Dickey: Braun has dropped the ball at Cal

Ben Braun’s propensity for a marshmallow preconference schedule may finally cost him his job as the Cal men’s basketball coach.

The Pac-10 Conference is regarded as the best basketball conference in the country this season. Because the conference has a complete round-robin, teams have been beating up on each other, so there’s been speculation that a team that finishes below .500 in the conference could still make the NCAA Tournament.

Almost certainly, the Bears will finish below .500. They’re at 6-8 now with home games against Washington State and Washington this week and road games against UCLA and Southern Cal next week. Of the four, only Washington is below them in the standings.

So, an 8-10 record is probably the best the Bears can reach. That won’t be good enough. The only game that can boost their standing in the eyes of the tournament selection committee is an earlier win over Washington State on the road, and that’s more than counterbalanced by the weak preconference schedule.

That below-.500 conference record will be Braun’s third in the last four years, and it’s areflection of Braun’s coaching and recruiting. In the last six years, Arizona leads in recruiting players who were rated in the five-star category as preps with eight. Cal has only one. UCLA leads in four-star recruits with 13. Cal has nine. In three-star recruiting, Arizona State leads with 19, Cal has nine, seventh-best in the conference.

The failures of the Cal men are in stark contrast to the women’s team, coached by Joan Boyle, who took a team that was at rock bottom and has brought it almost to parity with Stanford, which has long dominated the conference. Saturday’s 60-58 loss was a thrilling game, witnessed by more than 10,500 fans, the largest turnout ever for a Pac-10 women’s game.

Meanwhile, attendance has been very disappointing for the men this season, with the exception of a sellout for the UCLA game.

Braun was a breath of fresh air when he replaced Todd Bozeman, who had run a recruiting program that violated so many NCAA rules that Cal was put on probation.

He was also a better coach then because he listened to his assistants and his players. No longer.

In an earlier column, I noted that his players look confused when they come out of sideline huddles. Cal’s best player, Ryan Anderson, commented after the Bears lost a close game, “We didn’t know what we were doing out there.”

There’s a reason for that. A source close to the players told me that one player had questioned Braun’s strategy in a sideline huddle. “Shut up!” Braun responded. No player has spoken up since.

Braun can be ingratiating when he’s talking to people who can help him, usually those who are deep-pocket alums. He’s kept his job because of their support. But recent conversations have convinced me that the alumni support has eroded, and Braun can no longer count on that to keep him in place. It would cost money to buy out Braun’s contract, but it may cost even more in declining ticket sales if he stays on.

Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour made a great decision with Boyle. Now, she needs to replace Braun and bring in a coach who can get Cal men back into serious contention in the Pac-10 — and the NCAA Tournament.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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