Friday, June 3, 2011

UCLA Basketball 2010-11 Season in Review

Yes, its taken awhile for me to finally find the desire to get back to this.  But with US Soccer about to take over my full sporting interest this June, I want some closure.

First, our tourney run - Losing to a #2 seed as the #7 seed in a close 2nd round match is not the worst outcome for our young team, but because it was Florida, again, it felt a lot more disappointing than it should have been.

The truth of the matter is that we played an extremely good 35 minutes - basically played them even - but lost the game with missed easy shots, turnovers and other costly mistakes down the stretch.  The game was winnable, but then Florida hit a few dagger threes.  That's all I care to say about that game.

Looking back to our season overall, we finished above the consensus expectation.  Preseason experts predicted we'd finish 3rd behind Arizona and Washington, but we managed to finish just behind Zona in a race decided only on the last day.  Of course, the highlight of the season will always be the last home game - the last game played in Classic Pauley Pavilion before renovation - when we blasted Zona to gain a share of the Pac-10 lead with two games to play.  It felt good to be contending for the title again after last season's debacle.  But personally, I was disappointed that we didn't win the Pac-10.  I really wanted the last true conference title before next year's ridiculous Pac-12 season starts.

In fact, this season was really the first year that marked our recovery from losing the most recent generation of NBA players - Love, Westbrook, Collison, Mbah a Moute and Holiday.  Our recruiting classes since Kevin Love in 2007 have been at best, mediocre and last season showed the depths that we fell.  At least this past season, because of the lack of seniors, we finally had some continuity in developing our core.  Starters from last year, Nelson, Honeycutt and Malcolm clearly displayed this experience and our record bore the result.

For me, Honeycutt was still an overall disappointment this year, however.  I could tell even in the preseason that his heart was already set on leaving for the NBA.  This mindset seemed to take priority over being the best that he could be for UCLA this year.  With the promise and talent that he showed us last season, I really expected much more from him.  He just never seemed to display on the court a superiority that you'd think a future NBA player would.  He was rarely the best player in the game (besides the 33 point outburst vs KU).  Sure, often he put up strong numbers, but it seemed like his play never truly made a consistent impact on the outcome of our games.  And, his carelessness with the ball (100 turnovers) just added to his nonchalant reputation.

Anyway, it wasn't a surprise when he announced shortly after our NCAA tourney exit that he was leaving.  I'm also not so sure how much higher Honeycutt can raise his stock by staying another year.  Unlike Holiday, at least Honeycutt gave us two years - I wish him the best.

Malcolm Lee's defection to the NBA was what really hurt the most.  Even though he wasn't as talented or diverse as Honeycutt, I thought he brought more to the team as its hardest worker and team leader.  Next year, he would have been our senior, our undisputed captain, and our best perimeter threat.  He had shown big strides in his improvement from the previous year to this year.  I thought his jump shot looked better and his on the ball defending became unquestionably one of the best in the country.  Malcolm was Howland's kind of player - the one recruit to redeem the fab five failure.  Since he had suffered a recent knee injury, and his draft stock wasn't first round material, and the NBA lockout coming, I think it was a no-brainer for him to return.

I still don't understand why he left.  Of course he should have tested the waters to see how he might get better, but who in the world is telling him that he was going to be a 1st rounder?  Could they not see that he still has opportunity to vastly improve his game?  (Unlike Honeycutt, his jump shot form was still being honed - under 30% on 3s).  Could they not understand that to start a final year as the team leader, the primary playmaker and perimeter scorer (especially with Honeycutt out) on what could've have been a national championship contender would have vastly raised his draft stock?  I just don't get it.

Having said this, I truly wish him the best.  I hope that his apparent improvement at the combine and workouts in the past couple months are truly indicative of his future.  I saw something interesting - at the combine, he was able to rep 185 pounds an astounding 17 times, just 2 short of the best overall, and we're including centers and power forwards.  In contrast, the Morris twin PFs from KU each only put it up 11 times.  (Oh, and by the way - Honeycutt?  0.)  Malcolm's shooting form looks so much better as well.  Here's hoping he goes late first round on the basis of his Howland taught defense and work ethic and becomes the next impact guard out of UCLA to hit the NBA.

Anyway, with Malcolm, we could have been a top 25 team next season.  (With Malcolm and Honeycutt, we would've likely been a title contending favorite.)  Without him, I almost feel like we are back where we started this year - just hoping to contend for the conference.

Reeves Nelson had a solid year but showed his immaturity at times.  His on-the-ball defense didn't really show itself until the last few games while his tendency to pout was there all year long.  I'm on a roll in terms of negativity, aren't I?

Well, Reeves was our top scorer this year at 13.9 points per game and our top rebounder by far at 9.1 per game.  As the only member of our core 3 coming back, I'm glad at least he is.  I'm not really sure how a 6'7 PF can really leave early anyway.  For all the preseason talk about an improved outside jump shot, he clearly did not have one and I think he should limit his range and his efforts to about 15 feet in.  It is of some assurance that at least we know where we'll get 15 points and 10 rebounds from next year.

After our big 3, the major contributor this year was big Joshua Smith.  This guy has the physical ability and potential to be the best big man in college.  Foul trouble was of course to be expected, but if he can play 30 minutes a game next year, he can easily score 15-18 points a game with 10+ rebounds.  Amazingly, of his 209 rebounds this season, 114 were offensive boards.  Did you catch that?  55% of his rebounds were off the offensive glass.  In contrast, Nelson's offensive board percentage was 26% (80 of 308).

I'm encouraged by his dedication to conditioning last summer and I'm hoping he approaches this offseason with the same attitude to shed some more baby fat.  Also, I hope he works on 2 or 3 go-to post moves as well as FT shooting, since he'll be parked there all year.  Even without knowing who will be at SF, we will have the best front court in the conference.

The other 2 newcomers of note this year were Lazeric Jones and the new Jerime Anderson.  I don't think anybody knew that Zeek Jones would be able to step in with the confidence of running a Howland team as well as he did.  His steady play will be a major factor in our success next year.  Perhaps the bigger surprise is the backup guard play of Anderson.  It must be maturity as well as the realization that he had lost his starting spot to a juco.  Either way, it was as if a whole new player showed up this season.  The fact that he was our best 3 point shooter this year (and the lack of constant bonehead mistakes) gives me hope that he will be good for us as the starter at SG.

Tyler Lamb probably should have been awarded more minutes to prepare him for this next year but I think he'll be ready.  On the other hand, Brendan Lane often looked lost, a step slow, and not physical enough to be effective inside.  But I still say that he's better than James Keefe.  It will be interesting to see how he and the Wear twins are used next year.  Clearly, Stover's defense inside will be counted upon when Joshua Smith is resting.

Projected Starting Lineup next season:

PG: Lazeric Jones
SG: Jerime Anderson
SG: Tyler Lamb
PF: Reeves Nelson
C: Joshua Smith

Bench: C Anthony Stover, PF Brendan Lane, PF Travis Wear, F David Wear, SG Norman Powell, G De'End Parker

- Newcomers next year: PFs Travis and David Wear, transferring in from UNC; Freshman SG, Norman Powell with great athletic ability, Juco Junior combo G, De'End Parker

- Without a true SF, Coach Howland could either go with a 3 guard lineup with Lamb or go big by deploying David Wear at SF.  Without having seen either of the twins play, I have no idea if this would work.

- Our 2nd juco player in as many years, De'End Parker (the last of many children so his mom said he was "de" end - no, I'm not kidding) from San Francisco will compete for Malcolm's minutes.

- It appears that we have 11 players in the rotation - 2 Cs, 4 PFs, 3 SGs, 2 PGs.  It will be interesting to see Howland's plan next season.  I'm guessing either Lane or one of the Wears won't play much.  Powell will probably see more minutes than Parker.

- Recently signed walk-on G Khalid McCaskill will likely be hard-pressed to find time on the floor.

- All UCLA future hopes are essentially pinned on blue chip recruit, Shabazz Muhammad in '12, as indications are that if we get him, many others will follow.  Shabazz himself is however, probably a one-and-doner.

- Larry Drew - I don't want a guy that walked out on UNC while he was playing solid minutes because he got benched.  I don't care if we have a void at PG in 2012.

Games I Attended: (7 wins, 1 loss)

11/9/10 - CS Los Angeles, W 84-59 - preseason game was my younger son's first UCLA game.

11/16/10 - UOP, W 57-44 - Unbeaten 3-0 start already better than previous season.
12/13/10 - UC Davis, W 74-67 - 4 scorers in double digits

12/31/10 - UW, L 74-63 - Whooped by Wash.
1/22/11 - Stanford, W 68-57 - Down 22-8, I arrived and we went 60-35.
2/2/11 - usc, W 64-50 - Smith's dunk, Jones' block, we beat $c after 4 straight losses
2/24/11 - ASU, W 71-53 - 5 in double figures
2/26/11 - UA, W 71-49 - Most meaningful game since March 2008 - Last game at Classic Pauley.

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