Team preview: Cal State Fullerton

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Cal State Fullerton coach Bob Burton's top recruit is a guy who has been with him the last three seasons.

When All-Big West point guard Bobby Brown announced he was withdrawing from the NBA draft to return to Fullerton for his senior season, it represented the Titans' biggest catch of the off-season.

"We're really, really lucky to have him come back,'' Burton said, "because he is really a special talent.''

Just not ready to be a first-round NBA draft choice, however, which is why, after testing the waters in a pre-draft camp and workouts with several teams, the 6-2 senior decided he could use one more year in college to make himself a more marketable pro.

Oh, yeah, and to lead the Titans in their quest for the Big West championship that got away last season, when they began as a favorite and limped away with a sub-.500 league record and a disappointing sixth-place finish.

"I'm really glad he went and tried this thing,'' Burton said, "and of course we're obviously all elated that he's back, because I think he's got a chance to be one of the best guards in the country. This is going to be a huge year for him.''

Not that the last two weren't big years. In each of those seasons, Brown (17.5 ppg, 4.6 apg) has come within two baskets of the conference scoring title, finishing second to Pacific's Christian Maraker last season after Maraker erupted for 30 points in his final NCAA Tournament game. Brown was also second in the Big West in assists.

But even though Brown was already perhaps the league's best returning player, his flirtation with the NBA has left him with the tools and the incentive to get even better, his coach said.

"The thing that was so good about him going out is that it gave him an opportunity to really find out what it's like at that level and what he needs to improve on to get to play in the NBA,'' Burton said. "Basically, it's the same things you tell them as a college coach, but it's amazing how much better they listen all of a sudden when an NBA guy's telling them the same thing.

"One of the things they all talked about was that we need to win. It's really important for your point guard to come from a winning program and to lead his team to wins -- not just going out there shooting and doing all those things, but really being a leader.''

Indeed, Burton blames a lack of leadership for the Titans' mediocre showing last season. As well as he played, Brown was unable to fill the void left by Ralphy Holmes and Yaphett King, who departed after leading Fullerton to a stunning 21-11 season and an NIT bid in 2004-05.

The difference was most evident in close games. In 2004-05, the Titans were 9-0 in games decided in overtime or by two points or less. Last season, they went 1-3 in overtime and lost 13 games by 10 points or less, eight of which they led in the second half. The low point came in a December game at San Francisco, in which the Titans led by 19 with 7:44 to go and wound up losing in overtime.

"It became really obvious to me when we started practicing how big a gap there was without those two kids,'' Burton said. "I knew it was going to be tough. Losing those two players, we didn't really recover.

"The year before, it was absolutely amazing. We won every close game. It was just phenomenal how many last-second shots and overtime games we had. Then last year was the complete opposite. We absolutely just threw games away, like at USF. There were several games like that, and that was real frustrating.''
Burton hopes Brown's maturity will keep that from happening again, but just to be sure, he also has some insurance.