IT'S HARD to imagine Marquise Kately rejoining the Cal basketball team, at least this season, and that's sad for the junior from Pacifica.

Kately, whose promise following his freshman season was such he shared the cover photo on the 2004-05 media guide, is taking care of business away from the university right now. Presumably, taking care of himself.

Rumors are rampant with explanations of why the 6-foot-5 guard has taken a leave from school and basketball. It's not academics, says coach Ben Braun, who also said the situation is not related to his suspension of Kately last summer for failing to meet team responsibilities.

One athletic department official expressed quiet concern for Kately's well-being.

This is a private matter for someone who, even at age 21, is something of a public figure as a Division I college athlete.

"It is what it is," said Braun, declining to be specific. "He has taken some time for personal reasons. Obviously, we're very supportive of him.

"I think he's committed to getting back. When somebody's in his (situation), you've got to respect that."

Kately earned respect three years ago through the effort he made to become eligible for Cal following a challenging academic experience at Riordan High in San Francisco. He spent the 2002-03 school year in the cold and isolation of Maine Central Institute, where his basketball and schoolwork benefited.

But he performed erratically on the court last season, often all but disappearing. Both his numbers and impact dwindled. Now all his work, on and off the court, seems in jeopardy of being wasted.

Kately is eligible to return to school in January, and his status with the basketball team will be reviewed at that time. Don't expect to see him, at least until next fall.

Given the upheaval caused by Kately's suspension before Cal's August tour of Italy, it's difficult to imagine Braun risking team chemistry by changing the roster at mid-season.

And given that Kately needs this time away to deal with personal issues, it would seem appropriate to let him return to campus a step at a time,

without the immediate pressures of basketball.

GAELS LAND AT NO. 2: The West Coast Conference coaches last week, after rubber-stamping Gonzaga as the league favorite, picked Saint Mary's to place second, which is where the Gaels finished the past two years.

"Honestly, I was surprised," coach Randy Bennett said. "I think those polls are based on who has guys returning who played a lot last year ... I really don't know why we were picked (second) based on that."

That's because Saint Mary's lost four starters who combined for 44.3 points and 19.8 rebounds on last year's NCAA tournament team, returning only senior Daniel Kickert from their first unit.

"He's good, though," Bennett said of his all-WCC forward from Australia. "I'm careful not to believe those polls because they don't mean much when it comes right down to it. But I don't think (second place) is out of the question."

AT POINT, FOR NOW: UNLV transfer John Winston, the former East Bay star, doesn't become eligible until Saint Mary's fourth game, Dec. 10 at Arizona.

In the meantime, freshman Wayne Hunter, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder from Sacramento, may have the inside track at point guard.

"He's pretty unselfish, he's big, and for a freshman he's pretty solid," Bennett said. "He's been very composed. Usually freshmen, their first few practices, really get rattled.

"If he makes a mistake, it's no big deal. If he makes a good play, it's no big deal."

AROUND THE PAC-10: Oregon got just what it needed last month with the arrival of Cincinnati signee Ivan Johnson, a 6-8, 255-pounder from L.A. Southwest JC. The Bearcats released Johnson from his scholarship after firing coach Bob Huggins, and the power forward is immediately eligible to play for the Ducks because he hadn't enrolled in classes at Cincinnati. ...

Besides sophomore wing Josh Shipp, out until late December following hip surgery, UCLA currently is practicing without starting center Michael Fey (groin) and freshmen Alfred Aboya (arthroscopic knee surgery) and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (sprained shoulder). ... Washington senior forward Mike Jensen is likely to redshirt after undergoing his second shoulder surgery since the end of last season. Count on freshman Jon Brockman — who has drawn comparisons with ex-Stanford star Mark Madsen — to more than fill the void.