Basketball: Cries & Whispers, and Jordan Farmar

<b>EDITORIAL</B>: Re-hashing the basketball season doesn't sound fun, but <b>Charles Chiccoa</b> does it with aplomb, and then provides some insights as a result of having already started following Jordan Farmar...

I like to think that the only debates worth our time and energy are those on which we can find common ground. That's why, in such a fragmented age as this, I no longer debate politics (I mean the other side is not interested, is not even listening). This basketball season - the first since our merciful deliverance from the immortal Lav - there seems to have developed a surprising crack in the apparent common ground regarding Ben Howland, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction over BH's handling of this team, an attitude that, yeah, these guys are not as talented as we had believed.. but can they be this bad? Nobody (with the exception of the preposterous Bill Plaschke) has suggested BH isn't a quantum leap over the grotesquely ill-equipped Lav, rather that BH should've somehow gotten more out of these so-called "leftovers," whispered suspicions that maybe he's not all that, and why should he be in on a pass while Karl Dorrell seems to be out in the cold. I don't buy it - not at this point - and neither, I believe, do most Bruin fans. No one yet knows if BH will turn out to be all that we're counting on him to be, a different proposition entirely, and one that specifically involves returning UCLA to national prominence, along with Pac-10 dominance. A former Coach of the Year with a sterling track record whose teams have been known for defensive tenacity and mental toughness, wedded to the kind of talent a respected coach can attract at a place like UCLA?... Deny it if you will, but in your heart you know that's the deal.

As this godawful season ground to a merciful end, it became obvious to most of us just how great a handicap BH had inherited. The talent deficiency on the floor was simply too great to make anything like a reasonable assessment of his fitness to rebuild a program that has been in a more or less steady decline for nearly thirty years. Now that's a very long time. Other than "The Ed & Tyus Show" and Larry Brown's extended cup of coffee, how many of these post-Wooden seasons have ended on a note of optimism, with a sense of fulfillment? And how many in disillusion, with a sense of what the hell was that? The Big Lie regarding Bruin basketball, the sort of cliche glib tourists like Plaschke keep repeating, is that Bruin fans became so spoiled by John Wooden's otherworldly success that only championships could satisfy them. Instead of anything like a careful analysis of each season, with a sense of genuine inquiry, it became habitual among members of the media to just consider the bottom line: Hey, Bartow made the final four; he went 56-7; and you ran him out of town! Hey, Lavin kept making the "sweet sixteen;" how many other coaches can make that statement; and you got him fired! There was seldom any consideration of the quality of play, something that might've taken a little work on the phones, particularly if the writer was personally short on expertise, wasn't really sure of what he was looking at, hadn't even been in the building all that much. This lazy style of commentary and reporting has obviously continued down the years to the present day.

So what have we learned about BH this year, beyond (1), he's no miracle worker when confronted with such woeful personnel, and (2), he seems to have a hard time hiding his frustration and contempt? BH (to address once again a horse that's been beaten to death) was left with even less bullets than KD, not to mention the fact that short term resurrection, based on incoming talent, seems more likely to occur in Pauley than at the Rose Bowl, which is not to say Bruin football is hopeless, only that recruiting is made easier with an established coaching rep, not to mention a school's perceived "natural heritage."

What exactly didn't BH try this season? Offensively, he tried walking the ball up, bleeding minutes off the clock, but this personnel still couldn't execute a decent half court game (besides which, Bruin fans hate this style, something they rightly associate with memories of Bob Boyd and more appropriate to places like Pullman and Princeton). He tried increasing the tempo, loosening the reins, but they couldn't play effectively at speed. They couldn't shoot over the top, they didn't finish well inside, and they had... how should I say... a negligible post presence None of them moves well without the ball, their handles are shaky, and they obviously lacked a playmaker - someone who sees things before they happen, who can threaten and break down a perimeter defense, someone who sees the whole floor and can deliver the ball effectively. A set offense needs to be executed to some purpose, with almost reflexive speed, and these guys have never demonstrated the instincts and quickness needed to run one. That they may lack confidence in themselves and each other is not surprising. The "legend" of Bruin basketball is, for them, mere history, tales told by their fathers, their coaches, and some older dudes. These guys have become conditioned to losing, have learned how to lose.

Defensively, BH, like most good coaches, would rather play man to man but, again, there wasn't enough quickness or strength, not enough players who could move their feet, anticipate, face up their man, use their bodies effectively rather than just slashing away with their hands, bailing out their man, piling up fouls. And for all the same reasons they couldn't play a decent zone (which BH tried only out of desperation). Defensively, they learned to "hedge," to block out better. Anything else? All that early season talk of playing good defense (just like the 5-0 conference start) was a mirage.

These player's virtues are not nonexistent, but, compared to the competition (and to those Bruins who preceded them), they don't bear even a remote resemblance to the hoop dreams Lav has been feeding Plaschke. Cedric Bozeman can put the ball on the floor, but he can't shoot and he can't finish consistently. Dijon Thompson and T.J. Cummings can shoot over the top, but Dijon's natural shot is a fadeaway, which probably accounts for his inconsistency, and TJ remains basically a stand still shooter; in fact his most effective shot is very nearly a set shot. (TJ may have been slightly more effective in some kind of high post set up, but then he's never shown a talent either for giving up the ball or seeing plays develop. Perhaps he grew up playing too much one-on-one with pops.) Trevor Ariza was the most aggressive Bruin (which, considering he was the only freshman, is itself a sad commentary), but right now he's something of a 'tweener, too small for a 4, not skilled enough, or a good enough shooter, for a 3. Down low, Ryan Hollins has shown some offensive moves and became more aggressive as the season went along. But he's too slight to defend the post and still a bit mechanical offensively, due no doubt to his relative inexperience Michael Fey has size, but has demonstrated few skills, and together ("Fellins") didn't make a single post presence, especially defensively, where they are obvious liabilities. Brian Morrison has talent, he can shoot and he plays with some fire, but, for me, he still remains indistinct because of his limited minutes. The inconsistency tag he came here with seems pretty accurate, and I have no clear-cut idea how he'll fit once "the cavalry" arrives. (Wait, I forgot Matt McKinney... or does he actually exist?) This team was basically a collection of ill matched 'tweeners without a complete player in the bunch They were not only shut out on the all-conference team, they deserved to be shut out. Earlier this season I had to smile at the comment by a Stanford player who said the Bruins all looked the same.

One hopes the key returning personnel (Ariza, Dijon, Ced, Hollins, Morrison) will somehow, individually and collectively, refine their skills, get stronger and come back with some "attitude." To wish any of them away, as some "player hating" BROs have done, seems silly and counter-productive. It's like hating a three legged cat because it's a leg short. As promising as the "cavalry" may be, there isn't a Kareem or Walton among them, and these returning players will obviously be needed to compete with, and push, the freshman and, at the very least, provide quality depth. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing Ced get some minutes as a playmaking 3, moving him closer to the hole where his lack of shooting touch is not so debilitating and his interior passing skills could be put to some use.

The overwhelming image UCLA has projected, post Wooden, post Larry Brown, is that of a turnover prone, "athletic," pickup team. To some extent it still is (though we can now drop the "athletic" part). Sadly, as of today, TJ, Dijon and Ced are not likely to be remembered fondly by the Bruin hardcore. On the other hand, I find it harder to condemn them for their much-discussed "lack of effort," which, let's be honest, is a euphemism for something worse. Obviously, there are no Earl-Watson, chest-thumping "warriors" here, but then bigger, comparatively slower players are often beaten to the ball, beaten to the spot, beaten for rebounds, all of which can be mistaken for lack of "heart." They did learn to play more unselfishly (even TJ), but were not able to transcend their natural weaknesses To coin a cliche, they haven't "taken it to the next level." As we all saw, they are what they are, and not even JRW could have made them a contender.


Of the newcomers, the so-called "cavalry" coming to the rescue next season, I've only seen Jordan Farmar, and then only about half a dozen times. I'm sure many of you saw him in the locally televised City Championship game, and more will be watching him in the McDonald's spectacle on national TV. We'll be seeing him in ever more challenging situations, but... his talents seems to me so pronounced as to be unmistakable. Yeah, I realize he may not be as quick as Aaron Brooks, and he needs to get stronger, to improve defensively - all the stuff that Tracy and Greg have reminded us of. But even now he's wiry strong, anticipates well defensively, has great hands (particularly a great off hand), and his hops are better than I was led to believe. His conditioning is outstanding; he can run all night But what jumps out at you is his extraordinary court sense, his instinct for the game. He sees everything; he gets it to his teammates in the right place at the right time; he's always in balance; his shooting form is flawless. And as fine a shotmaker as he is, he's an even better playmaker. The BROs should be particularly delighted that he plays with such a noticeable edge, at the same time giving new meaning to that old saw about "willing your team to victory," which is exactly what he did at Taft this season. When Etiwanda's Darren Collison nullified Farmar's superhuman effort with his brilliant, Edney style, 4.8 end-to-end drive and score, Derrick Taylor, the Taft coach, said that his players and coaches had let Farmar down. This was no overstatement. Farmar averaged in the high twenties, with lots of assists and steals, all without any other teammate to relieve the pressure on him or take full advantage of his playmaking skills. In the games I saw he was a marked man, frequently doubled, and he also got bounced around pretty good (without much help from the officials). But he always kept coming and nobody had an answer for him. His numbers would have been even greater had he forced the ball more, something he would do in the latter stages of games, and almost always to good effect

He developed almost a cult following in the west valley, particularly among Bruin fans. As the season progressed, a Taft ticket was as hard to come by as a ticket to Coldplay After his playoff performance vs. Mission Viejo, I bicycled up to Taft to buy tickets for the next game, and the guy behind me bought sixteen. Steve Waters has spoken of his "curb appeal" and there's no mistaking it. My wife is not much interested in sports, but she was as anxious as any BRO to see his next performance.

Showing up at the gym with his characteristic, teenaged crooked-baseball-cap-look, unpretentious and obviously enjoying the attention that grew with each jaw-dropping performance, we were confronted with something like a bizarre L.A. twist on "Hoosiers." Taft was not a great team, but Farmar was, and is, a great player who carried his high school team on his shoulders. His teammates, Calvin Haynes, Matt Cook, Maurice Walters, Pierce Brooks, Jabari Samuels and the rest may one day be telling their grandchildren how they played with Jordan Farmar that magical year at Taft. For some of them the City Championship may turn out to be their "glory days." For Bruin fans, following Jordan became more than consolation. It was a joyous thing in itself.

We're forever trying to compare and define the new "phenoms"against familiar figures Mike Bibby has been the most frequently mentioned comparison. For me, Farmar is Gail Goodrich with hops, Walt Hazzard with a better shot, Mike Warren with a few inches. He doesn't have Baron Davis's body (or strength) but he's got a better jumpshot at this stage of his development, and he's headier than Baron, seems to value the ball more. But forget all that. He's very likely an original in himself, a standard by which we'll be comparing future incoming Bruins. And, like all the above mentioned great players, he's so much fun to watch. This is only one person's opinion, and it may be that his style predisposes me in his favor. I mean, one eight-minute, high-school quarter and I was convinced. I'd have been a Farmar fan even if he'd gone to Florida.

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