Commentary: Here We Go Again

Steve Lavin is again on the hottest of hot seats, which might set the stage for another season and career-saving upset win at Maples on Saturday. The dung is deep once again in Westwood, but Stanford has its own troubles this year and might be every bit as hungry for this must win. Like two caged animals released with a single flank of beef in sight, Saturday could be a fierce battle...

Take a deep breath - here we go again.

UCLA is back on their heels, and incredibly are facing the reality that they might actually get to the ignominious "bubble" status if they lose Stanford and come up short against a fantastic Oregon team next week. Think about that: UCLA brought into this season their most talented team since the O'Bannon years, and racked up early wins against Kansas and Alabama. They were rolling (finally?) toward the Final Four favorite status the Bruin Nation feels is their birthright. The only tourney-talk was about #1 seeding. But a couple of chinks in the armor showed early, with a home loss to Pepperdine and 18-point loss to Ball State. That loss to Pepperdine was the first ever in the series at Pauley. A one-point win/scare at home to the Anteaters of UC-Irvine was pretty frightful, as well. Then they completely collapsed against Arizona, after leading by twenty points some seven minutes into the second-half. A thirty-point swing in the final 13 1/2 minutes of the game was unsettling in Westwood, to say the least. The next killer blow came when Oregon b***h-slapped the Ruins by 29 in Eugene. This was a second very public confirmation that UCLA just flat-out quit on the court. Quotes and newspaper reports would then enunciate this problem all too clearly in the coming weeks, as players admitted that they quit and don't play hard on the court many times. Now the team led by the Boy Blunder has dropped three of four, with losses to a middling Villanova in truly ugly fashion (shades of Thursday night vs $C)... a home loss to ASU... and a blow-out loss at kal, including yet another black mark on the program when Matt Barnes threw a vicious elbow to knock out Shantay "Webster" Legans.

This is the same Matt Barnes who missed a semester of eligibility two seasons ago for an academic suspension, and whose sub-1.0 GPA drew tremendous academic heat on the entire UCLA Athletic Department, particularly on Steve Lavin. As we await the decision from Tom Hansen in the Pac-10 office, UCLA holds its breath. Not only is Matt the only (moderately) consistent aggressor for their offense, he's also one of the very rare big men that can play on the roster. More on that later...

For a head coach well known for using Mickey Mouse stationary (seriously), this has been another chapter in his appropriately Mickey Mouse tenure in the House that Wooden Built. Last year's chapter included losses to Cal-State Northridge, a loss to Georgia Tech at home as ugly as this year's Nova game, and borderline sodomy at the hands of Arizona and kal. Oh, on top of the team's publicized academic troubles, Stevie got in hot water with recruiting miscues. The two most infamous of which involved an illegal visit from the famous Pumps during an AAU tournament, and Kevin "Klutz" Malone's cell phone berating of Jamaal Sampson's answering machine for not coming to El Lay... with the Greased One sitting in the seat next to him. The white gas for this fire came when Athletic Deconstructor Petey Dalis aired a public inquiry into Rick Pitino for an occupied UCLA head coaching position. And in case your memory is too crowded with recent fiascos, the disasters of two years ago included the worst home non-conference loss in Pauley history, the lowest point total for UCLA in Pauley history, a loss to Colorado State in the Pearl Harbor "Cush" Classic (where UCLA also finished behind Sannizay State), an overtime near-loss to South Florida, a referee-tainted one-point win against Pepperdine, a pasting by then-mediocre U$C...

Exhale. You almost get dizzy when you look down the list. To top it off, the Lavin Ray-Zheem has lost five straight at home to Stanford, lost to Pac-10 foster child Washington for four straight years (ended mercifully this season), lost to kal four straight years, and finished outside the top 2 in the final Pac-10 standings for what looks to be a fifth straight year.

The clear bail-out moment in each of the last two years has been an upset win over a #1-ranked Stanford squad at Maples. Both games have been veritable springboards for Lavin's and UCLA's fortunes. Travesty has been turned to triumph, like water to wine, in miraculous fashion. After last year's upset win, the Bru-Crew continued on an eight-game winning streak, and finished their season in a loss in the Sweet Sixteen to National Champion Duke. The year prior, Stanford's win was also an inflection point to key an eight-game winning streak, and again a Sweet Sixteen appearance.

Well guess what? The tables are even this go-around. Stanford's pissed as all hell, too, and have every bit as much pent-up frustration and emotion to go medieval as the Powder (Puff) Blue Crew. Stanford just might have been on cruise control the past two years; maybe not. The loss two years ago sure as heck wasn't a slack game - it was actually one of the best college basketball games of the year. But the point is that Stanford is every bit as hungry and needy as the visitors in the 2002 edition of this Maples Melee. Both teams need this game like Stevie needs something under the arms "pH balanced for a woman." Sweat stains aside, all the chips are on the table for both teams. Redemption could be available for the loser next week, with UCLA getting a very good Oregon team at home and with Stanford getting two brutal road games in the desert. But that's DEFCON 1 stuff, folks. Both teams are knee-deep in caca and need this win in the worst way.

Somebody please get Gunther Gebel Williams on the horn - we've got another three-ring circus set up for Saturday.

And now, for some et cetera musings I care to share...

  • When the team is going through the motions of pure cerebral flatulence, there is one thing Stanford basketball needs. It's not an extra three-point shooter; not a mean cross-over that can break Gary Payton's ankles; and not a miraculous third Collins twin. Casey Jacobsen is an All-American who welcomes all the attention and spotlight he can gather, so I think he can stand this criticism: suck it up and be and damned leader for your team. No, you weren't asked to do this when you were recruited. It's not necessary to be an All-American this year, and it won't probably make a difference in your NBA draft position, where spirited leadership has about as much currency and value as the insolent wailings of the Russian Olympic officials. (By the by, am I the only one who feels like 1983 all over again toward the Ruskies? Ah, the Cold War nostalgia that sweeps over you like the fresh winds of spring...) But if Casey wants to truly enjoy success, he needs to elevate his role on the basketball court to a higher ground. Registering 5 or 6 assists per game isn't at the core of "making your teammates better." It's been disheartening to hear Casey in public continually cling to the belief that he doesn't need to be a vocal leader for this team. He believes in leading by example, and thus might be quite satisfied that scoring 30-some or 40-some points gets that job done. Well, it doesn't take a Stanford man to look at the evidence that is this season and see that those prolific performances aren't getting a lead-by-example mission accomplished. Stanford is undoubtedly at a crossroads for this season, if not for the greater program. Casey can do his greatest good right now by talking to and with his teammates to lead them. It takes a great man to recognize his previous mistakes, and I'm watching Casey in his greatest challenge of the season. This is when and how he'll be judged as the greatest in Stanford history. Barring his grabbing the leadership mantle aggressively, he'll rank decidedly behind Brevin Knight in my book. No question.
  • To Casey's credit, he is absolutely the only player on this team who has any consistent proclivity to attack the defense off the dribble. Julius has the ability, and Josh does as well, but I think the better coaches around the country will have effective defensive gameplans if they have only one guy who they know will drive the lane. Depressing.
  • In the "not depressing" category, Chris Hernandez did something unusual when he entered the game last night. Against the full-court press and trapping pressure, Stanford had been very carefully and successfully setting up on the floor positioning to pass out of harm's way. But Chris saw a two-man trap coming and dribbled right through it before they could engulf him. I heard Mugsy Bogues recently say that the successful way to handle a trap when you are undersized is to dribble at the trappers before they get to you. When you think about the geometry, it's a sound theory: you widen the angle of attack of the two players and thus have a more room to dribble. The tangential benefit is that you start moving the numbers of your team forward up the court against the pressure and allow for a greater numerical advantage on the offensive attack. Chris ran like a bat out of hell and put $C on their heels for a brief stint, which not coincidentally saw Stanford's strongest moments in the game.
  • I think Rory O'Neill has now registered his two best games (at least, as measured by points) of his young career against Stanford. That really accentuates the sting of losing him in last year's recruiting wars.
  • Regardless of what situation Stanford faces at the end of next weekend (which could be the end of a 0-4 skid, reasonably), I will again go on record as opposing the Pac-10 tournament. It may be a chance for one or two teams to save their bacon, but it overall will harm the league on average. Mathematically, it ensures that all teams with a shot at the NCAA will finish the season with a loss, except one. Mathematically, it will dole out an even number of wins and losses to the top 8 teams in the league, which means that the overall records of those teams will grow closer to .500. If Steve Laugh-In is booted from Westwood this spring, we can all thank him for his parting gift. Let us never forget that he changed his vote from anti to pro on this deal, and pushed it into being. As Maggie O'Hooligan would say to Stevie, "Well, tanks fer nuttin!"
  • If Matt Barnes isn't allowed to play Saturday, UCLA will likely have to start T.J. Cummings alongside Gadzooks. That leaves a bench full of wings who have not had to play in the post this year. 6'8" Josiah Johnson and 6'10" John Hoffart have played a total of 16 minutes this entire season, each appearing in just three conference games. Laugh-In has dug himself this hole by inexplicably recruiting a slew of wings and leaving the center and point guard positions bare. How he could blow yearly top-5 recruiting classes with this subsequent result is beyond me, and certainly the subject matter of an entirely separate treatise. UCLA fans have every right in the world to be indignant. UCLA has seen fertile recruiting soil like the delta of the Nile in Lavin's tenure, with the greatest natural recruiting advantage in the backyard of the greatest concentration of basketball talent in the country. Yet he has come to the point (pun intended) of having a true frosh start at the helm of the team, at 6'7" with a world of difficulty in adjusting to the college game. The scenario is eerily reminiscent of kal's QB position and subsequent screwing of Kyle "Jesus in Cleats" Boller into the Hayward Fault. Up front, Laugh-In has a three-year gap behind Gadzooks, now going on four, at the center position with the recruitment of sub-NCAA academic casualty Mike Fey. Cripes. You should be able to recruit 2 or 3 teams of deep and deadly talent out of Southern California, alone. But when you pass on the likes of Gilbert Arenas, Luke Walton and the Cravens...and lose talents like Josh Childress, Casey Jacobsen and Jamaal Sampson...
  • Rumor has it that organizers are attempting to put together a last-minute event at the Cow Palace Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. One TNT producer has leaked to The Bootleg the word that it will be a Pay-Per-View WWF extravaganza, pitting Matt Barnes against former Pac-10 foe Nick Vanderjerk. The undercard might draw as many viewers and attendees: Solomon Hughes vs. Charles Frederick. It goes without saying: No holds barred!!! Rico Hines will be in attendance, and has asked for a seat in the front two rows, which interestingly will be non-permanent seating - e.g. folding chairs.

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