UCLA Week: Evaluating the Recent PastPosted by AMurawa on August 13th, 2012
There are no two ways around it, so we might as well get right to the punch: The past three seasons at UCLA, even with an NCAA Tournament appearance and win in 2010-11, is in the conversation for the worst stretch of three consecutive seasons in the history of the storied program. Aside from the transition at the end of the Steve Lavin era to the beginning of the Ben Howland era, you have to go back to Wilbur Johns in the World War II era for a string of three such poor seasons in Westwood. All that is bad enough, but if you consider where this program was at the end of the 2007-08 season, coming off three consecutive Final Fours and welcoming in the nation’s #1 recruiting class, such a precipitous fall was highly unlikely.
So how did Howland and the Bruins go from being on the verge of ushering another great era of UCLA basketball to missing the NCAA Tournament in two out of three seasons? Much of it has to do with underachievement from that 2008 recruiting class. In the 2008-09 season, after future pros like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute departed early (a certain byproduct of the type of success the Bruins were having), the Bruins rode gutsy performances by veterans like Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya to a solid 26-9 overall record, but failed to win the Pac-10 for the first time in three years and were bounced from the NCAA Tournament in resounding fashion by a Villanova team that outhustled and outfought the Bruins. More ominous for UCLA was the fact that none of the highly-regarded freshman class made much of an impact that season. And despite point guard Jrue Holiday’s struggles as a frosh, he couldn’t get out of Westwood fast enough, declaring for the NBA Draft while averaging just eight points and four assists in his lone season.
The following year the wheels came off early and often. There was the embarrassing opening night loss to Cal State Fullerton just prior to ESPN’s 24-Hour Hoops Marathon that was the first sign of trouble. A week later there was their oh-fer at the 76 Classic, including a blowout loss to Portland that found UCLA down by as many as 30 points. Following that weekend, the second-most coveted member of the 2008 Bruin recruiting class decided to cut bait as Drew Gordon quit the team before transferring to New Mexico. The rest of the year was a mishmash of Nikola Dragovic, Michael Roll and Adam Keefe “highlights” that eventually gave way to Reeves Nelson claiming the mantle of fan favorite. Along the way, the Bruins racked up a 14-18 record, their second-worst single season record since 1945-46.
But the 2010-11 season brought back some small glimmer of hope. Malcolm Lee became the first player from that 2008 recruiting class to average double-figure scoring over a full season, the combination of sophomores Tyler Honeycutt and Nelson gave the Bruins two talented forwards, and freshman big man Josh Smith looked like a star in the making. However, despite taking second place in the Pac-10 and knocking off Michigan State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, it was another underachieving year for the Bruins, and a closer look revealed more reasons for concern. Despite Nelson’s fairly productive play, he regularly displayed his immaturity on court in the form of yelling at teammates, refs or even coaches when the mood struck. And, with the early departures of both Honeycutt and Lee following the season, a team that looked like a threat to make a deep run in the 2011-12 season was somewhat hamstrung on the perimeter.
Still, going into last season the Bruins were considered one of four teams with a serious shot at the Pac-12 title. That illusion didn’t last long, however, as they opened the season with a couple of losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee and saw Sports Illustrated cover boy Nelson get suspended in the middle of those two games. After Nelson missed a flight to Hawaii for the stacked Maui Invitational, the Bruins lost two of their three games on the island, knocking off only Chaminade in their worst vacation ever. While Nelson’s antics (which eventually led to his dismissal) were earning most of the blame, their sophomore center Smith was weighing in somewhere far north of 300 pounds and was struggling to get up and down the court at all. Things tightened up somewhat for the Bruins as the year went on, but an 11-7 conference record in one of the worst instances of the Pac was hardly something to be proud of.
But, the most recent events in the UCLA program seem to signal an impending change of fortune. For the first time since that fateful 2008 recruiting class, Howland signed the best class in the land this offseason (at least according to ESPN). Two top-10 national recruits (Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson) are joined by a couple more top-100 recruits (Tony Parker and Jordan Adams) and expectations are that the Bruins will be in serious contention for the conference title and a contender for a deep run come March. Given the uproar among UCLA fans over the squad’s recent failures and the likelihood that Muhammad and Anderson’s stays in Westwood will be brief, Howland would do well to strike while the iron is hot next season and get back to the level of success that the UCLA program is used to.