Basketball Season Review

The 2004-2005 basketball season was the first in either of UCLA's two major sports to post a winning record in three years. Playing three freshmen and having only seven useable players for much of the schedule, the season was, though, teetering on the precipice at one point...

The 2004-2005 basketball season could be remembered for more than what we might think right now.

The Bruins went just 18-11, finished tied for third in the conference, received an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament and got knocked out in the first round.

It doesn't seem like that much on the surface.

But given the state of the program, and the absolute rock bottom it was crawling out from, the season was a grand success.

While in the near future there could very well be more successful seasons in terms of wins and losses and advancements in the NCAA tournament, none might mean as much for Ben Howland's career at UCLA than the 2004-2005 season.

Even though most of us didn't doubt that Howland could be successful at UCLA, after the 2003-2004 season, his first when the team went 11-17, it still needed to be proven.

Many can argue that 18-11 isn't overwhelmingly successful - but hey, if you're a UCLA fan, this is no time to get greedy.

Very simply,  Howland posting an 18-11 record marks the first winning season for a UCLA basketball or football team in three years. 

At this point, that's an accomplishment in itself.

It proved that Howland's philosophy, the one that built programs at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, could work at UCLA.

It proved that Howland could take a player like Dijon Thompson, a senior who had suffered through some bad years and developed some bad habits, and help turn him into a player.

It proved that Howland knew what he was doing in recruiting, bringing in players that were critical to the success of the season, point guard Jordan Farmar and wings Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp, as well as post Lorenzo Mata.

It proved that Howland could make freshmen play his game and buy into his philosophy to win.

It was the season of proof. Even if it's not a huge amount of proof, and there still is so much more to prove, it still is proof. And again, it's more proof of success than UCLA has experienced in either major sport in a while.

The season had some ups and downs on its way to that proof.  No time during the season was it more in doubt than when UCLA lost its two home games to the Bay Area schools in late January. They had just lost to top 15 Arizona in Tucson, in a very close game, one in which you could make the case they should have won. Before that, they had won four in a row, and among those wins was one against another top 15 team, Washington.  UCLA was playing well, and fans were starting to get a sense that this UCLA team could very well be a type of team that could edge into the top 25 and clearly make the NCAA tournament. It was a period of time when the freshmen had just started to play well, and Dijon Thompson was starting to step up for his senior season.

When the Bruins then lost to Stanford, it was demoralizing, and was to a certain degree humbling.  But it was still understandable, since Stanford was playing the best ball in the conference at the time and had some very talented players.

The real stunning blow was the loss two days later to Cal, 64-51. UCLA was never really in the game. They were truly lethargic, and played with no fire or will to win, and lost to a team that wasn't simply very good.

It was chilling de ja vu. Howland's first UCLA team the year before had started out strong only to show no heart or toughness and collapse down the stretch.  In the many years before UCLA teams under Steve Lavin had earned a reputation for being soft, both mentally and physically, and not having a true competition desire.

Perhaps the lowest point of the season came in the Bruins' next game against USC. Most fans hoped that the stunningly uninspired performances against Stanford and Cal were an aberration, and that these Bruins would set themselves right against struggling USC. But UCLA went down by 18 at halftime against USC, playing very poorly, and the idea of another seasonal collapse was now more than just a random thought in the back of your mind.  It was happening again.

And why?  There was much conjecture at the time. Many blamed conditioning - that the players, especially the younger ones, had run out of gas. There were reports of in-fighting among the players, between the veterans and the freshmen, and even among the freshmen themselves.  Many blamed Howland, asserting that his supposed East-Coast style of play wasn't suited for UCLA, and that his emphasis on rebounding and defense really wasn't the panacea he was making it out to be. There were claims that the freshmen were vastly over-rated, that Jordan Farmar was slow and didn't play defense, and that Arron Afflalo's shooting slump was his true shooting form. 

The season truly turned around in that second half against USC. The Bruins out-scored USC by 21 points and won 72-69, in a revelation of a comeback.  They did it primarily with defense, forcing USC into turnovers and just 36% shooting in the second half.

The team then went the rest of the regular season 7-3, without losing to anyone they shouldn't have.

It proved Howland's philosophy to be correct: play solid defense and rebound and you'll be in a position to win any game.

And it seemed as if the players also then bought into it themselves.

Once the players bought in, and starting to dedicate themselves to defense and rebounding, everything changed. The remaining opponents in the regular season shot only 43% from the field. Previously, in the first half of the season, the defense only tended to play well when the offense was on. In the second half, it played hard independently of what the offense was doing.  The squabbling that had resulted when the team dropped those pivotal games against the Bay Area schools subsided.  The freshmen, buoyed by good defense, were more confident on the offensive side, and feeling more of an offensive rhythm. 

Critical to the second-half success was the offensive emergence of the three perimeter freshmen.  Farmar, Afflalo and even Josh Shipp all began to assert themselves offensively, and not stand around and wait for Thompson to create the team's offense. Good thing, too, since Thompson had a few games when he went into a bit of a funk, at least partially because opposing teams were finding out how to curtail him offensively. Farmar starting taking the ball to the basket aggressively off ball screens, and Afflalo came out of his shooting slump and fearlessly took some clutch threes in critical situations. 

Overall, this team, for the first time in a long time in the UCLA basketball program, actually over-achieved. There was only one game in which it clearly under-achieved, and that was in losing to Cal at home. There were a number of others that were borderline - like Stanford at home and Oregon State on the road. The other losses - including the one against Oregon State in the Pac-10 tournament and against Texas Tech in the NCAA, were merely a team losing to the better team that day.  This year's Bruins, on the other hand, over-achieved in beating Washington, coming close to beating Arizona on the road, and beating Notre Dame on the road, while holding serve on all the games they should have won.

It was quite an accomplishment given the facts:

-- UCLA started three freshmen for the majority of the season, one of them being a point guard who just turned 18 in October.  When you usually start freshmen, they have, at least an experienced guy playing next to them, but in this case each of them really only had other inexperienced freshmen to turn to on the court, which was significant.

-- UCLA was without a power forward, and had to use a 6-7, 205-pound wing at the position for the majority of the season.

-- UCLA lost probably one of its best four players in Cedric Bozeman before the season even started.

-- UCLA then lost the player that was going to function as its fifth perimeter player in Howland's rotation, Janou Rubin, after a few games.

-- UCLA generally had average talent, especially on its frontline.

-- It could only really go seven deep throughout the majority of the season. Among those seven there were three freshmen and, again, one was your point guard; one good senior starter; two average junior post players and an erratic senior guard.

Dijon Thompson closed out his UCLA career with a great senior season, averaging 18.4 points per game and a very impressive 7.9 rebounds per game, which was good enough to get him named first team All-Pac-10.  A great deal of the credit has to go to Thompson, for persevering through a tumultuous time in the UCLA basketball program, having weathered the first two losing seasons at UCLA in 55 years and the coaching tenure of Steve Lavin, and then a transition to a no-nonsense, ass-kicking coach in Howland.  He was forced to make the transition to playing the four this season, and he greatly benefited, drawing mismatches offensively and being closer to the glass to pump up his rebounding stats.  He also bought in to playing defense, showing great energy defensively for the first time in his UCLA career.  Thompson also has to be grateful to Howland, the coach giving him the opportunity to boost his career like he did in his senior year. Thompson and Howland weren't the closest, but Thompson came to appreciate what Howland could do for him, and Howland appreciated Thompson taking advantage of it by working hard.

Brian Morrison, the senior guard, was endearingly frustrating throughout his career at UCLA.  He has the tools of a player who should be a star at the high-major college level: He's the best athlete on the team, not only with hops but good lateral quicks; he was the best natural shooter; a very good, active defender, never seemed to get winded, and had really a good, basic vision in passing the ball.  Morrison, though, was limited by his own inability to stay under control. He improved as his career went on, but it never improved enough to the point that he realized the potential of his inherent talent.  It would have been very interesting to see what kind of player he might have become if Howland had had Morrison for four years.  This season, though, while there were times that Morrison's out-of-control play hurt the Bruins, there were more moments when he made big contributions to critical wins. One of the best moments of the season was when Morrison and Thompson caught fire shooting the ball against Washington in UCLA's upset win at Pauley, overcoming a 21-point deficit.

Mike Fey, the 6-11 junior center, had a season that divided most observers. There are those that don't like Fey at all, citing his lack of hands, inability to finish and poor rebounding production.  There are others that, at least, concede Fey isn't a world beater, but that he improved quite a bit this season as a junior. Fey was drastically better offensively this season, converting in the post off some pretty solid moves fairly consistently, with a good touch.  He improved his rebounding, going from 2.5 a season ago to 4.8 this year. His defense also improved significantly, most of the season providing good low-post defense against the other team's best frontcourt scorer.  Will Fey ever be that world  beater? Probably not.  But if you conservatively concede that he'll continue to improve for his senior season next year, there is hope that Fey will get to 11 points and 7 rebounds per game, which would be adequate for what UCLA needs from him.  Fey is hard worker and wants to get better, which is key in terms of his off-season.

Ryan Hollins, the other 7-foot junior center, had a strange season. Coming off his sophomore year, when he improved throughout the season, Hollins had surgery on his knee and spent the summer recovering. It appeared that he never really got all the way back to where he was at the end of the 2003-2004 season.  This season, he'd have a game where he would step up and be critical in the effort, playing good defense and getting big rebounds. Then his effort level would seem to disappear in the next game, and he wouldn't get many minutes from Howland.   Hollins hopefully will have the opportunity to improve significantly this summer, unlike last summer when he was recovering from surgery. To get on the court more next year he'll have to spend time in the weight room and get stronger, but also refine his skills significantly, at least to the point that he doesn't travel just about one in three times he catches the ball. 

It was, though, a good step for UCLA, in regard to next year, that Fey and Hollins defined their roles this season. Fey is easily the better post scoring threat, and the better low-post defender. Hollins showed he should be utilized against more mobile, perimeter-oriented big men.  Both of them will probably fulfill these roles next season, and hopefully will be even better at them with off-season improvement.

Jordan Farmar was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, having a great first campaign, averaging 13.2 points per game and 5.3 assists.  He displayed his great court savvy and leadership ability, and very good skills, especially for a young freshman.  He started out slowly, as you might expect, taking over the point guard position at a major college basketball program. But you could see his awareness and experience grow as the season went on.  He exhibited many tools of a very good college point guard, and flashed some precociousness in terms of that awareness and decision-making toward the end of the season. As Farmar's decision-making improved, Howland began to lighten up on the reins a bit, and let Farmar run the show more on the floor. 

But what's the most exciting about Farmar is just how far he has to go. If he was this good this year, imagine when he really blossoms.  Farmar, first and foremost, needs to get bigger and stronger. It was never more evident against Texas Tech in the NCAA game, when Farmar looked like a wisp trying to keep up physically next to Texas Tech's guards.  As Howland said, the fact that Farmar needs to add strength is not a small thing, but huge in terms of how it will affect so many facets of his game.  He'll be able to stand up against pressure longer, won't be knocked off his dribble as easily, and his on-the-ball defense will improve. Farmar will have to improve his defense overall, mostly learning how to maintain intensity.  Farmar also needs to continue to develop his skills --  improve his ballhandling, shorten up his shot a bit to get it off quicker, among other things.  Probably one of the big priorities is also for Farmar to learn how to be a good leader as the point guard. He has always had a tendency to berate his teammates, and he has to learn how to channel that competitiveness in order to get the most out of his team.

Arron Afflalo had a very impressive freshman year, averaging 10.8 points per game while also being the team's defensive stopper.  He showed this season that, while he may lack ability in some aspects, he does everything he can to make up for it in effort, competitiveness and heart.  Afflalo is an average athlete, but he was the best on-the-ball defender on the team because of his desire.  He's not a pure shooter, but through hard work he's become a good shooter.  He also showed a fearlessness, as did the other two perimeter freshmen.  When Afflalo's shot went into a bit of a funk halfway through the season, it would have been pretty typical for him to fold it up and stop shooting. But he kept shooting, and shot his way out of the slump, and then hit some big threes in the second half of the season.  Since Afflalo is closer to being maxed out physically than, say, Farmar, he might not have the upside. But it's in Afflalo's nature to work hard, which will undoubtedly result in improvement.  He showed this season that he has a chance to be an All-Pac-10 level player sometime during his career at UCLA.

Josh Shipp perhaps had the biggest surprise season among the freshmen. He wasn't expected to start, which he ended up doing once Cedric Bozeman went down and the staff moved Thompson to the four.  Shipp responded, averaging 9.3 and 5.2 rebounds per game.  Talking about fearlessness, Shipp epitomized it this season, stepping up at critical times, making key big shots, and generally playing with cool head far beyond his years.  Shipp also is sneaky, and does many little things that don't necessarily show up in a stat sheet, like tipping a rebound to a teammate, or rotating down on an opponent well to force a turnover.  It was truly the surprise of the season that he averaged 5.2 rebounds, which was second on the team and better than both 7-footers.  He showed he has a natural nose for the ball in rebounding.

Shipp, in the off-season, will have to improve his skills and his body to withstand the competition coming in next season.  He shot just 28% from three for the season, which will have to improve. His shot is a long motion that takes a long time to get off.  He'll have to get stronger, and improve his body, particularly his lower body, to hopefully improve his quickness. His defense was just okay this season, and if he continues to get bigger and stronger that should help.

Lorenzo Mata, the 6-8 freshman post, didn't play in seven of the last nine games due to a sternum fracture he suffered in practice.  Up until that point, Mata had shown some considerably potential, and the blatant areas he needed to improve. At the top of the must-improve category was post defense. Early in the season, he was like a matador out there, with opposing post players just blowing right around him. One of the primary objective of this off-season for UCLA is to get Mata bigger and stronger.  Being 230 pounds, it would be good to see Mata return at 240+, with some considerably more upper body strength.  UCLA wants him to be back and ready physically since Mata showed this season that he can do some things that the other post players on the team can't - namely rebound, and get off the floor quickly and on a second jump. His offensive game is still very raw, being in only his fourth year of organized basketball. But this season, particularly in practice, it was very evident that Mata was improving at a very high rate.  They'd like him to improve enough in his defense where he's not a liability on the floor, and then be able to get his rebounding ability on the floor.

Power forward Matt McKinney had a strange season. He recovered from past injuries to look ready to go at the beginning of the season, only to experience severe stamina problems that wouldn't allow him to go for longer than a few minutes at a time. It discovered fairly late in the season that it was related to the medication he was taking for a stomach ailment, and when it was corrected, his stamina improved.  McKinney as a junior next year is going to struggle competing against the incoming talent. He'll have to drastically improve his play overall, primarily his ability to score in the post, if he's going to see the floor much next season.

We're not going to get into any kind of predictions or projections of just how much of an impact the incoming freshmen will have next fall.  Coming in, as we all know, will be 6-8 post Ryan Wright, 6-7 post Alfred Aboya, 6-7 small forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, 6-4 shooting guard Mike Roll and 6-0 point guard Darren Collison.  Projecting how the minutes will divide up among next year's roster is for another story - and much message board discussion. But when you put it in perspective that these five new talents will be at UCLA next fall, competing for playing time, after seeing how competitive the freshmen were this year, it's an exciting time for the program.  With the work the returning players will put in during the off-season, and the competition they know that's on the way, you can probably expect some considerable improvement from this year's freshmen by next year. It's always maintained that players improve the most from their freshman to sophomore years, and if that's the case, it's very exciting to think about a considerably improved Farmar, Afflalo, Shipp and Mata.

This season, though, wasn't void of questions and above criticism. While it did prove some things in terms of the direction of the program under Howland, and the capabilities of the freshmen, the season begged some questions.

While Howland does preach defense and rebounding, and those two elements did keep this team in the game in many instances, neither was really particularly exceptional.  The Bruins allowed opponents to shoot 44.6% from the field, which isn't greatly impressive.  They limited worse opponents to poor shooting days, but let equally talented or better teams have good shooting days against them.  In terms of rebounding, for the frontcourt talent UCLA has, the team probably over-achieved. The team blocked out much better and worked better as a team in rebounding than in the previous year and you could see improvement as this season wore on. But still, its rebounding margin was just 3.7 per game. It was more of a case this season that UCLA didn't allow rebounding to lose games for them this year, but they weren't dominating by any means.

Offensively, UCLA was inconsistent, and never really seemed to get in a rhythm anytime during the season.  UCLA runs sets and determined play from those sets, and then, if there isn't an open look, moves into a quick motion offense.  The offense didn't execute well enough that you came away thinking they were taking good shots that their set offense created. It was rather more haphazard and herky-jerky, rather than smooth and certain.  It sometimes made for poor shot selection, which Howland has repeatedly said is key to offensive success. The team also struggled to get inside scoring throughout the season, often times in games getting just a handful of shots from inside the paint while relying far too heavily on the three-pointer.  The inability of UCLA's big men to post up effectively was as culpable as the inability of UCLA's perimeter players to feed the post. 
Perhaps the biggest indication of the inefficiency of the offense was the excessive amount of turnovers. UCLA averaged 16 turnovers per game, which was the second worst in the Pac-10 (second only to turnover-crazy USC), and was second-worst in turnover margin (-1.7).   Much of the offensive inefficiency probably has to do with playing so much youth, and having a freshman point guard who is still just learning the coach's offensive system.  But it's definitely a major lingering concern from this season, and something to really watch for next year.

Again, there's another way to look at this: If UCLA achieved what it did this season while just playing okay defense, rebounding just adequately, and being fairly inefficient offensively, it's exciting to think about where this program will be when it does all of them better.  

You can't discount enough how having so much youth on the team impacted these elements and the overall effectiveness of the team. A common rut to fall into when watching this team this year was not always compensating for the fact that Farmar, Afflalo and Shipp were all freshmen.  Perhaps because, at times, they didn't seem like freshmen, or maybe because they played so many minutes and we were so familiar with them it felt like their sophomore seasons already, you tended sometimes to forget that they were just freshmen.

And in forgetting that they're freshmen, going hand in hand with that is forgetting that next year they'll be sophomores, and considerably improved physically and skills-wise, and far more experienced and mature.

If you kept that in the forefront of your mind while watching this team this year, it was a far more fulfilling experience, rather than expecting far too much out of the freshmen, and expecting Howland to produce more out of them. 

It put the 18-11 season, the third place finish in the Pac-10, and the first round loss in the NCAA tournament in perspective - as the first and perhaps the most significant step in Howland providing us proof that the program has been turned around.

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