Friday, March 30, 2012

Westbrook beats LA in Fisher's return

Since my last post was about Westbrook, I won't spend much time here except to record that my wife and I were fortunate enough to get a pair of tix (and free parking and a gc for $20 to concessions though we still spent another $13 bucks) to the Thunder/Lakers tilt on Thursday.  That's what winning a work (Oscar picks) contest can do.  Having worked in sports television in the past, it takes special players to get me somewhat excited about attending a game.  A chance to see Durant and the NBA version of Westbrook as they lead the Western Conference?  Yeah, that'll do it.  Coincidentally, we bumped into my cousin there though he was only in the country for the week.

Derek Fisher's standing ovation was the loudest I've heard the crowd at Staples Center outside of a playoff game.  The Lakers traded away one of their last likeable players.  Is it just chance that Bynum's been acting up since Fisher left?  On the court though, it was Bynum's strong inside play and Durant's early misfires that help LA jump out to their 1st quarter lead.  After that, it was Westbrook time as the Thunder won 102-93.

Russell shot 13-27 on the night to finish with 36 points, including a full-court sprint, crossing over Kobe en route, for a 3 point buzzer beater during the 2.4 seconds left at the end of the 3rd quarter to stretch the lead to 10.  His clutch jumper with 57 seconds left was the final nail in the coffin.  Durant's memorable driving dunk in the middle of the last quarter was the first nail, as it pushed the lead to 88-70.  KD scored just 21.

Kobe had a particularly poor shooting night, going just 7-25.  He is actually having his worst shooting year since his rookie season, currently at an awful 42.4% clip.  Also, he is a bad clutch shooter these days.  When will the Lakers realize that their strength are the two 7-footers inside?  Hopefully never.

As for the Thunder, I'm not sure how a team whose best 3 scorers are perimeter players can win in the NBA playoffs.  What happens when the shots don't fall?  Either way, a possible Heat-Thunder matchup will be exciting to behold.  With the Kings still terrible and tottering on the brink of skipping town, I'll adopt Westbrook's Thunder for now.  Worst case scenario?  Lakers-Bulls (Rose, Noah, Gibson, Scalabrine - hmm, why would UCLA fans dislike these guys, I wonder...).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kevin Love & Russell Westbrook - Career Scoring Night

Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook combined for 96 points on Friday's 2OT Timberwolves/Thunder game.  Love scored a career-high (and franchise-high) 51 points on 16-27 shooting.  He was an incredible 7-11 on 3 pointers, including a clutch game-tying shot to send the game to OT.  He also grabbed 14 rebounds but Minnesota eventually lost to OKC 149-140 mostly because of Westbrook's hot hand.  Russell also put up a career-high total with 45 points, shooting 17-28 on the night.  Both of their previous career-highs were 43 points.  Love's 51 point game was only the 3rd time someone has broken the 50 point mark this season (Durant and Deron Williams).

It is amazing to see these two former teammates at UCLA flourish in the NBA the way they have.  While they were in school, I honestly never expected either of them to ever be drafted in the top 5, much less become Allstars.  Not only were they drafted #4 (Westbrook) and #5 (Love) overall in 2008, they both made the 2011 and 2012 Allstar games.  In fact, UCLA is the only school to be represented by the same two alumni in these 2 allstar games.  Kevin Love is clearly the best PF in the world right now, while Westbrook is at least a top 5 point guard.

So how in the world did UCLA not win a NCAA title with these 2 allstars along with other NBA players like Collison and Mbah a Moute?  One name: Derrick Rose (2008 #1 draft pick, 2011 NBA MVP).  He was also declared ineligible eventually and Memphis' Final 4 appearance was vacated.

So how does our best 5 NBA alumnus match-up against powerhouses UK's, KU's, UNC's and Duke's best 5 in terms of scoring?

Duke (out of 16 total players in the NBA)
Kyrie Irving (18.8ppg, 5.6apg)
Gerald Henderson (14.3ppg, 4.1reb)
Corey Maggette (15.4ppg, 4.2reb)
Luol Deng (15.3ppg, 6.7reb)
Carlos Boozer (15.6ppg, 8.2reb)
Total: 79.4 ppg

Kentucky (18 total)
Rajon Rondo (12.7ppg, 10.7apg)
John Wall (17.1ppg, 7.1apg)
Brandon Knight (12.6ppg, 3.6apg)
Tayshaun Prince (12.3ppg, 4.4reb)
DeMarcus Cousins (16.9ppg, 11.0reb)
Total: 71.6 ppg

UNC (14 total)
Ty Lawson (15.1ppg, 6.7apg)
Raymond Felton (10.9ppg, 6.1apg)
Marvin Williams (9.7ppg, 5.2reb)
Antawn Jamison (18.0ppg, 6.6reb)
Tyler Hansborough (9.5ppg, 4.7reb)
Total: 63.2 ppg

Kansas (17 total)
Mario Chalmers (9.8ppg, 3.5apg)
Brandon Rush (8.6ppg, 3.9reb)
Paul Pierce (18.6ppg, 5.0reb)
Drew Goodon (14.3ppg, 6.8reb)
Markieff Morris (7.2ppg, 4.4reb)
Total: 58.5 ppg

The only other comparable schools worth a mention (at least 10 players in NBA) are:

Texas (13 total)
DJ Augustin (11.6ppg, 6.3apg)
Daniel Gibson (7.5ppg, 2.9reb)
Kevin Durant (27.9ppg, 8.1reb)
Tristan Thompson (7.6ppg, 6.0reb)
LaMarcus Aldridge (21.3ppg, 8.0reb)
Total: 75.9 ppg

UConn (15 total)
Kemba Walker (12.1ppg, 4.1apg)
Ray Allen (14.6ppg, 3.0reb)
Caron Butler (12.3ppg, 4.0reb)
Rudy Gay (18.6ppg, 6.6reb)
Emeka Okafor (9.9ppg, 7.9reb)
Total: 67.5 ppg

Florida (11 total)
Corey Brewer (9.5ppg, 2.9reb)
Chandler Parsons (8.9ppg, 4.9reb)
Al Horford (12.4ppg, 7.0reb)
David Lee (19.2ppg, 9.8reb)
Joakim Noah (9.9ppg, 10.0reb)
Total: 59.9 ppg 

Arizona (13 total)
Jerryd Bayless  (11.6ppg, 3.8apg)
Jason Terry (15.2ppg, 3.5apg)
Andre Iguodala (12.3ppg, 6.4reb)
Derrick Williams (8.7ppg, 4.9reb)
Channing Frye (10.1ppg, 6.1reb)
Total: 57.9 ppg

Harvard (1 total)
Jeremy Lin (14.6ppg, 6.1apg)
Total: 14.6ppg


UCLA (16 total)
Jrue Holiday (13.8ppg, 4.4apg)
Russell Westbrook (24.0ppg, 5.4apg)
Arron Afflalo (13.9ppg, 2.7reb)
Trevor Ariza (11.2ppg, 5.6reb)
Kevin Love (26.3ppg, 13.8reb)
Total: 89.2 ppg

We have the highest-scoring starting lineup of any school by more than 10 points a night.  Yes, UCLA rules.  Its just that none of our NBA players have a NCAA title to show for it.

Isn't it amazing that none of the powerhouse schools (UK, KU, UNC, Duke) have a single 20ppg scorer in the league?  In fact, the only two players listed above the 20 point barrier besides UCLA's duo, are Texas' pair in Durant and Aldridge.  To me that is pretty shocking.

In case anyone was wondering, here are the top 5 scoring guys this season who skipped college.  (You could argue guys like Rose and Durant would never have stepped on a college campus had the 1 year rule not been instituted in 2006).

Straight from HS Five
Monta Ellis (21.0ppg, 6.0 apg)
Kobe Bryant (28.3ppg, 5.5reb)
Lebron James (26.8ppg, 8.3reb)
Al Jefferson (19.4ppg, 9.4reb)
Dwight Howard (21.0ppg, 14.8reb)
Total: 116.5 ppg

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.

Since the NCAA Tournament expansion to 64 teams in 1985, Duke ('95) and KU ('89) have only missed the tournament once each, UNC missed 3 times ('10, '03, '02), UK missed 4 times ('09, '91, '90, '89), Indiana missed 6 times ('11, '10, '09, '05, '04, '85), and UConn missed 10.  UCLA?  7 since 1985 ('12, '10, '04, '03, '88, '86, '85).  During that same time, Duke won 4 titles, UNC and UConn each won 3, KU and UK won 2, Indiana and UCLA only won 1 each.  So the painful truth of the matter is that UCLA's record in modern day college basketball is woefully closer to Indiana than UNC.  We are no longer the powerhouse program that Wooden built, though no school could ever replicate his feats.  But are we even among the elite?

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.

I think Howland could stand to make his program (as a result of his personality/behavior) a more attractive place for players to want to stay (or even come to in the first place).  How is it KU and UNC can hold onto their stars longer than us?  Why was Jordan Farmar in such a huff to leave after just 2 years?  He was slated as borderline first rounder.  Why would Stanback transfer when we had a void at SF?  Why would Jrue Holiday rush out of town after just one subpar year when he could've been a top 5 pick the next year?  Moser?  Carlino?  Why would Malcolm defect when nobody in their right mind thought he'd be a first rounder?  Something about this pattern bothers me.  At the very least, Howland needs to be accountable for the '08, '09 recruiting classes, the failures for which he has already accepted.

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,, 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.

Who were Howland's 6 five star recruits?  Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Kevin Love, Jrue Holiday, Bobo Morgan and Joshua Smith.  The first 4 obviously turned out well.  That UCLA (15) ranks among Duke (16), UNC (14), Kentucky (17) and KU (17) in current NBA prospects (according to is a testament to Howland's pure ability to coach.

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.

As for our players, Lazeric Jones was clearly our best player this season.  I couldn't be happier for Zeek that we won our last home game against UW on Senior day, a game where he scored 20 points.  He's been a stabilizing influence in what could have been an even more horrendous season.  He was our leading scorer at 13.4 points per game and was the only player to start all 32 games.  He also led the team in total assists, steals, and played the most minutes per game (33.5).  2 years ago, who knew how important this junior transfer PG would be to our team?  He will be missed.

The Wear twins were also about as good as I thought they'd be.  They were our 2nd and 3rd leading scorers, Travis at 11.6ppg and David at 10.4ppg.  Before the season, we wondered how Howland would distribute minutes among all our big men then with the addition of the Wears.  We even tried to speculate on how David would do at SF.  Who knew that the Wears would start at PF and C for most of the season, both having to log about 27 minutes per game?  Clearly, they have solid fundamental basketball skill, though Travis seems to be the better interior scorer while David is the superior outside shooter.  They could both stand to become stronger and more physical inside (thus improving their rebounding).  But more importantly, these two will never become locker-room cancers like Gordon or Nelson.  I am comforted to know that we will have the hard-working Wears at our disposal for two more years.

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.

While Lamb just isn't the off-guard superior athlete to turn heads at the next level, Norman Powell clearly has that kind of potential.  I like that he isn't tentative either, regardless of his experience.  Though I'm not sure of the circumstances around De'End Parker's transfer this season, at least it freed Powell up to play valuable minutes.  Both Lamb and Powell only shot 36% on 3-pointers, so they should focus there this offseason.  So far, it seems that both have the right kind of attitude and temperament to thrive under Howland.

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.

Friday, March 2, 2012

UCLA SI fallout, Beats down WSU

The SI article was painful to read for Bruin fans.  The good news is that the talk the few days before the article was more about drug use so I'm glad there wasn't a major revelation about that.  And I'm glad it wasn't about any other major NCAA violations or widespread conspiracies or coverups.  Ultimately, for the outside sports fan, it was simply a detailed expose about partying college students and the failures of a struggling basketball program and coach.  Does anyone think this article would have been written if we were a top 10 team?  Was the hoopla really worth the actual content within it?  After all that we've seen the past year starting at OSU, then worse allegations at Miami, then the unbelievably horrific and sordid news out of Penn State, is this really worth the national coverage its been given?  I say, no, no and no.  SI would've been better off putting Jeremy Lin on the cover for a third straight time.

But for Bruin fans, the allegations that came from the article was hard to read.  True, the sort of events documented here are commonplace in just about every major program, but the fact that it happened to John Wooden's program makes it a big deal to us.  UCLA sees itself as above the riff-raff, such as those rule-breaking scum at $c, and strives to do things the Wooden way: noble, principled and honorable.  Ben Howland, the most popular coach in Westwood since Wooden, was venerated as a man of principle, but now will always be stained by the events and his inaction of the last 4 years.  As said in many other places, he lost his way.

After Nelson's dismissal back in December, I began to realize what a cancer he had been.  I also knew that Howland had given him a lot of chances, but no one knew the details.  Howland was supposed to be a committed disciplinarian.  If he's no longer what he purports to be AND also has never been a player's coach in the first place, he can't be an effective coach or recruiter.

Knowing what we know now, the history of the past 4 years of UCLA basketball takes on a different spin altogether.  Our last Final Four run was with Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook back in 2008 but we haven't been close since.

The Darren Collison-led team fell one game short of the Pac-10 title and lost in the 2nd round of the tourney (as a #6 seed to #3 seed Villanova).  That was the year the "fab five" freshmen (Holiday, Anderson, Lee, Gordon, Morgan) came in and essentially began to destroy our program from within.  I have been killling Jrue Holiday for jumping ship after the 2009 season, but its possible that he saw the havoc Drew Gordon was creating and/or the Dragovic situation and didn't like how Howland was handling it.

Dragovic, a player whom I disliked and whose name I vowed never to type again, was also a starter that season.  I am typing his name now because Reeves easily takes over his role as program enemy #1 but also because of Howland's role in this mess - essentially an inconsistency in dealing with Dragovic.  He was clearly more skilled than James Keefe but was lazy on defense, undisciplined on offense and had a propensity for violence in his personal life (twice arrested by cops).  Still, I couldn't understand why he was given the pass by Howland time after time, and didn't seem to be held accountable for his poor decisions, both on the court and off.

Looking back now, this was perhaps the start of a damaging pattern by Howland - overlooking a player's problems because of their perceived production on the court.  Dragovic's 2 year stint at starter overlapped with Gordon and Nelson, and that's no coincidence to me.  It can be argued that perhaps this pattern began the year before with Westbrook and maybe even Love, not that we have any evidence of poor behavior, but it could be that Howland began showing preferential treatment to his stars then.  Remember, before Love, Howland had recruited a roster of underrated, hard-working recruits, such as Afflalo, Collison, Mbah a Moute, etc.  They weren't anointed ones coming into school.  And Howland, being new to the job, was probably equally strict with everyone.

We all knew Drew Gordon was insubordinate and now we know his predilection to party, which is not surprising.  However, when he was kicked off the team early in his sophomore year, we all thought that Howland was simply being the consistent disciplinarian that he was.  Looking back now at the freshmen's antics, including Bobo and Jerime, Howland should have taken a much more heavy-handed role in keeping them in line in 2009.  Perhaps Gordon wouldn't have been so insubordinate to coaching by his 2nd year.  And perhaps had Gordon witnessed Dragovic being dealt with properly, he wouldn't thought to get away with so much.

Freshmen Reeves Nelson benefited from Drew Gordon's removal by starting immediately.  Apparently, his unchecked violent behavior in practices and off the court led to Mike Moser's transfer after the season.  I remember not really understanding why Moser would want to leave after just one year.  We only had one SF on the roster and Moser was a highly recruited player.  Now we know that it was to get away from Nelson.  By the way, Moser is now averaging a double double for UNLV.

Jerime Anderson was supposed to be our starter at PG and Bobo was our hope at C, but their undisciplined ways sabotaged their seasons.  Howland had to go out and recruit a JC PG for the first time in UCLA history.  Bobo was also banished after that season, leaving just Anderson and Lee from the "fab five".  The fact remains that our roster that year was dominated by underclassmen, the two recruiting classes that are responsible for the mess that we are in today.  We finished an embarrassing 14-18 but I chalked it up to the loss of our veteran players and allowed 1 rebuilding season.

Our team played much better and outwardly seemed to be building toward something special.  After returning to the NCAAs however, the program began to fall apart.  Matt Carlino, the Nelson victim this season, was the inexplicable transfer, this time to BYU where he is flourishing.  Honeycutt, who had an eye on the NBA anyway, was supposedly bullied by Nelson as well which made the pros that much more enticing.  Malcolm's defection to the NBA also could not be explained until perhaps now.  A program dominated by an uncontrolled and violent personality is not worth it.  The NBDL at least pays you.

So with 2012 being the year that UCLA was supposed to be contending for a national title with Josh Smith, Nelson, Honeycutt and Malcolm leading the way, we were left with an overweight and undisciplined Smith and a furious Nelson, who was unhappy with the emergence of two capable and highly-recruited PFs in the Wears.

The cynical side of me would say that Howland now has frontcourt options with the Wears and no longer needs to put up with Reeves' antics, which led to his dismissal.  Or perhaps Reeves REALLY started to act up.  Either way, his expulsion was too late and it left our team without the practice time or the talent to compete for even the conference this season.

One could say that Josh Smith is really our only problematic player left.  I think Howland should've suspended him for not making weight.  That's what all other coaches do to get their message across.  Only this offseason will tell whether Smith got the point.

In the end, I think the most important thing people can say about their superior's behavior, isn't how nice or how mean he is.  What's most important is how FAIR they think he is.  Howland's mistakes weren't merely in recruiting or character evaluation, though those errors were clear.  No, his biggest mistake was in the inequitable treatment of players from the stars on down.  His means of effective coaching was never through friendly player relationships, it was always going to be through being tough and instilling discipline on and off the court.  Once he lost the players' respect there by holding them to different standards, he lost control as the primary influence on the team.  The short term gain for not disciplining Nelson (or Gordon or Dragovic) earlier on is clearly not worth the long term consequences, as I'm sure he understands now.  This could stick with Howland's reputation forever.  The stain on UCLA basketball program is already embarrassing enough.

Again, the SI article was only news now since we're about to miss the tournament for the 2nd time in 3 years.  The issues that have plagued us the last 3 years are probably already gone.  I think that now the Wears, Lazeric Jones, Tyler Lamb, Norman Powell, and the rest of the team, even the reformed Jerime Anderson, are a pretty cohesive unit who are coachable.  Josh Smith is in prime position to receive some tough love anyway.  Unless SI scares our recruits away, we seem to be back on track recruiting.  I love Jordan Adams' quote: "the media can write bad stuff about UCLA all they want i still cant wait to go there and turn it AROUND."

This offseason, Howland has a chance to start over and re-establish the kind of program we all loved when he came in.  Hopefully this humbles him enough to also try and build meaningful relationships with players and staff around him (you know, Coach Wooden style).  I hope he reinvents himself as a result of this fallout.

Putting Howland's character flaw aside, I think the lack of on-court success in the last few seasons - no Pac-10 title in 4 years, only 1 tourney appearance in last 3 - and all the recruiting mistakes and personnel mistakes are reasons enough to fire him.  As emotionally connected to those Final Fours as we all are, I still think he should be gone.  This is UCLA.  We need to act like an elite program.  Remember, Lavin was fired the moment he missed a tournament the first time, not that Lavin is in any way Howland's coaching equal.

However, there's little chance Guerrero would pull the trigger now.  Who would we get to replace him anyway?  So Howland will be extended at least another year.  For me, its not enough just to make the tournament.  I want to be a contender.  We should be like Kansas, UNC, Duke and Kentucky, competing in the top 10 with a chance to win it all every year.  We should be in the Final Four every few years and win at least once a decade.  That's where we should be.  But right now, I'm not so sure Howland is the coach that can take us there anymore.

(Can you imagine if Jeremy Lin had accepted Howland's offer to walk-on?  If Reeves is willing to step all over the great grandson of John Wooden, what do you think he would've tried to do to Lin?)


I took the family and a couple other friends to our last UCLA game of this season (since I can't make Sat's senior day).  I was curious just to see what kind of support the program would get after SI and also how the team would respond.  Inexplicably, our game wasn't even on TV (can you imagine a KU or UNC game not being on TV?!?!)!  About 5,000 showed and the energy level felt slightly subdued.  We beat WSU 78-46, which my son enjoyed thoroughly.  Ahh, thats what its all about.  Good bye to the Sports Arena.  I don't think I'll miss you.

Lazeric Jones, whose heart and toughness I will miss, was on fire this game.  He shot 8-10 en route to 18 points.  UCLA also shot well from downtown, going 11-16 (Jones 2-2, Lamb 4-6, Powell 2-3, Wears 2-3).  I liked that we showed a lot of fight.  Hopefully they close it out with a victory over Pac-12 champs, Washington, on Saturday.  Since we're hoping, here's hoping we reel off 6 straight and make the Sweet 16.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

US' 1st Ever Victory over Italy

It was a historic night in Genoa as the US beat the most storied European soccer power in history, for the first time in history, on Italian soil no less.  Italy is currently ranked #8 in the world and may be flying under the radar for the upcoming European Cup in June, but we're outside the top 30 and our first team's record under Klinsmann was only 2 wins, 4 losses and 1 draw.  (The B team's January camp wins don't count in my book.)  Though the first team had just beat Slovenia in their home stadium, nobody could have predicted that the US would pull off a second consecutive win on European soil, especially since we went away from the effective 2 striker lineup that worked against Slovenia.  Italy, on the other hand, had not even given up a goal in home qualifiers for the Euro Cup.

We finally beat Italy on our 11th try, a win-less streak stretching all the way back to 1934 in that World Cup.  Our record against them was 7 losses and only 3 draws, however the most memorable match was the 1-1 draw in the 2006 World Cup.  It will go down as perhaps my favorite sporting event I've ever attended.  (We were the only team in the tournament that they faced to not go down in defeat.  In fact, we eventually were forced to play with only 9 men and withstood an onslaught the entire 2nd half to secure the draw.  US fans were situated all together in the corner of one of those stadiums where the seats seem to go straight up, therefore enabling the raucous and energetic US fans to generate a wall of sound the entire match.  US players obviously were spurred on by the support and worked their behinds off, as US players should always be known for, to create the memorable result.)

But I digress.  Clearly Italy is not as good and perhaps we are better now, but the US came out unafraid and confident on the ball.  Though the on-field maestro, Andrea Pirlo, was far and away the most dominant force on the field, our backline was absolutely on top of the offsides trap, frustrating Italy to the tune of 9 offside calls.  It was a dangerous game to play, as we all thought that eventually one would slip through, but Howard recovered from a shaky start and became the sure-handed keeper that he needed to be on this night.

Michael Bradley was perhaps our best player from start to finish and was clearly very comfortable playing on that field vs the Italians.  No doubt its because he's been a solid starter in the Serie A this season and just played a match on that very field just two weeks ago.  How Klinsmann can ever start Beckerman over Bradley again is beyond me.  Also, all those who continue beat the nepotism horse now have zero ground to stand on.  The only question is which other defensive mid should play next to him when all options are healthy: Edu?  Jermaine Jones?  Beckerman?  Stuart Holden?  Danny Williams?  Does Klinsmann even intend to play with 2 D-mids?  Remember, against Slovenia, we deployed 1 D-mid and 2 forwards, and scored 3 goals.  Up to that point, we had scored 2 goals in 6 games.

Fabian Johnson again was a revelation for the 2nd straight game (and his 2nd cap), this time starting for the injured Chandler at LB.  We US fans are desperate enough to immediately crown Fabian as the future LB once Cherundolo retires and Chandler moves over to RB.  With Onyewu, Chandler and Fabian now slotted into the WC 2014 defense, all we need is one of: Goodson, Cameron, John, Whitbread, Ream or even, gulp, Bocanegra to come through and take hold of the other CB.  Klinsmann's job is done!

At the very least, Fabian is Klinsmann's most valuable find (Chandler and Shea were capped by Bradley) and should be an auto-call-up for every first team match.  We don't have many other attacking wings besides Shea and Donovan.  Danny Williams, deployed again on the other wing, was again a non-factor going forward.  Clearly this is not his preferred position, since he plays D-mid at his club, and there's no way he starts if Landon doesn't come down with bronchitis.  With the aforementioned logjam at D-mid, where should Danny play?  Where should Jose Francisco Torres play?  Would he be Dempsey's backup at the #10?  What about Stuart Holden?

We've gone 6 paragraphs without talking about the most important moment of the night.  Dempsey's 25th goal started with Bradley's Pirlo-like lofted pass to an advancing Fabian, whose beautiful one-touch pullback also gave him space to cross it into Jozy, who was able to softly collect it with his back to goal, hold it and place it for Dempsey to one-time it across Buffon's body into goal.  Clint is now in sole possession of 3rd place in the all-time US Soccer scoring list, trailing only McBride (30), Wynalda (34) and Donovan (46).  Chances are he'll end up being #2 at the end of his international career.  And last night, against perhaps the toughest opponent in all of soccer to score on historically, it had to be Dempsey, whose achievements consistently confound all odds.

As it stands, we currently have the two best US field players in history on the squad right now.  Its just a matter of getting them on the field at the same time, seeing that this hasn't happened in the Klinsmann era.  Up until Landon's recent Everton stint, I was again thinking that he should play as the central #10, but its clear now that Dempsey belongs there and Landon functions best on the right wing.  Perfect.

This was an enormous victory for Klinsmann.  Obviously, he hasn't found great success since his hyped hiring last summer, but now he has the signature win to hang his hat on.  Hopefully one step at a time, he will continue to lead the team to heights not yet seen before.

Thinking back to the 2006 battle vs Italy, there were 3 heroic players that day that finally guided the US to this satisfying victory - Bocanegra, Cherundolo and Dempsey.  (Donovan and Onyewu also played that day while Howard was on the bench.)  But the most significant US player to me, who gutted out that WC draw with a cut eye from that dirty elbow from de Rossi, was also in the stadium yesterday.  Brian McBride, watching from the stands, undoubtedly served as an inspiration to Dempsey and the next generation of US players last night.  And they will continue to break barriers by standing on the shoulders of McBride and those who came before.

(The US debuted the 2012-2014 away jerseys last night as well.  To be honest, from a distance it looks like a white polo with a blue vest over it.  I just haven't taken to the white-armed look.  But apparently, the sash is here to stay, at least until the new ones are unveiled before WC 2014.  No word on when the new home jersey will come out, however the rumor is that it will be red hoops (no sash) on a white top.  Hmm.)