Sunday, March 14, 2010

UCLA Season in Review

The 2009-2010 season has mercifully come to a close.

 Pac 10 Tourney

While we avenged our losses to Arizona this year with a victory in the Pac-10 tournament (mostly because of the return of Reeves Nelson and his 19 points and 10 rebound effort), we capitulated a 9 point lead over Cal with a 1:23 left in the first half and lost by 13 (mostly because Dragovic won't play defense and insisted on repeatedly throwing, not shooting mind you, but throwing the ball directly at the front of the rim in the 2nd half.  He ended up shooting 1-11 on jump shots.  Even vs UofA, he shot 3-12.)

I despise Dragovic (the bball player, not the person) more than I've despised any Bruin in my 13 years of following UCLA basketball.  He plays without consistency, without passion, without basketball IQ but yet possesses just enough ability to somehow stay on the court.  While he can score 15 plus points on any given night, he allows more than that with his ridiculous "o-ley" defense.  In addition, his lack of leadership or Senior example renders him worse for our program than James Keefe, who was only incompetent on the court.  I will never understand how a terrible defender gets all that playing time when he is also a terrible perimeter shooter, AND has a tendency to get arrested for physical violence.  I am glad this season is over simply because I will never have to watch him play again.  Time will only tell what residual effects our team has suffered as a result of Dragovic's presence here.  Had to get that off my chest first.

In comparison, Michael Roll's career high 27 point performance deserved the standing ovation he received from UCLA and CAL fans alike when Howland brought him out in the last minute.  He is now the 49th player in UCLA history to score 1,000 points.  It was a good moment when Mike Montgomery went out of his way to speak well of Roll's career in the postgame interview.  He will be remembered fondly.

Season in Review

Many fans are upset at Howland this year for the inconsistencies and sometimes just outright horrible play of our squad.  And I do agree that there are facets of our play on the offensive end that Howland could improve on.  I also agree that there are probably aspects to Howland's coaching style that makes it tough to consistently recruit the most talented kids to UCLA - and this is a whole 'nother conversation for another time.  That said, UCLA fans need to calm down.  They should see this year as I have: nothing more than a long practice season for next year's run.

By the end of the season, freshmen Honeycutt and Nelson were the only players that held my interest.  Don't forget the number of players that we've lost since our last final four run in 2008.  That year we lost starters Kevin Love, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Russell Westbrook (more on him later).  Moute, by the way, is the only starter in all 3 of our Final Four runs.  He was missed badly in the subsequent season when we disappointingly finished 1 win short of the Pac 10 championship.  From that team led by Collison, we also lost seniors Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya and a 4th starter in Jrue Holiday.  By the way, only Collison and Holiday were NBA caliber and Jrue was not a big contributer anyway.  Its clear now that Collison didn't have much to work with last year.

So, that makes a total of 7 starting players that left Howland's program in 2 years.  We didn't just lose a few players, we lost a whole playing rotation.  8 good players if we count Mata as well.  (Also Chace Stanback, a SF recruit would've been a junior this year but he transferred to UNLV after 2008 and played big minutes in the NCAA tourney this year.)  Jrue Holiday's early defection especially sabotaged our chances this season before we even started.  The legacy of Jordan Farmar and Darren Collison rested on the inadequate shoulders of Jerime Anderson.  Then the impetuous Drew Gordon moronically exhibited no self-control and was rightly kicked off the team.  Unfortunately, I would argue that he would have been our best player this season.  Had no player left early, our starting lineup this year would've been: Kevin Love, Drew Gordon, Michael Roll (over Dragovic), Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday - easily a national championship contender if not the favorite.  Roll would have been a great outside shooting role player.  Instead, he is now our leading scorer and team leader.  He did a remarkable job as it is, having garnered a place on the All-Pac 10 team by year's end.

So with Roll, the madly inconsistent and defensively-deficient Dragovic, and completely useless James Keefe as our senior leaders, we needed exemplary play from our underclassmen to have a chance.  Reality?  Our exciting "fab five" recruiting class from last year actually turned out to be the "overworked one": Malcolm Lee.  Jrue Holiday left early and cost himself millions as well as the respect of Bruin fans everywhere; Drew Gordon was banished for insubordination; Bobo Morgan was benched for too much weight and too little skill; and Jerime Anderson lacked the paramount skill of any good point guard, namely decision-making.  Was Howland to blame?  Maybe a little, but there's no doubt it was primarily the fault of these players.

Malcolm himself played the whole season seemingly overanxious and constantly pressing too hard.  He also lacks any form in his jumper and will never be a great outside shooter without a major overhaul of his mechanics.  He is at his best, however, when he has the ball in open space or is in the paint.  His athleticism is phenomenal.  I also still think he has the tools to be a shut down defender.  Moving forward, he is a major piece of our team as the best, and perhaps only, scoring guard on a guard-thin roster.

So in retrospect, a 5th place finish (tied) in the Pac-10 is actually not that far from what should've been expected - many experts predicted 3rd behind Cal and Wash.  We essentially had 4 new starters (even worse, it was Drago, not Roll who started last year) and literally zero bench experience to count on.  Howland's teams requires a solid PG.  With Jerime struggling and Malcolm having to master both guard positions, we were bound to struggle.  There is clearly no Farmar or Collison on this team. Also, with injuries plaguing the majority of the roster before Pac-10 play which hampered much needed development time for a young team, as well as the Drew Gordon debacle, we should be pretty happy that we were actually tied for 1st place halfway through the schedule.

However, the emergence of Reeves Nelson and then Tyler Honeycutt was definitely unexpected.  Already, they are 2 out of 3 of our core players, along with Lee.  Brendan Lane is another bright spot as well.

Projected starting lineup next year: Lazeric Jones, Malcolm, Honeycutt, Nelson, Josh Smith.
Bench possibilities: Lane, Anderson, Tyler Lamb, Anthony Stover, Mike Moser, Bobo Morgan. - probably 4 of those 6 will play.

Howland did say that he expects 2 more recruits to sign with UCLA soon.  Hopefully one's an All-American PG.

So its still a young team next year with predominantly underclassmen, 3 juniors (one of which is a juco and another is Jerime), and no seniors.  Therefore, we are on track for a 2012 national championship, barring any early defections, of course.

Malcolm and Honeycutt, I'm talking to you.  Come back, work hard and you know Howland will show you the way to success in the NBA.

Games I attended this year - plus what was memorable for me.  Not including the 2 exhibition wins, I actually saw 7 wins and only 4 losses.

Concordia W - Mustafa sucks at PG but hits game winning 3.
Humboldt St W - Michael Roll is key to season.

Cal St. Fullerton L - Embarrassing loss but Reeves shows potential.
Pepperdine W - Drew Gordon is a monster inside.
Kansas L - Played #1 team tough.  Reeves outplayed Aldrich.
New Mexico St. W - 100 point game.

Arizona St. W - We lost a 17 point lead in 2nd half.
Washington W - Mustafa's stunning game winner.
Washington St. W - Reeves is a force inside.
Stanford W - Only 5 TOs.  Tied for Pac10 lead
California L - Cal shot 50% from 3.
Oregon St. W - Honeycutt's 18, 10, 5 block, 4 assists, 3 steal night
Oregon L - Jerime's 2 TO in the clutch loses the game.

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