Wednesday, March 21, 2012
UCLA Basketball 2011-12 Season Review (& Program Overview)
UCLA as a National Powerhouse
UCLA missed the NCAA tournament for the 2nd time in 3 years and the 4th time in 10 years. That should be an amazing stat for everyone to think about. Who are the basketball powers as measured by national championship titles? UCLA has won 11, Kentucky has 7, Indiana has 5, UNC has 5, Duke has 4, Kansas has 3 and now UConn has 3. In particular, UK, UNC, KU and now Duke form a traditional powerhouse group which UCLA likes to think of themselves a part of.
No, we're 2nd tier. The truth is had Howland won even a single title during his 3 Final Fours, especially in 2008 when we were the Kevin Love-led #1 seed, AND not missed the tournament this season, we'd be in the 1st tier. The loss to Derrick Rose in 2008 might've felt low, but the culmination of much of our failures since 2008 brought us to the lowest point we've ever had since 2003 when Lavin was fired for missing his 1st NCAA tournament in his 7th year at UCLA. Though Howland shouldn't be blamed for the 2004 tourney miss, the records will still say that he's missed tournament play 3 times in 9 years.
Any of those other schools (UNC, KU, UK) would have immediately fired their coach for missing the tournament twice in 3 years. UNC fired Doherty in 2003 after missing twice. Tubby Smith was fired from UK in '07 even though he never missed a tournament in 10 years, and actually won the '97 title. So, should Howland have been fired this season? He certainly deserves to be. The worst we should have done is a first weekend tourney exit, even if we had a few bad recruiting misses. There is simply no excuse for UCLA to miss a NCAA tournament. I was ready to excuse it in 2010 because of Howland's Final Four successes and the subsequent NBA defections, but to miss again just two years later is utterly unfathomable.
UCLA's Big Picture Failures
In an earlier post, I detailed my thoughts about the SI article, which in retrospect is clearly trojan propaganda written by a UCLA hater. Though our problems are common among countless other institutions and not really worth mentioning in the wake of the Ohio State, Miami or Penn State scandals, the fact is that we desire to be counted among the uncommon elite of UNC, KU and UK. There indeed have been failures in the past 3-4 years and I didn't need to read SI to tell me that.
What have been our mistakes?
Recruiting and protecting Dragovic was a mistake. Letting Chase Stanback go was a mistake. Recruiting Drew Gordon was a mistake. Bobo Morgan was a mistake. Not recruiting Derrick Williams was a huge miss - we didn't even offer him. Jerime Anderson. Letting Mike Moser go was a mistake. Recruiting Reeves Nelson was a mistake. Allowing Reeves Nelson to be so disruptive for 2 years until the Wear twins became eligible was a mistake. Recruiting Brendan Lane was a mistake. Letting Matt Carlino go was a mistake. Not disciplining Josh Smith this year is a mistake. Not recruiting any great point guards in the last 3 classes is a mistake.
Think for a moment what our ideal team would've looked like minus the behavioral problems and stupid early defections that have plagued it for the last 3-4 years.
PG: Malcolm Lee (Jrue Holiday would have been right to leave for the NBA after his 2nd year)
SG: Mike Moser
SF: Tyler Honeycutt
PF: Reeves Nelson
C: Drew Gordon
Bench: Josh Smith, Jerime Anderson, Wear twins, Tyler Lamb, Matt Carlino
That, is a championship contender. However, you could argue that there really aren't any future NBA stars even in that group, much less what we actually have now. In fact, I'd argue that UCLA really hasn't been recruiting on par with the powerhouse programs: UNC, Duke, KU and obviously UK, since Howland's arrival. Yahoo Sport's recruiting website, Rivals.com, assigns star ratings to recruits, 5 stars being the best. We're looking at classes from 2004 (Howland's 1st UCLA class) to 2011 and how many 5 star and 4 star recruits each school have had.
UK: 15 - Five stars, 11 - Four stars
UNC: 12 - Five stars, 12 - Four stars
Duke: 11 - Five stars, 12 - Four stars
KU: 9 - Five stars, 14 - Four stars
UCLA: 6 - Five stars, 16 - Four stars
Rivals' rankings are merely rankings at the time of recruitment. It is nowhere close to an exact science as Russell Westbrook's 3 star rating proves. However, it is an assessment of how highly players are nationally rated at the time of recruitment and there is little doubt that we have not done nearly as well as those schools. We are not getting enough of the obvious NBA potential talent on a consistent basis. There is zero reason why we shouldn't be able to pull in twice as many 5 star talent as we have. I'm not looking for Calipari-like hauls these past few years (four 5 star guys in a single class!!!), but we should easily draw in 1 or 2 every single year.
In case you're curious about how we stack up against our best Pac-12 rivals, Arizona pulled in 7 five stars and 11 four stars in the same period. Washington only had 4 five stars and 11 four stars.
Clearly, I've been hard on Howland. SI's exaggerations created a misconception of a program gone rogue. I don't think that was the case. I do think that some players were out of control and there were obvious recruiting misses. However, the SI article came out too late to really be relevant. By the time Nelson was dismissed, everything had returned to normal. The team's focus was back on the court. However, the ensuing backlash gives Howland the opportunity to do some self-evaluation. Again, I hope he reinvents himself, both personally and as a recruiter/coach, this offseason. Nobody embraces and speaks of the proud tradition of UCLA better than Howland. He is the best coach we've had here since John Wooden. And he has a great chance to prove it going forward.
2011-12 Season Review
We started the year ranked somewhere around #17 nationally and were the favorites to win the Pac-12. So, not even making the top 4 in our conference this year is a major problem. Besides UW, I don't see better talent this year in the conference than ours, even without Reeves Nelson. Again, after the horrific 2010 season when we finished 14-18, this was supposed to mark the year that finally we returned to national relevance as a contender. Realistically with Honeycutt and Lee defecting and having to play away from Pauley this entire season, we were at least supposed to contend for the conference. That was my expectation.
Who knew Nelson had to be kicked off the team? Who knew Josh Smith wouldn't be conditioning during the offseason? Who knew we wouldn't even get an NIT bid? Howland summed it up, "This past season has been the most challenging of my 31 years as a college basketball coach. I have endured seasons with fewer wins, but none with more disappointment. The unfavorable light that is cast upon our program is my responsibility as the UCLA head coach. But we will get better and I will get better."
Our final record was 19-14, but after Nelson's dismissal on Dec 9th, we actually went 17-9 the rest of the way. Post-Nelson, we were a dominating 13-1 (8-1 conference) on our "home court", our only loss was a no-contest to Cal. So much for the Bruin Road Show being a truly negative factor. No, it was actual road games that frustrated our team the most. In conference play, we were a pathetic 3-6, but we really should have won all but 2. We essentially gave away 4 games. We lost a 1 point game at Stanford when Zeek didn't pass to Anderson for an open jumper. We lost a 13 point halftime lead at Oregon. We lost a 10 point lead at Washington with 6 minutes to play. We led at Arizona nearly just about the whole game until 4 minutes left, ultimately losing by 2. With more experienced players like Malcolm or even Reeves in those games during crunchtime, I have little doubt that we would've won at least 3 and therefore won the Pac-12.
That said, UW went 23-10, won the Pac-12 outright, and was still passed over for the tournament. It is utterly ridiculous that the winner of our regular season does not get an automatic bid. Absolutely ridiculous. Year-end conference tournaments are meaningless and are nothing but a money grab. But I digress.
Joshua Smith was disappointingly our 4th best scorer this season at 10 ppg and 4.9 rebounds a game. Especially with Reeves gone, he was supposed to be the best player not only on our team, but in the conference. He was supposed to dominate games to the tune of 18 points and 10 boards a game. He was supposed to be trying to decide whether to go pro or not right about now (that is, after destroying fools in the Sweet 15 and Elite 8 this weekend). Instead, he was called fat and out of shape all year. He could only muster 17.4 minutes a game while committing far more fouls than any other teammate (3.1 fouls per game). He was a complete and utter disappointment. If I was Howland, I would have benched him from November until January and told him to make weight before he could play. Josh is saying the right things and intends to stay in LA this offseason so that he can be held accountable for his conditioning. If he can't discipline himself now, he never will.
Jerime Anderson will never be a beloved Bruin. He was one of those hard-partying freshmen in SI. He was an unprepared and poor-performing starting PG as a sophomore, which prompted Howland to bring in a junior transfer to compete with him. He lost, but was finally useful for once off the bench his junior year. Then he was caught stealing a laptop before his senior season. Seemingly humbled, the truth is, he was decent for us this season. Averaging 8.6 points, he was our most reliable outside shooter (40% from arc) and led the team in assists at 4.2 per game. Will he be missed? Not really. But at least his last year was respectable.
The two guards that will have major roles to play next season are Lamb and Powell. Lamb actually played major minutes this season and scored over 9 points a game. However, Howland seemed to have stuck the best-perimeter-defender label on him and I just don't see it. He seems to make mental mistakes much too often and gets beat laterally to the hoop constantly. Afflalo-lite he is not. Offensively, Lamb turns it over at an alarming rate (leading the team even though he doesn't play point guard) and often at critical times. Also, his jumper needs a lot of work. Unless he is already set and his feet are under him, he is as likely to air ball his jumper than make it.
That leaves our two mostly bench-ridden big men, Stover and Lane. I don't see Stover's role expanding much next season, though it could be argued that he's the best interior defender we have. His hands and footwork aren't great, but nobody blocks and alters shots the way he does - 1.4 blocks per 8.6 minutes a game. I've said that Lane should have transferred after last year. The Wears were obviously going to take his playing time. But now that Lane is graduating in 3 years and is going to be able to play at a mid-major immediately starting next year as a grad student, his plan was perfect. I wish him the best of luck and only wished he had Reeves Nelson's skill to go with his upstanding character.
Having gone through our rotation, it's reminded me that we don't have NBA talent on our team. We just can't compete with what schools like UNC and Kentucky obviously possess right now. A slimmed-down and disciplined Josh Smith perhaps has the most potential and the athletic Norman Powell might have an outside shot of a pro future one day, but otherwise we are bare of raw pro basketball talent. That's the real reason we aren't contenders. Add the Nelson distraction which sabotaged our first month of play and we just didn't stand a chance.
Projected Starting Lineup 2012-13
PG: Kyle Anderson (Fr)
G: Norman Powell (So)
G: Tyler Lamb (Jr)
PF: David Wear (R Jr)
C: Travis Wear (R Jr)
Bench: C Joshua Smith (Jr), PG Larry Drew (R Sr), G/F Jordan Adams (Fr), C Anthony Stover (Jr)
- Kyle Anderson is rated among the top point guards in the country, if not the best. I am guardedly optimistic as it seems that the best schools - Duke, UNC, KU, UK - did not recruit him. Not sure what that means. But I do know that we have been void of an NBA caliber PG since Collison/Holiday left us in 2009. My guess is that Anderson is talented enough to start although UNC-defector Larry Drew has been practicing under Howland's system this entire year. Those two are the only PGs we have. Drew better not throw a tantrum if he doesn't start, like he did at UNC after getting benched. Anyway, it is a concern that the position that is traditionally the most important in Howland's system will be filled by two newcomers.
- We are still in the running for national #1 ranked recruit, Shabazz Muhammad, although his NCAA eligibility is currently in question. If he came here and was cleared, he would obviously start at SF, before bolting to the NBA. Shabazz would vault us into the national limelight. The other recruit that we still want is big man Tony Parker, who seems to be a physical post player but will need some polish.
So although Zeek and Jerime are leaving, we are currently adding 3 perimeter players to our squad, while our frontcourt rotation will be the same as this season. If all our current players get better and the talent level coming in is as good as advertised, I don't see why we can't win a conference title next season. Our frontcourt should be a massive (pun definitely intended) advantage in every single game, if Josh puts in the work this summer. How far we go in reality depends on Josh. I say a 2nd weekend appearance in the NCAA Tournament should be our 2013 goal. Ultimately, I hope our coach and our program comes back changed for the better, just in time to match the new Pauley Pavilion.
Games I Attended:
11/15/11 - L vs Middle Tennessee State 86-66
11/28/11 - W vs Pepperdine 62-39
12/20/11 - W vs UC Irvine 89-60
01/07/12 - W vs ASU 75-58 (Honda Center)
01/26/12 - W vs Utah 76-49
03/01/12 - W vs Wash St 78-46
All except for the ASU game were at the Sports Arena. It seems that I never saw a close game in the 6 that I attended. We won by a margin of 25.6 points in our 5 wins and we lost by 20 to MTSU. I suppose this is interesting only to me.