How the basketball program has performed under the six years that Steve Lavin has been the head coach can now only be described as bizarre. Lavin's resiliency, his ability to survive and resurrect himself, has really moved from uncanny to bizarre. It's an anomaly – like a phenomenon that a team of astronomers discovered about the universe that they can't explain.
There really isn't any other word that explains it. In fact, "bizarre" doesn't even do it justice.
Steve Lavin and his UCLA basketball program have been backed against the wall time and time again, and has each time pulled off an amazing, uncanny and freakish resurrection. The inconsistency over the six years has led many UCLA fans to jump off the bandwagon. Many jump on and off, and many have jumped off permanently, while some continue to ride the bandwagon no matter what. But it's safe to say that, no matter what side of the Lavin debate you're on, and whether you're on or off the bandwagon, if you're a UCLA fan, you're stunned by the rollercoaster ride that is UCLA basketball.
It not only leaves the UCLA basketball community stunned, but the rest of the college basketball community. Sports writers and reporters are at a loss to explain UCLA basketball. Poor Billy Packer. Working for CBS, he saw first-hand UCLA take apart Kansas and Georgetown, but then hears about them losing big to Cal or losing to Arizona State at home. When you hear Packer talk about UCLA, you can hear the bewilderment in his voice. Every commentator or writer who did a preview of the NCAA tournament and mentioned UCLA made the one, clear point that the team and the program are incredibly schizophrenic and unpredictable. UCLA basketball, over Lavin's six years, has earned a reputation as a schizo and unpredictable program. I spent this last weekend as I've done traditionally for the last 14 years for the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament in Las Vegas. While cruising many sports books up and down the Strip, I eavesdropped on many random conversations, and the subject of UCLA basketball and Steve Lavin continually came up. Admittedly, I didn't know if these fans were UCLA fans or not, but from what I gathered, for the most part they weren't. The conversations generally, first, emphasized that you'd have to be crazy to bet on a UCLA game because of the unpredictability of the team (UCLA, in fact, has one of the worst records against the spread this year of any Division 1 team). But then secondly, these fans would expound about how the UCLA program is in disarray under Lavin. Many fans of other schools went as far as to be happy about it, saying they wanted Lavin to stay at UCLA as long as possible (Hearing this, as a UCLA fan, is very painful). Again, what has happened to UCLA basketball is a strange, contradictory phenomenon, one whose influence is obviously not limited to just UCLA fans and the UCLA community. It has permeated the rest of the college basketball community and they've also recognized it themselves as an unexplained phenomenon.
Where does this leave UCLA fans – the day after the big win over Cincinnati? While you're rejoicing, and excited about the prospects of playing in the Sweet 16 next week, and potentially making it to the Final Four, the feelings are still, well, bizarre. You were probably just beginning to concede that maybe Steve Lavin shouldn't be UCLA's coach, that the program does look to be in disarray, and then the Cincinnati win confuses all those feelings and thoughts in your mind. But don't worry, UCLA fans, it's okay to have these strange, mixed feelings about it all. Don't feel guilty. It's a perfectly natural feeling to have. When faced with the bizarre, with an anomaly of the universe, your feelings are naturally going to be contradictory, ambivalent and unsettling.
But I'm sorry, I don't have any remedy for the feelings. I don't have a magic elixir that cures the UCLA fan of this affliction. Pretty much, as long as Steve Lavin is the head coach at UCLA, UCLA fans will more than likely be having to deal with these unsettling and contradictory feelings, and waves of fans jumping on and off the bandwagon.
But just like what those astronomers would do when faced with an unexplained phenomenon, I'm prone to try to investigate it, to come up with a logical and rational explanation. Like with an unexplained phenomenon, astronomers won't be able to actually prove the explanation, but it will be a hypothesis that's based on a set of facts that they do know. I'm probably a pretty good, qualified astronomer, then, when it comes to trying to investigate the strange quark that is UCLA basketball under Lavin.
So, why is the UCLA basketball program like this? Why does this happen?
The simple hypothesis: UCLA has so many swings in performance due mainly to the inexperience of its coaching. It's not to say that the coaching the UCLA players are receiving from Lavin directly is bad. But his inexperience at head coach has mainly led to various issues that contribute to the overall phenomenon -- inexperience in recruiting, in evaluating his own personnel, in game preparation, game coaching, player motivation and so many other aspects of coaching.
How has this caused the phenomenon? With the overall talent UCLA can put on the floor, combined with inexperienced coaching, you're going to get the bizarre results you have over the last several years. You're going to get a team that can beat Kansas but then lose embarrassingly to Cal in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament. You're going to get a team that is expected in the pre-season to be a Final Four contender (by the media, fans and its own coach), then finish sixth in the Pac-10, but then play like the Final Four contender it should be in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. At times, the talent will come through and play to its potential. At other times, with inexperienced coaching, it will vastly under-perform.
And why does it feel unique, that this bizarre phenomenon really hasn't happened anywhere else in college basketball – at least to this bizarre an extent? Very simply: Where else in college basketball do you have a program with 11 national championships and so many natural advantages with a coach that is so inexperienced? Nowhere, really, in the universe.
At the conclusion of the season, this site will do a thorough, in-depth, state-of-the-program analysis, which will look deeper into the bizarre phenomenon that is now UCLA basketball, along with an accompanying article about the UCLA athletic department and the UCLA administration as a whole.
But for now, with the UCLA basketball community in a state of elated shock over the Cincinnati win, left almost as bewildered as to what to make of the program as Billy Packer, it seemed like the situation was crying out for some kind of quick explanation -- to allow UCLA fans to enjoy the win over the Bearcats. I thought UCLA fans needed to be able to get just a little handle on what to make of their program in order to bask in the win unencumbered. Do it, Bruin fans. Because no matter your opinion of the coach, of whether he should be fired or retained, or your opinion of the state of UCLA athletics, college athletics still really comes down to a group of kids, student athletes, trying to accomplish something worthwhile. They are youngsters that, no matter how adults can screw up a college athletic program, deserve your support.