Cal's best suit is resilience NCAA: Despite change in coaching and player leadership, the Bears return strong to the tournament.

March 20, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

In calendar years, it hasn't been that long since Cal went to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. But a lot has happened over those four seasons since a team of big-name stars and a hot, young coach took the Bears to St. Louis after beating two-time defending national champion Duke.

The stars, Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray, are long gone.

The coach, Todd Bozeman, resigned under pressure before this season.

The Bears, who were supposed to disappear into that college basketball abyss occupied by troubled programs with little history and even less foundation, are back.

"It's amazing how different things are," said Alfred Grigsby, then a sophomore and now a sixth-year senior who missed two subsequent seasons because of injury. "On that team, we had a lot of good individual players. But now we're a better team in the true sense of the word."

Even a season-ending foot injury last month to the team's only star, senior guard Ed Gray, has not deterred Cal. If anything, it has enabled a player used to the spotlight of another arena to find it again. And it has allowed Ben Braun, the team's first-year coach, to put his stamp on the program.

Led by senior Tony Gonzalez, the fifth-seeded Bears will take the court at the Carrier Dome in Gonzalez Syracuse, N.Y., tomorrow night to play top-seeded North Carolina in the East Regional semifinals. Despite being significant underdogs, playing against the Tar Heels is more than Gonzalez could ever have imagined.

"It's a dream come true," said Gonzalez, a second-team All-America tight end on the Cal football team that lost to Navy in the Aloha Bowl. "They've had so many great players -- Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, Jerry Stackhouse. They have Dean Smith. You always want to play against the best."

There was a time when the Bears were trying to build a program to challenge UCLA and Arizona as the power in the Pac-10. But the success of the Kidd-Murray teams collapsed under the stormy 3 1/2 -year tenure of Bozeman, a former assistant who had taken over when Lou Campanelli was forced out in the middle of the 1992-93 season for verbally abusing his players.

The teams continued to have some success on the court -- two went to NCAA tournaments, losing in the first round -- but the off-court problems mounted anew. They included the transfer of two prominent players, a letter of inquiry from the NCAA over reported recruiting improprieties and a sexual harassment complaint by a female student against Bozeman, who resigned last fall.

"We needed someone to stabilize things," said senior guard Randy Duck. "Things had been pretty crazy."

Enter Braun, a low-profile but highly respected coach for more than a decade at Eastern Michigan. His team's upset of Duke in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament helped Braun gain some national attention, but his track record in Ypsilanti showed that he could bring a level of consistency to Cal.

About the only judgment error Braun made during a 21-8 regular season came when, a few hours after playing a double-overtime game in Berkeley against Illinois in early December, Braun put his team on a red-eye flight to Washington for a game against Maryland at the USAir Arena. Braun had scheduled a 6 a.m. tour of the White House the day before the game.

"It was a good life decision, but a bad basketball decision," said Braun, whose team lost to the then-unranked Terrapins, 80-64.

Where most looked at Cal as a huge rebuilding job because of the mess left by Bozeman's forced resignation and the departure of freshman star Shareef Abdur-Rahim to the NBA, Braun saw the Bears in a different light. He even credits his predecessor for recruiting players with great character, a trait Braun says helped make the transition easier and the team's return to prominence quicker.

"They had been through a lot," said Braun, 42. "But that's just going through life experiences. The things that happened at Cal, that's not uncommon. From Day One, we told them that we had to play team basketball. Our ability to play as a team has been important. Even Ed Gray didn't beat many teams by himself."

Without Gray, who broke his foot while scoring 48 points in a Feb. 22 loss at Washington State, the Bears have gone from being more of a perimeter team with three guards to a power team. Gonzalez, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound forward who took Gray's place in the lineup, has averaged more than 17 points since being asked to play a more prominent role. He had a career-high 23 in Saturday's 75-68, second-round win over Villanova.

Duck said that Gray's injury has made the Bears go away from having a go-to guy.

"With Ed in there, we had a tendency to let him take over," said Duck, who hit some big shots in the win over the Wildcats in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Now we can't do that."

Braun said he hopes that his team's mental toughness will carry the Bears further than anyone, even he, could have expected this season.

"The mistake people made with this team was that they underestimate the quality of character these players have," said Braun. "This is as strong a group as I've been around."

Ask Princeton.

Ask Villanova.

And, perhaps, ask North Carolina sometime tomorrow night.

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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