-coached team will look like. It will generally play good defense, because he emphasizes that. But it will also have a stagnant offense, which will negate the defense. The Bears could score only 41 points in a Saturday loss to Arizona State, the Pac-10’s weakest team.
For years, I’ve implored Braun, in print and in person, to hire an assistant who could help him with his offense, much as Lou Campanelli did when he hired Gary Colson. But Braun won’t yield control of any aspect of his team.
The good news this year for Cal fans was that the frequent injuries led to more playing time for freshmen such as Patrick Christopher and super-quick Jerome Randle. With Hardin and Wilkes returning next season, allowing Ryan Anderson and Theo Robertson to switch back to their natural positions, forward and on the wing, the Bears will have the talent to win next year.
But the competition has also gotten stronger. Pac-10 schools have had more success in keeping the top preps home, especially those from the rich California talent pool. Ben Howland and Tim Floyd have given new life to UCLA and USC and the overall level of coaching in the conference is the highest in years.
Braun got a contract extension last year, but that in itself won’t be enough to save him. Money speaks in intercollegiate sports, even at a strong academic institution such as Cal, and the many empty seats at Haas this season have spoken loudly. There is a buyout clause in Braun’s contract, and it would probably be less costly to apply that than to allow the continued erosion of support.
So, Braun probably has one more year to prove he can take a team to the top three in the conference and deep into the NCAA Tournament. Unless he finally admits his weakness and hires an assistant to fix the offense, that won’t happen — and he’ll be gone.