Pac-12 Game of the Week: UCLA at Stanford

Posted by AMurawa on December 29th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, there was no way we would have picked this game to be the most interesting game of the first week of Pac-12 play. While Stanford has been a pleasant surprise through their non-conference schedule, UCLA was on the very short list of the least enjoyable teams in the conference to watch. However, the Bruins have quietly strung together five straight wins albeit against abominable competition and the Cardinal, coming off a tough home loss to Butler, have to prove that they are capable of contending for the regular season title. In short, while both of these teams have plenty of doubters, and rightfully so, each has a chance to earn a modicum of respect by taking care of business on opening weekend.

Stanford’s loss to Butler last week could be explained away in a variety of ways: it was their first game against significant competition in two and a half weeks; the home crowd was absent most of the students and provided little boost to a sleepwalking team; the Bulldogs got plenty of fortunate bounces; and really, it’s a loss to a fast-improving team that has been the national runner-up the past two seasons. Regardless of the excuses, it serves as a reminder that the Cardinal have largely built their status as one of the conference favorites on a loss – a hard-fought six-point defeat against Syracuse in the NIT Season Tip-Off championship game. They have a win over North Carolina State (in which they had to fight back from a 12-point second half deficit) and a win over Oklahoma State, but neither of those teams look like future recipients of an NCAA Tournament invite. So, there is little so far in the positive results category to indicate that this Stanford vintage is significantly better than last year’s 15-16 team that won seven conference games.

Josh Owens, Stanford

Josh Owens Has Been Stanford's Emotional Leader & Go-To Scorer (Credit: Zach Sanderson)

However, if you dig deeper into the metrics, you see a Cardinal team that is winning games because of excellent defense (only twice this season – in the loss to Butler and the uneven win over NC State – have they allowed more than a point per possession), while doing almost all the things that you want to see an efficient offensive team do (they shoot it well, they hit the offensive glass and they get to the free throw line). Only their turnovers on nearly 22% of their offensive possessions present cause for alarm, and that should be a number that sinks as their primary ballhandlers (sophomore Aaron Bright and freshman Chasson Randle) get more comfortable. And if you trust only the eye test, you see a team that appears to run a lot more smoothly than they did last year, when deep into the season the Cardinal appeared to be out of sync on both ends of the court. Bright has taken over as an extension of head coach Johnny Dawkins on the floor, senior center Josh Owens is the team’s emotional leader and go-to scorer, Randle is a steadily improving freshman, and there are a handful of other nice pieces elsewhere on this roster (Anthony Brown, Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell) ready to make positive contributions on both ends. This is an improved Stanford team, but they’ve still got to prove it and they’ll have plenty of chances, starting tonight.

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Pac-12 Morning Five: Conference Tip-Off Edition

Posted by AMurawa on December 29th, 2011

  1. Picking up where we left off yesterday, we’re continuing to look ahead to tonight and the start of conference play (completely ignoring Colorado’s 92-34 demolition of New Orleans last night). We’ve got CBS’ Matt Norlander picking California and Stanford as the teams to beat (and give him credit for not putting the entire league under his “Still Unproven” category), while Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News also throws his support behind Mike Montgomery’s team. After browsing through all the Pac-12 picks coming from elsewhere and devising our own (which you’ll see later today), it is clear Cal, despite all its flaws, is the clear favorite in the conference.
  2. It’s the first year of unbalanced scheduling in the conference, as the beautiful home-and-away round robin of years’ past is no longer. And, taking into account that California is the favorite in the conference while Stanford and Oregon State are popular choices to challenge for the title, Arizona seems to be sitting in the (wild) catbird seat with regard to scheduling, skipping a trip to the Oregon schools while missing a visit from the Bay Area schools. The Washington schools also seem to be a little fortunate, as they get to skip the trip to the Bay Area, but miss out on a second chance at Utah and Colorado at home.
  3. USC has struggled to a 5-8 start to the season, they’ve got the 248th ranked offense in Division I (according to Ken Pomeroy) and their top five players have played 73.8% of their total minutes. But not to worry, Trojan fans, your intrepid head coach has a plan: try harder! Brilliant! Rather than install any type of coherent offense, Kevin O’Neill says “let’s just do a few more wind sprints.” Certainly USC’s got some incredibly raw parts offensively, but if I were to make a list of the Trojans top five problems in their first 13 games of the season, I’m quite sure effort would not be among them. For instance, tonight when USC travels to California to face the Human Floor Burn, Jorge Gutierrez, it’s a good bet that even he won’t outwork USC. Expect the conference opener between these two teams to be low-scoring, ugly and, well, won by the Golden Bears.
  4. Looking around the rest of the conference, let’s get a quick injury update in advance of opening night. Oregon senior forward Tyrone Nared is not quite ready to return to play after tearing an MCL a little more than two weeks ago, leaving the Ducks with just nine scholarship players for their trip to the Washington schools this weekend. Aziz N’Diaye is back for Washington, having played in their last game against Cal State Northridge, but his return to the starting lineup remains questionable. Richard Solomon still has not practiced for Cal following a stress fracture in his foot two weeks ago, and as a result, is unlikely tonight.  And UCLA’s Lazeric Jones and Norman Powell are expected to play tonight at Stanford after each sprained their ankles during Monday’s practice. Both have been able to practice the last two days and should be good to go.
  5. When Oregon State kicks off conference play tonight with a trip to Washington, they will do so with the most optimism surrounding their program since the days of Gary Payton a couple of decades ago. Their 10-2 record in non-conference play is their best start to a season since 1989-90, Payton’s senior season, and what’s more, this team is fun to watch: They lead the conference in scoring, assists, steals and shooting. The Beavers have never led the conference in scoring (with statistics going back more than 50 years), but with some highly efficient offensive play and a defensive game plan built around forcing turnovers through pressure, this could be their year to do so.
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Pac-12 Morning Five: 12.28.11 Edition

Posted by AMurawa on December 28th, 2011

  1. Looking ahead to conference play, we’re getting picks from up and down the conference as to who is now the favorite in the Pac-12. Connor and I have our own ideas which we’ll share with you tomorrow, but for today, have a look at what Bud Withers of The Seattle Times and Bob Clark of The Register-Guard think. Both guys pick California as the favorite, and somewhat surprisingly, both guys pick UCLA to finish in the top half of the conference, with Clark being bold enough to pick them second. Also noteworthy is that both writers place Arizona, California, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington in the top six in some order. Where it looked like we had a top tier of four teams (Arizona, Cal, UCLA and Washington) prior to the season, we now seem to have six teams in that top tier, with none of the lot looking like serious contenders to make a push in the NCAA Tournament.
  2. Colorado may be a lower division pick in both of the above projections, but they are something of a sleeper in the conference. With Andre Roberson, Carlon Brown and Spencer Dinwiddie at least in the discussion for all-conference performers, there is no lack of talent on this team, and with six players in their rotation either freshmen or sophomores, there is plenty of upside. And head coach Tad Boyle sees one obvious thing that the Buffaloes need to do in order to improve during conference season: play hard for 40 minutes. The young Buffs have been capable of putting together strong halves, but have yet to really put it all together for a full game.
  3. For UCLA to have any chance of competing for a Pac-12 title (and color me, for one, unconvinced that they can), they’ll need to have a full complement of players, especially in a shorthanded backcourt. The fact that both senior guard Lazeric Jones and freshman guard Norman Powell suffered sprained ankles on Monday is cause for serious concern. Both players are questionable for UCLA’s conference-opening visit to Stanford on Thursday night, and if both are somehow unable to go, the Bruins would have Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb and Kenny Jones (14 total minutes in four seasons in Westwood) as their only scholarship guards available.
  4. The UCLA game at Stanford will be a huge test for both teams, and it is our RTC Pac-12 Game of the Week, which we will preview in depth tomorrow. However, Oregon State’s visit to Washington on Thursday night may be equally important to figuring out this Pac-12 landscape. Oregon State has a 10-2 record, tied for best in the conference with the Cardinal, while Washington has limped to a 6-5 record minus any type of quality non-conference wins. And yet it is OSU that has the most to prove in this game, going on the road against arguably the most talented roster in the conference. However, head coach Craig Robinson sees his Beavers as a confident bunch, ready to take a figurative swing at anybody in the conference. It should be an exciting game between the two most up-tempo teams in the league, with each team averaging over 70 possessions per game.
  5. Lastly, Washington and head coach Lorenzo Romar have been very quiet on the recruiting front for the 2012 class with nobody signed for next year yet. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not active elsewhere, as they’ve already offered to at least three players in the 2014 class, with Justin Jackson, a possible top 10 recruit in his class, the latest to receive an offer from the Huskies. Jackson is a 6’6” wing from Houston who has earned interest from elite programs across the country, ranging from Texas, Texas A&M and Baylor in his home state, to Ohio State and now Washington, with other elite schools still in the mix. The other two players Romar has offered in 2014 are Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who has the interest of schools like UCLA, USC and Arizona State as well, and Josh Martin.
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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week Seven

Posted by AMurawa on December 27th, 2011

So, that’s it for non-conference play. While there are still a few non-conference yawners ahead in the schedule, for the most part this merry band of mediocre ballers get to beat up on each other for the next two-plus months. Given that since the last time we did this, Pac-12 teams combined to go just 9-5 against fairly mediocre competition, at least this will provide some of the top tier teams out west to string together a few wins. Hopefully, at least.

Team of the Week

UCLA – The Bruins won two games this week, and scored what was arguably the best win with an eight-point victory over a mediocre Richmond team. UCLA has now strung together five straight Ws (albeit over five straight teams who won’t help their resume much come March) since the dismissal of Reeves Nelson, and seem to be a team that is benefiting greatly from improved chemistry. Furthermore, their senior guard combination of Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson have picked up not only their production but the leadership roles that they need to claim, and have guided the UCLA ship into some clear waters prior to the rough stuff coming up from here on out. Jones has scored in double figures in seven straight games (shooting 50% eFG or better in all of them) and averaged four assists, while Anderson has been less prolific but just as steady and impactful. Meanwhile, guys like the Wear Twins and Joshua Smith have been effective up front, and youngsters Norman Powell and Tyler Lamb are displaying some of their ability, although perhaps not as consistently as Ben Howland would like. Nevertheless, the Bruins are at least headed in the right direction.

Lazeric Jones

Lazeric Jones' Efficient Offense, Senior Leadership And Consistent Effort Have Helped UCLA String Together Five Straighht Wins (photo credit: Jamie Squire, Getty Images North America)

Player and Newcomer of the Week

Justin Cobbs, Soph, California – A transfer from Minnesota, Cobbs has stepped up big time in the past week. First on Monday as a depleted Bear team hosted a tough UC Santa Barbara team, Cobbs not only scored a career-high 25 points in the absence of senior leader Jorge Gutierrez, but he also took on a huge role in limiting Orlando Johnson to a season-low nine points on 4-of-13 shooting. Cobbs hit 10 of his 12 shots from the field, including all three of his threes, and was a focal point for the Bear offense. RTC correspondent Mike Lemaire was at the game and came away quite impressed with Cobbs’ performance. On Friday night, the Bears were less successful, getting blown out by UNLV in Vegas, but it wasn’t for lack of effort from Cobbs, who again led the team in scoring with 20. If he can continue to give Mike Montgomery an additional backcourt threat, the Golden Bears can challenge for a Pac-12 title in a down season, but they’ve got plenty of work still to do.

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Pac-12 Morning Five: 12.15.11 Edition

Posted by AMurawa on December 15th, 2011

  1. With UCLA’s 60-47 win over Eastern Washington on Wednesday night, the Bruins moved to within one game of .500 on its disappointing season. UCLA played mostly man-to-man defense after having used quite a bit of zone in their previous win, and was successful in limiting EWU to 30.2% eFG, but their ineffectiveness on the glass is just the newest of concerns for an underachieving team; UCLA allowed EWU to grab 41% of their offensive rebound opportunities while taking 80% of the defensive rebounds. Nevertheless, senior point guard Lazeric Jones continued his strong run, leading the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and threes.
  2. UCLA played without sophomore forward Travis Wear, who spent the evening in the hospital with a skin infection, possibly related to a the cut he sustained on his left foot while snorkeling in Hawaii following the Maui Invitational. Wear was given antibiotics and apparently responded well to them, meaning he is likely to be released from the hospital on Thursday. With UC Irvine next up for the Bruins on Saturday, Wear is in no rush to come back, but the team is quite a bit thinner up front than had been expected, as reserves Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane each got 18 minutes on Wednesday night.
  3. Sticking with the Bruins for a bit longer, Jordan Adams, one of UCLA’s two current signees for next year, believes that the #1 recruit in the nation, Shabazz Muhammad, will be headed to Westwood next year. He also thinks Tony Parker, the #31 ranked recruit according to ESPNU, is headed to the City of Angels as well, giving the Bruins what would likely be one of the top three recruiting classes in the nation. Adams is so sure, he’s already even volunteering for sixth man duties. UCLA may be down in the dumps right now, but that foursome would provide a big boost for a team in a temporary lull.
  4. California is set to beef up its non-conference schedule in the next couple of years with a home-and-home series with Wisconsin. The Bears will travel to Madison next season before hosting the Badgers in 2013-14. Dates are not yet set, but looking ahead to next year, Cal will be without  Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp, while Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor will have moved onto greener pastures, but matchups like Traevon Jackson vs. Justin Cobbs, not to mention Bo Ryan vs. Mike Montgomery, will be sure to make that matchup one to keep an eye on.
  5. Finally, two nights ago, Oregon State freshman Eric Moreland pulled down 14 rebounds in just 19 minutes against Illinois-Chicago, making it his third game in his young career with double-figure rebounds. Playing limited minutes, Moreland is grabbing 30% of the opposing team’s missed shots, and almost 16% of his own team’s missed shots, numbers that would be among the best in the nation if he played enough minutes to qualify. Moreland, who transferred from UTEP prior to last season before sitting out a year with a shoulder injury, is still getting used to his 6’10” frame (and 7’4” wingspan) after growing five inches between his junior and senior years of high school, but if this is him prior to being comfortable in his own skin, just wait until he embraces his NBA-ready body.
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Pac-12 SYT: 12.13 & 12.14

Posted by Connor Pelton on December 13th, 2011

See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.

It’s “avoid any more bad losses on your tournament résumé” week in the Pac-12. Tonight we get Oregon State against Illinois-Chicago in Corvallis, and on Wednesday Eastern Washington will travel to UCLA. Here’s a quick look at both games.

Illinois-Chicago @ Oregon State – Tuesday, 7:00 PM PST on ROOT Sports NW (*)

Junior guard Daniel Barnes is the Flames' second leading scorer with 9.8 PPG. (credit: Michigan Exposures)

  • This one should be simple; Oregon State is talented and UIC is terrible, right? It’s true, but these are excactly the types of games the Beavers lose year in and year out. In fact, UIC beat Oregon State two years ago in Chicago, and that Flames team was worse than they are now. UIC will need to shoot the three well to stay in this one, so look for Daniel Barnes and Gary Talton as the main targets of a tenacious Oregon State defense. They could both go for 25 in this one and the Beavers should still win this one, that’s how bad the pieces around Barnes and Talton are. If they are to steal the win, they will need to hit these shots so they can set up some sort of zone against the Beaver offense. Expect them to follow Idaho’s game plan and deploy a 1-2-2 zone at times, especially if the Beavers aren’t shooting well. If the small UIC players can manage to rebound with four players in the paint, this will severely limit the OSU offensive possesions and keep the Flames close.
  • This one should be close for the first ten minutes or so, but after that I see Oregon State running away, literally. The Beavers are just too fast, strong, and talented for the Flames, and they should be able to win by just reaching 60 points. I think the Beavs hit 80 and roll for a 83-62 win.

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A New Beginning For UCLA

Posted by AMurawa on December 12th, 2011

The theme for UCLA’s game Saturday evening against Penn was a new beginning. Not only were the Bruins playing their first game without junior forward Reeves Nelson, who was dismissed by head coach Ben Howland on Friday following a couple of suspensions for behavioral reasons, but the squad shifted to zone defense for much of the game for the first time this season. While the 77-73 victory was by no means a crisp performance, it was a sign of things to come and a chance for the struggling Bruins to experience some positivity.

Ben Howland, UCLA

Ben Howland: "A Lot Has Happened This Week And We're Getting To Where We're Figuring Stuff Out." (Credit: Blaine Ohigashi)

UCLA went to a 2-3 zone for the first time about midway through the first half while trailing by one, and spent every half-court possession for the next six minutes in that defense. Howland is primarily known as a man-to-man coach, but he confirmed that you’ll be seeing plenty of zone out of UCLA the rest of the way. “Zone is not preferred, but it is what is fitting for our team now,” he said. “It is something that you’ll be seeing when we’re changing things up. We need to use it and it will be helpful for us, especially as we get better at it.” At times the zone gave Penn trouble, as on the first possession where the Quakers were unable to find a good shot and had to settle for a fallaway three-point attempt by senior Tyler Bernardini as the shot clock expired; and true to another theme of the day, the shot dropped. Bernardini torched the Bruins throughout the day, regardless of the defense employed, hitting eight of his 12 shots on his way to a career-high 29 points. At times the defenders on the perimeter of the UCLA zone failed to close out on the three-point shot, not even putting a hand in a face, something that will surely be pointed out in practice this week. UCLA has already displayed terrible perimeter defense this year, and even after Penn shot 38.7% from three against them, they are still allowing their opponents to shoot 48.7% from three-point range on the season.

However, regardless of some of the sloppiness of the zone, it did provide a few tangible benefits to the Bruins. First, it kept the Quakers from getting good looks inside the three-point line (more than 50% of Penn’s shots were from three), an area where UCLA has struggled all year. Secondly, it helped protect a couple of Bruin big men who picked up a couple of early fouls; Joshua Smith and David Wear both had two fouls in the first eight minutes. Also, the zone gave Smith a bit of a reprieve from his own poor conditioning, allowing him to preserve some of his energy rather than having to chase his opponents out to the perimeter, leaving him enough energy in the second half to score on three straight possessions as well as kick one pass back out for what turned into a wide-open three-pointer.

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No Shocker: Reeves Nelson Dismissed By UCLA

Posted by AMurawa on December 9th, 2011

Just a month ago, Reeves Nelson was on just about everybody’s preseason All-Pac-12 team. As of today, according to a CBS Sports report, he’s no longer on the UCLA basketball team. “After much thought and deliberation, I have made the decision to dismiss Reeves Nelson from the UCLA men’s basketball team effective immediately,” said head coach Ben Howland in a statement released Friday morning after the coach met with Nelson following his final exams.

Reeves Nelson, UCLA

Reeves Nelson's Career In Westwood Was Officially Ended Friday With His Dismissal From The UCLA Basketball Program (credit: Stephen Dunn, Getty Images)

The fall from grace was swift and unexpected, but there were warning signs prior to this season. In previous years he had been known to openly yell at teammates for mistakes on the court, he famously threw a ball at Brendan Lane’s chest in disgust and just generally showed a lot of emotional immaturity. Even in high school he was repeatedly suspended for behavioral issues. This season things got worse, and fast. In the Bruins’ season-opening loss to Loyola Marymount, Nelson grew visibly frustrated as the game went on, and he failed to participate in a couple of huddles, earning his first “indefinite” suspension of the year. After sitting out the Bruins’ next game (another loss, this one to Middle Tennessee State), he was reinstated in time for the trip to the Maui Invitational, then he showed up late for the team flight. Howland somehow allowed Nelson to catch a later flight, and then benched him for a half in the tournament opener against Chaminade. Last weekend, Nelson blew a defensive assignment just before the end of the first half in a loss to Texas, got into a verbal altercation with Howland in the locker room, was benched for the second half there (during which he drew criticism for his behavior on the bench) and then subsequently suspended indefinitely again. Then today, the divorce became official.

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UCLA’s Bruin Road Show: An Early Assessment

Posted by rtmsf on December 5th, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences. He filed this column after Texas’ win over UCLA Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles.

Things have been tough enough for the UCLA basketball team this season, without having its home court conspire against it. But, that’s exactly what happened Saturday afternoon as the Bruins hosted Texas at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, one of the temporary homes for UCLA this year as venerable old Pauley Pavilion undergoes much-needed renovations. Just after the under-four minute media timeout, as Longhorn forward Alexis Wangmene headed to the free throw line to shoot the front-end of a one-and-one, the entire arena was plunged into relative darkness due to an area-wide power surge. At that time, the Bruins were up 30-19 and had turned in its best 16-minute stretch of the season. Guards Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson had knocked down some threes. The Wear twins had been hitting the glass and scoring inside. And perhaps most importantly, the Bruins had been diving after loose balls, scrapping for every rebound, and defending like crazy, keeping the quicker Texas guards out of the lane – just generally outworking them to that point.

The LA Sports Arena Serves as UCLA's Home Venue This Season

Over the next 13-plus minutes, as the lights slowly reset to full-power, Texas had a chance in their huddle to start over. “We had a chance to regroup,” said the Longhorns’ freshman point guard Myck Kabongo. “Thank god for those lights. It was a turning point.” Despite, as one fan yelled out just as play resumed, “the greatest icing ever,” Wangmene hit both his free throws and the Longhorns played the final four minutes of the half with a new zeal. Kabongo in particular was like a different player, easily getting penetration against UCLA guards and finding open teammates, notching his first three assists of the day on Texas’ last four possessions of the half. By the intermission, UT has posted a quick 9-4 mini-run and cut the Bruin lead, which had been double-digits most of the first half, to just six. From there, the second half was a mere formality. Texas posted a 75% effective field goal percentage in the second half, the talented but confounding UCLA frontcourt duo of Joshua Smith and Reeves Nelson combined to play just four minutes, and Texas outscored UCLA 50-29 after the power outage.

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Is Ben Howland’s Job in Jeopardy?

Posted by AMurawa on November 18th, 2011

The UCLA basketball program is 0-2 for the first time since Steve Lavin’s final disastrous year in Westwood. An 0-2 record isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but the Bruins haven’t exactly come by their record in the same way that Belmont did (with losses to college hoops powers Duke and Memphis). The Bruins have lost their opening two games to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State – and not in particularly compelling fashion either. Along the way, last year’s leading scorer and Sports Illustrated cover boy Reeves Nelson was suspended for behavioral problems, sophomore center Joshua Smith tweeted out an immature response following the LMU loss and senior point guard Jerime Anderson served the last half of his very light punishment for stealing a laptop over the summer with a suspension against LMU before coming back to underwhelm against MTSU. In short, the UCLA basketball program is a hot mess right now, a dumpster fire, a train wreck. Worse yet, it is all of those things for the second time in three years.

All of which begs the question, does head coach Ben Howland have reason to fear for his job? It’s not all that long ago that such a question would have been absurd. Remember, Howland had his Bruins in the Final Four three straight times between 2006 and 2008. Between the 2005-06 season and the 2008-09 season, he posted an astounding 123-26 (82.6%) record, with a 65-16 (80.2%) record in the Pac-10, including conference tournament games. Furthermore, Howland was absolutely killing it on the recruiting trail.

Ben Howland, UCLA

Ben Howland Has Had Some Great Successes At UCLA, But His Program Is Currently Struggling

After a two-man 2007 recruiting class ranked #10 in the nation by ESPNU, largely on the strength of Kevin Love, the #1 recruit in the nation (the class also included current UNLV senior Chace Stanback), Howland had then inked the #1 class in the nation for 2008, highlighted by point guard Jrue Holiday, with guys like Drew Gordon, J’Mison Morgan, Malcolm Lee and Anderson expected to make major impacts during their time in Westwood. The following year Howland added another five players (Tyler Honeycutt, Mike Moser, Brendan Lane, Nelson and Anthony Stover) for the #13 class in the nation. Of those 12 players in those three classes, six played either one season at UCLA or left the program prior to completing a second season. Four of them transferred out to other Division I schools with varying degress of success at their new destinations. The 2008 class goes down in history as a strong contender for the most disappointing recruiting class ever, with only Lee and Anderson making significant extended contributions to the program, and even those two players considered as serious underachievers compared to their incoming reputations.

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