In Ben Howland's first year as UCLA's head basketball coach, the team finished 11-17, which was below most pre-season predictions. Even those who believed UCLA wouldn't have a dramatic turnaround from its worst season in history a year ago when it went 10-19, most of the pessimists (or realists, we should say), predicted 12 to 14 wins.
It was, of course, a disappointing season. Perhaps it was more disappointing since UCLA came out of the gate pretty strong, starting 9-3 and 5-0 in the Pac-10, raising expectations. Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, you can see it wasn't as much necessarily that UCLA was playing considerably better at the beginning of the season, but that their scheduling, and a few lucky breaks, really was the bigger catalyst to the good start. Yes, UCLA played better early, mostly because the team was buying in fully to Howland's approach. But if not for a few bounces of the basketball, UCLA very well could have lost to Vermont, Loyola Marymount, Oregon State, Washington State and Washington in those first few weeks of the season – as easily as they could have beaten ASU, USC, Oregon and Washington late in the season.
Perhaps if UCLA hadn't managed such a strong start there wouldn't have been such a letdown when it lost its last 14 of 16. Early on, there were visions of Sweet 16s dancing in the heads of UCLA fans. If UCLA had lost a few early on that they very well could have, and won a few more toward the end of the season that they very well could have, there wouldn't be as much letdown, and then as much lingering angst over the season.
The lingering question, though, that so many have asked and that's very difficult to answer: Did the team under-achieve? Not compared to the pre-season predictions, which, really, are just for entertainment value and can be thrown out a few weeks into the season. The question is whether you now believe the team, after the season, having seen them play, under-achieved.
THE PLAYERS AND THE TALENT ISSUE
Going into the season, many players on the UCLA roster were still a mystery. There was only one senior of significance, T.J. Cummings, and he wasn't even eligible to play for several games at the beginning of the season.
Cedric Bozeman was coming back as a junior, but he was very much a mystery, returning from a season-ending shoulder injury a year ago. There was also a prevailing sense of uncertainly around Bozeman despite his injury, having not really shown us the type of player he could be, particularly given the McDonald's All-American hype he received out of high school.
Cummings' game was perhaps the best known, but it was still uncertain how it would change under Howland's coaching.
And it's interesting how limited generally the grasp was of Dijon Thompson's game coming into the season, given that he started the previous season. It might not actually have been that his game was still a mystery but, as with many on this roster, the expectation of natural improvement might have made some expect too much out of Thompson this season, as well as Bozeman.
But now, having watched the team – and the individual players – for a season, it's far more clear. It was, for one, hard to make any assessments of a player's talent in that debacle of a 10-19 season in Steve Lavin's last year, with how much controversy and tumult surrounded the program. But this season, with a strong, clear philosophy, fundamental coaching and a sound offensive approach, all done pretty much in the relatively calm waters of Howland's first, honeymoon year, it provided a very distinct observation deck from which to see the players clearly.
It was very clear that the overall talent on the team was limited. The program lost three significant contributors in Jason Kapono, Ray Young and Andre Patterson from a team that had the worst season in UCLA history in 55 years.
It's not coincidental that this season was the first time in 44 years UCLA didn't get a player on the All-Pac-10 conference team, as voted by the conference coaches. Every team but UCLA and Washington State had at least one player on the team, which, as some astute BRO posters have pointed out, could easily lead you to believe that every team in the Pac-10 but Washington State has a better player than anyone on UCLA's roster.
Even though we've written it, and reiterated it, it can't be pointed out enough: The primary reason UCLA went 11-17 this season was its talent. It's hard to get through the collective thick skull of UCLA fans, who naturally think that, if you're in a UCLA uniform you're a McDonald's All-American or a potential pro. Despite the laughable assertion by UCLA's former coach, there aren't many potential NBA players on this season's roster. In fact, there are some basketball minds out there, including pro scouts, who think it's very unlikely anyone on this roster will make it in the NBA. As we pointed out in a recent editorial, that's a very long ways away from a roster just a few years ago, in 1999-2000, that featured five current NBA players and two other McDonald's All-Americans.
This team, despite playing more of a half-court offense, had the most turnovers in the Pac-10. It had the least amount of steals. Its point guard didn't have one blocked shot the entire season (and he's 6-6). It had the lowest three-point field goal shooting percentage in the league. Its starting center averaged 4.3 rebounds a game, while the team didn't have anyone average seven or more rebounds a game.
And it wasn't just that the team lacked individual talents, but collective talent. They severely lacked shooters. Combined, this team drastically lacked guards with any kind of lateral quickness, which was the biggest glaring problem defensively. The team, as a whole, wasn't a collection of very good rebounders, without good natural instincts to anticipate where the ball is going to bounce off the rim. The team, too, collectively, had a poor overall feel for the game and poor play-making abilities.
It has to get through our UCLA thick skulls: It took many years of mis-management and lousy recruiting to get UCLA to the talent level it saw this season.
Perhaps the best potential college player on the roster this season, also, unluckily, sat out a majority of the season.
The loss of junior shooting guard Brian Morrison for two-thirds of the season proved to be very significant. He had just been moved into the starting lineup, was averaging in double figures, averaged about 3 threes a game, and was the team's best three-point shooter by percentage. He was a great, active defender, and really the only player on the team who could hope to defend any quick opposing guards. Without him, for basically the next 22 games (he played limited minutes in a few games in that stretch), the team struggled. Opponents realized that, without Morrison, there was only one real outside shooting threat left on the team in Thompson, and they zoned. In that stretch with Morrison out, Thompson was responsible for 45% of the team's three-pointers. The rest of the team made 48 three pointers in that 22-game stretch, a little more than an average of 2 threes a game combined. Cedric Bozeman, your starting point guard, in the last 23 games of the season, hit only a total 2 three pointers. And there were games when Thompson was cold, having three games in that stretch where he didn't make a three-pointer, and five games where he only made one.
If you want to talk about a lack of talent, it's incredible that UCLA went the majority of the season with only one major three-point shooting threat. It's no mystery why UCLA lost as many games as it did merely because of that fact. It's actually a testament to how the offensive execution improved against the zone when, as the season went on, UCLA saw less of it, doing so with passing, without the capability to shoot out of it.
Morrison also brought the intangibles of heart, toughness and a never-say-quit attitude that this team could have desperately used during some lulls in effort and intensity.
In retrospect, if there was a player that UCLA couldn't have afforded to lose this season, it was Morrison. It wasn't only because he is potentially the most effective player on the team, but because of what he brings to a team were the elements UCLA sorely lacked this season.
So, it leaves many pondering what if, what could have been this season if Morrison had been healthy. If you just add his three-point shooting and ability to defend quick guards, it's probably conservative to estimate UCLA has 3 to 5 more wins. If you loosely project the clutch-shooting and crunch-time attitude he displayed in a few games, including the Washington game in the Pac-10 tournament, on the season, he might have even been worth a couple of more wins on top of that, possibly those games against ASU, USC and Oregon in which UCLA collapsed in the end, with no go-to guy preserve the win.
In fact, as we've brought up before, it's really too easy and superficial to judge this team, and the coaching performance, by mere wins and losses. It's far too simplified. In those regular season games – against ASU, USC and Oregon – UCLA out-played its opponent and deserved to win. It was just a matter of a couple of minutes at the end of each of those games where UCLA gave up the victory. If UCLA does win those games, they finish the season at 14-13 and in fourth place in the Pac-10, and there is probably a consensus that the team played as well as could be expected.
So, for many, their opinions of the season hinged on a few minutes of play. To judge the season more accurately, you really need to look past the black-and-white results of wins and losses, and look at how the team performed, given the talent (and the loss of talent due to injury) as we see it far more clearly in retrospect.
LOOKING PAST THE WINS AND LOSSES
It's difficult to do, but to get a more appropriate perspective on judging the season, you have to 1) drop the presumption that seems burned into the DNA of UCLA fans that UCLA players are incredibly talented just because they play for UCLA, and 2) look past the wins and losses for the season, and actually look at the quality of play.
The team improved from last season and, amazingly enough, each player improved. For instance, Cummings was by far a better player this season than last, more under control and playing within a team concept. The previous season, if you might remember, Cummings was a black hole, shooting the ball almost every time he touched it, and committed many turnovers when trying to put the ball on the floor. In Lavin's last season, he averaged 10.3 and 4.9 points per game, and this season 12.8 and 6.7. In less games, he also made 10 more assists than in the previous season.
Ryan Hollins and Michael Fey were far better this season than last. Hollins showed solid improvement in his offensive moves and shooting touch, as well considerable improvement in his defense. A year ago, Fey didn't even see the floor much.
Cedric Bozeman was clearly a better player, being far more consistent, less turnover prone, a better passer and defender, than a season ago.
As a team, there was a drastic improvement in rebounding and defense. UCLA had the second best defensive field goal percentage among Pac-10 teams, giving up only 42% for the season. It was the first year in many where UCLA actually looked like they knew how to play defense, avoiding big defensive lapses. The interior defense, for the most part, was good, with Hollins and Fey playing soundly, and the perimeter players effectively lending help. The perimeter defense, lacking guard quickness, proved to consistently be a big weakness, but the players were far more active and aggressive than in years past.
With Howland emphasizing rebounding, the team boxed out far more effectively, leading to an improved rebounding margin. And beyond the stats, it was far more evident in games, with UCLA putting up a fighting chance on the boards against far better rebounding teams, and then dominating the boards against poor rebounding teams.
Overall, the quality of play improved tremendously. It was easy to see, even to the untrained basketball eye, that this year's team was playing far more fundamentally sound.
So with the quality of play overall improved, it again emphasizes how significantly the talent was down this season. With improved play, both individually and as a team, this squad managed one more win playing in two less games than it did a year ago, with less talent. It's very probable that, without the good coaching the team received, wringing out as much as possible from this team, which translated into improved play, this year's team might have very well have eked out only 5-6 wins on the season had it been coached by someone else.
DID HOWLAND GET AS MUCH OUT OF THIS TEAM AS HE COULD HAVE?
There is the issue that, actually, not many real UCLA fans have presented this year, but merely local media – the question of whether Howland got as much out of this team as he could have, and if he gave up on this team, looking past them to next year when he gets "his own" players in the program.
It's just not as simple as a black-and-white answer, as we try to emphasize repeatedly (which newspaper columnists resist to realize since, if you have to fit it in a newspaper column, you have to make everything clear cut and black-and-white).
But here's how it went down, from our observation.
At the beginning of the season, the players were optimistic. But they were very much struck by how hard Howland wanted them to work. Not only on the court, but off. Film work. Game plans. And school work. They were shocked when Howland and his staff watched the game film for hours and hours after the game the same day. It was a new world for them, but they were buying in because it was all new.
Many of the older players, though, didn't like the taskmaster style of Howland from the beginning. Whether it's a matter of personality conflict, or the fact that these players were used to, what you would call, a far more player-friendly style from Lavin, it's tough to call. Much of what we know leads us to believe it was more of the latter.
So they go 9-3 and 5-0. They're buying in, playing hard, and it's paying off.
They start thinking they're pretty good. They start seeing visions of winning the Pac-10, going far in the NCAA tournament, etc.
They then hit the wall when they lose big against Arizona and Stanford.
As we wrote at the time, it was a front-runner mentality. They're mentally soft and they'd buy in and play hard -- AS LONG AS THEY WERE WINNING. As soon as they started to hit adversity, realized they weren't near as good as they thought, they packed it in.
Over the course of that losing stretch, Howland kept pushing them, kept demanding a big effort from them and hard work, on and off the court. But they folded. His constant stress of hard work and playing hard got them to recover a bit there for a few games, but that was about it.
Howland even took his foot off the pedal with them a bit, sensing that if he pushed them further it could get much worse.
Now, admittedly, Howland isn't what you would call a player-friendly coach. He works hard, demands you work hard and doesn't have much time for players who don't. So, with the players folding, Howland had some contempt for them, and they then didn't respond to Howland's veiled contempt.
If you want to blame Howland for that style, it's justified. I think he would also readily take the blame.
This program will not be for everyone under Howland. If you're a prospect, you'll have to be very tough, and put in a great deal of effort and be able to sustain it. In the future, though, if a player comes to UCLA and can't cut it, he'll just transfer. But UCLA will have plenty of those who are tough and do want to work hard. It will make for a breed of UCLA player that we haven't seen much of. More Ed O'Bannons, Earl Watsons, and Brian Morrisons.
But it also isn't necessarily that Howland is so much tougher than most good coaches. If you take most good coaches -- Coach K, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Rick Majerus, etc. -- they are as much taskmasters as Howland. It was just that the situation was so extreme under Lavin that the work ethic under a good coach came as a culture shock.
But then, Howland is probably pretty similar to Pitino and Majerus in not being greatly player-friendly (Actually, though, neither are Coach K or Williams -- they just put on a better public face than someone like Majerus).
The disconnect that many sensed between the players and Howland toward the end of the season was probably relatively accurate. Even before the season, and even at the beginning when they were winning, a few of the players didn't particularly like Howland's style. It's also a matter that players generally are in no way objective, but highly delusional when it comes to their own talents. If they aren't doing well, they almost always attribute it to the system, or the coaching, rather than actually realize that, possibly, they just aren't very good. The situation this season, with Howland being Howland, and players being typically delusional players, especially those who were used to a soft Lavin regime, was rife for a disconnect between the coaching staff and the players.
For the long term, the way Howland is would be the way UCLA should prefer it. It's difficult to win with a roster that has players in lead roles that are mentally soft, no matter how good the coach is at managing them and kissing their ass. In the long-term, you need predominantly tough players -- physically and mentally -- to win. Tough players will be drawn to Howland and UCLA -- as Jordan Farmar says he was. He was set to go to Florida, but he knew he wanted a coach that would make him tougher, and he chose Howland over the more player-friendly Billy Donovan to a great extent because of that.
While you have to give Jamie Dixon credit for Pitt this year, you also have to give Howland quite a bit of credit for their incredible run this season, if not the majority of the credit. That team embodies Howland's philosophy and approach. The players who came to play for him were tough, bought into the philosophy, and got even tougher. And that team is built on guys who aren't near as talented as the players UCLA can attract.
But this year, Howland's philosophy and approach weren't very compatible with the some of the ex-Lavin players on the UCLA roster. It's possible that conflict made them play below their capabilities as a team, but more than likely it dragged them kicking and screaming to perform almost as optimally as they can. The fact that that is still pretty mediocre will leave some of these players, with their delusions, set to blame Howland and consider transferring. But really, it's irrelevant, in the long-term what the delusions of some of the current players lead them to do (and we'll discuss the possibility of transferring in the next piece that previews next year). You could very well blame Howland for unhappy players and potential transfers, or you could praise him for it actually. If you're getting soft players frustrated and thinking of transferring, you're doing it right. The test of whether Howland is going to be successful is not what he could do with Lavin's players, or whether he can keep Lavin's players happy, but what he can do with his own.
THE MYTH ABOUT UCLA FANS
It's very funny. Many of the local newspaper columnists have been at a loss over the way UCLA fans have behaved this season. They're flabbergasted that UCLA fans haven't acted like spoiled brats and ranted and raved over this unsuccessful season. They're shocked that UCLA fans have actually been understanding of the circumstances in which Howland inherited the program and know what kind of undertaking it is to turn it around.
For years, they have continually tried to drum it into all of us that UCLA fans have such high expectations and are so quick to judge that they would roast any coach that dared to take the head job at UCLA. Why shouldn't they believe it? That's what Lavin told them for so many years, and that's the myth they loved to perpetuate in the post-John Wooden era. You can read the frustration in the words of the local newspaper columnists, seeing that UCLA fans are generally accepting Howland's efforts this year, defying how they had characterized UCLA fans for years, and making the columnists all out to be wrong.
As Howland implied yesterday at his press conference, and as we've been saying for years, the expectations of UCLA fans are reasonable. They, reasonably, have recognized, that Lavin left the program in a state of complete disarray. He took a program that was one and a half years removed from a national championship, a program that was able to get #1 recruiting classes back to back, and brought it to ruin, to the tune of the worst season in 55 years and near recruiting death. UCLA fans, having watched the debacle, recognize this. They're good fans, and knowledgeable, as Howland said, and they recognize for the most part that Howland did what he could with the program he inherited this year. Unlike the columnists, UCLA fans are sharp enough to recognize Howland's resume, having turned around two rock-bottom programs before and being voted National Coach of the Year in 2000. They recognize on the court this season that this was a year when the groundwork was being laid for a similar turnaround. They know that UCLA has excellent recruits on the way. And they recognize that UCLA is a place that, with its benefits in recruiting, has the potential to be far more consistently successful than Pittsburgh.
And right now, most UCLA fans wouldn't be disappointed with the 29-4 record and #3 seed Pittsburgh boasts.
Coming Next: A look at reasonable expectations for next season...