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February 1, 2006
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BERKELEY, Calif. - Ayinde Ubaka can improvise.
Last summer, when Ubaka's California teammates were too beat up to take part in open gym, Ubaka quickly found another way to hone his game. He drove a half-hour each way several days a week to Saint Mary's College, where he played pickup games with the Gaels and his good friend John Winston.
"I just wanted to play somewhere and get better," Ubaka said. "It's one thing working on your game, but you still need to implement it in a game. I had to get somewhere to play."
Then, he would return to Cal for individual workouts.
All that gym time is paying off for Ubaka, who has demonstrated a knack for hitting clutch shots in crunch time and has shown he is more confident being the floor leader for the Golden Bears in his junior season.
Ubaka scored a career-high 29 points in a win over Oregon on Jan. 5 that gave Cal a 3-0 start in conference play. He scored seven of his nine points in the final 4:53 of a 62-58 win at Southern California on Dec. 29 and had another big basket in the final minute of a 68-61 upset at then-No. 11 UCLA two days later - the Bears' first win against a team that highly ranked since they defeated No. 7 Arizona on Feb. 25, 1999.
He helped the Bears sweep then-No. 10 Washington and Washington State last week to move into a three-way tie for second place as Cal heads to Oregon State and Oregon.
Ubaka believes being around players other than his own teammates all summer probably helped him - and the Gaels were probably hopeful he'd have a change of heart, transfer and join them for good.
The 6-foot-4 guard is Cal's second-leading scorer at 15 points per game and also averages 3.2 rebounds and a team-best 3.9 assists. His ballhandling is a big reason the Bears are averaging a conference-low 12.6 turnovers and are 9-1 at home.
For Ubaka, it means a lot to be carrying a significant load this season considering there were plenty of people who weren't sure he could make a big impact at the college level.
"I always had the physical ability," he said. "It's just mentally believing in myself and being confident, not letting anybody take my confidence away no matter who it is. You can tell me I can't do this, I can't do that - I'm just not listening and tell myself to play and do what got me here. ... It's the same people who said bad things who are saying good things now."
Reaching the point where he no longer worried about what others thought of his game took some time. He's willing to listen to anybody's ideas for ways to get better, but he also knows when there's too much information running through his mind that it might lead to confusion.
"The real thing you should do is listen to the people in the program, the coaches," he said.
Ubaka came to Cal three years ago as part of a talented recruiting class that also featured star power forward Leon Powe. They both grew up in nearby Oakland, and while Powe is the bigger name, Ubaka was the most highly touted guard to join the program since Jason Kidd in 1992.
No longer can opponents focus only on Powe and expect to get away with it.
Ubaka's strong play has certainly helped take some pressure off Powe, the Pac-10 freshman of the year two seasons ago who returned after missing all of the 2004-05 season following knee surgery.
"You need good big men, but guards really carry teams far," Ubaka said.
Ubaka knows even he has been guilty of looking past a few of California's opponents this season, leading to losses in games the Bears probably should have won. A couple years ago, he might not have said anything to his teammates about the problem. Now, he's speaking up.
For Ubaka, being healthy has made a big difference in his strides, too. He broke a bone in his left foot early last season, immediately had surgery and missed 11 games, keeping him from having the kind of season he'd hoped for as a sophomore.
"He's really gaining confidence," Cal coach Ben Braun said. "His health, for one, has contributed to his confidence and number two, having some success knocking down shots. That goes a long way. He's been challenged and he's answered those challenges. To take a step, you've either got to challenge yourself or answer the challenges that have been thrown at you, and he's done that."For more coverage of the Cal Bears, check out BearTerritory.net.
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