The Bruins started this year with high expectations. Although Frank Burlison and a few other voices cautioned that UCLA was overrated, the majority of the media pundits, including yours truly, considered the Bruins a lock to win the Pac-10 and the Pac-10 Tournament and garner 25+ wins and top 10 status as they established themselves as a very strong candidate for the Final 4. With four veteran starters returning (SRs Matt Barnes, Billy Knight and Dan Gadzuric, plus JR Jason Kapono) along with promising SO TJ Cummings, and the addition of highly-touted FR Ced Bozeman, Dijon Thompson and Andre Patterson, the Bruins appeared to have more talent than any other team in the conference. Steve Lavin was the returning Pac-10 Coach of the Year. How could the Bruins miss?
But instead of greatness, UCLA stumbled early against Ball State and Pepperdine, struggled to beat UC-Riverside, UC-Irvine and Columbia at home and wound up taking 6th place in the Pac-10 (although 6th place in this case meant finishing one game behind the 2nd place team). A Sweet 16 appearance and victories over Kansas, Cincinnati, Alabama, Arizona, USC, Stanford, Cal, Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgetown couldn't wash the sour taste from the mouths of many Bruin fans, who had hoped for so much more this season. The Bruins finished 21-12 overall this season, 11-7 in the Pac-10.
UCLA fans can't be faulted for feeling disappointed about the team's performance. The Bruins were inconsistent and often seemed poorly motivated and out of control. I think a lot of Bruin fans would forgive some losses if they believed that the team at least played up to its potential and gave a 100% effort every time out. Or even half the time…
Some major coaching decisions were also confusing, at least to all us non-coaching types. We were told at the start of the season that the Bruins would play more motion offense, utilize a lineup going 10-11 deep, go with an aggressive man d and press fullcourt for 40 minutes of hell. Instead, the team stuck with the 1-4, the FR had a hard time getting off the bench, and the Bruins switched to a passive matchup zone and abandoned the press after the Pepperdine loss. In February, the team went with a motion offense, albeit an unusual 4-1 designed to exploit center Dan Gadzuric rather than the team's biggest strengths, jump shooters Jason Kapono and Billy Knight. The FR finally started playing more, but sometimes they would be used as a unit separate and apart from the vets and sometimes they'd be integrated with the first team. Given the inconsistency of the coaching decisions, perhaps the inconsistency of the players isn't so hard to understand. I don't have a problem with a coach responding to problems that arise; anybody who sticks with what's not working is a fool. But many of us wondered how Lavin could have been so wrong about this team's capabilities at the start of the season. Of course, I was even more wrong, but then I'm not a coach so I have an excuse.
I do think that perhaps the team was overrated in some specific ways. Jason, Matt, Billy and Dan had certain limitations in their ability to create shots, read defenses and play aggressive defense themselves that simply put a ceiling on what they could accomplish, especially when playing in concert with one another for so many minutes. Of course, it's easy to judge Jason too harshly: He's still often the focus of opposing defenses and got tagged by everyone from Pepperdine to Cal to Stanford to Arizona to Missouri. It's hard to be creative against an entire team defense designed to shut you down. Ced Bozeman's knee injury and an apparent loss of confidence, reflected most obviously by his poor FT shooting, hurt Ced and the team to some imponderable degree. One of the coaches, who must remain anonymous, said of the 4 vets: "It seems like they just lose their minds when the game starts. We practice the offense and the defense. We go over tape and do the game preparation. Everyone knows what they're supposed to do. Then the game starts and in the first 5 minutes we can tell if Jason, Matt, Billy and Dan have lost their minds. It's like they don't listen to a word we say to them."
However, it's the coaches' responsibility to make sure that their players don't "lose their minds." The bench has always been an effective measure of enforcing discipline at most schools, but apparently not at UCLA (on more than one occasion at least three players I know of helpfully suggested to the coaches that some of their teammates be benched, if not outright suspended, but they were pointedly ignored). It's also the coaches' responsibility to know their players' strength and weaknesses and design their offensive and defensive systems accordingly. And coaches can have a great deal of impact on whether a player loses confidence or gains confidence as the season wears on. Or, at least, one can hope that coaches can do all those things.
Jason, Billy and Matt seemed to lose momentum and efficiency in the latter half of Pac-10 play, especially when the team went with the motion offense. TJ struggled through most of the Pac-10 after the first 4 games, with some very bright spots. Ced's confidence issues have been noted. The motion offense also seemed to pull Matt away from the basket. While he was able to demonstrate his jumper to NBA scouts, his rebounding suffered and his absence from the post hurt the Bruins' inside/outside game and probably contributed to Jason and Billy not getting as many open looks from behind the arc. Yes, the Bruins had two FR PGs, and one of them had knee surgery, so perhaps that contributed to the inconsistency of the team and of the vets, but a lot of teams played well this season and in prior seasons with FR PGs.
While UCLA led the Pac-10 in 3-point FG% defense with its 1-2-2 matchup zone (33%), the Bruins also conceded so many shots from behind the arc (8.5 per game, dead last in the Pac-10) that opponents were effectively hitting nearly 50% of their 2-point shots against UCLA by launching so many 3s (overall, UCLA finished 5th in FG% defense, 42.8%). Of course, the alternative, a man d that probably would have put Dan on the bench with foul trouble in almost every game and enabled opponents to shoot 55% like Pepperdine would likely have proven to be much worse. And the Bruins' lack of pressure defense prevented UCLA from causing or converting on turnovers, a signature mark of almost every team able to go on the big runs that allow them to blow out lesser opponents. Thus, the Bruins were unable to blow out even mediocre teams.
Late in the season, Dijon Thompson got a chance to display his considerable talents. Prior to the Missouri game, he averaged 9.2 ppg over the team's last 5 games and hit 40% of his 3s. He was an outstanding foul shooter throughout the year and an excellent rebounder for a wing. He also developed into one of the team's best defenders after starting the season as one of the worst. Ryan Walcott averaged 4.9 ppg and 2.3 apg over the team's last 7 games and made over 40% of his 3s in Pac-10 play. His A/TO ratio in his final 8 games was 1.7/1. Andre Patterson often resembled a human pogo stick and put up excellent rebounding and shotblocking numbers in limited minutes, as well as dramatically improving his foul shooting and ballhandling as the season wound down. His defensive play against Kansas was a key factor in the Bruins' victory. Ced Bozeman finished with an A/TO ratio of 1/4/1 despite a couple of atrocious games at the end of the season and the Pac-10 Tournament. He scored 8 points against both Cincinnati and Missouri and had some major assist games during the Pac-10 season. TJ finished the season strongly as well, looking like a real post player when he played with the second unit, averaging 4 rebounds in just 13 mpg in the 4 games where Lavin employed the second unit.
But I wonder how the Bruins might have fared if these younger players had gotten a chance to see more time earlier in the season (of course, Ced saw major time throughout the season, so he really doesn't belong in this part of the equation). Arizona, USC, Stanford and Cal all prospered late by giving major minutes early to FR. Of course, those teams had to give the young players time, and perhaps it's unfair to criticize Lavin for not taking away time from his returning starters to take a chance on unproven youth. Though, as Lavin himself once said, "Life isn't fair," so let's criticize him anyway. In any event, the Bruins' team speed, quickness and versatility always seemed to jump up a level or two whenever the youngsters were on the floor, especially together. This indicates both a reason for dissatisfaction for this season and a factor for hope for next season.
We continue to read disturbing quotes in the newspapers from Bruin players stating that Lavin is "laid back" or not "intense enough" or more of a "big brother" than a coach. I've often asked the players in interviews if they feel this way and they've always strenuously denied it. In fact, they often complained to me that Lavin was too tough on them in practices and didn't allow them enough "freedom" in games. So, I'm not sure what to make of these quotes. I wasn't aware that the players might hide something from me, yet feel so free to reveal them to other journalists. Who knows? I do know that Lavin will not survive in this business if his players don't fear and respect him as the unqualified boss. He doesn't have to strangle anyone or hit them in the head with trashcans, but he has to command their attention.
On the positive side of the ledger, Billy Knight and Dan Gadzuric showed major improvement in virtually all aspects of their games as SRs, except for Dan's continuing woes at the foul line. Dan played especially well in the Pac-10. Matt's 3-point shooting took a spectacular step up this year. Jason developed into one of the top rebounding wings in the league and demonstrated some nice up and under and back to the basket scoring moves. He also turned in a bravura performance as the team's point forward during UCLA's most successful run of the season. At the end of the year, TJ finally began playing inside effectively at both ends of the floor. As noted, Dijon, Andre and Ryan all seemed to improve a great deal from year start to year end. Ced had a number of outstanding games, though his overall performance disappointed many Bruin fans who apparently aren't willing to take knee surgeries into account when evaluating a player's accomplishments.
As a team, the Bruins finished second in the conference in FG% and 3-Point FG%. The 1-4 offense was particularly effective until February in stretching opposing defenses and freeing up the Bruin players for high percentage shots. Despite a lack of outstanding post play behind Dan, and despite the difficulties of rebounding out of a zone defense, the Bruins were 4th in the Pac-10 in rebounding margin, an important factor for a team unable to force or convert many turnovers. I've been told by some people on the message boards that UCLA's rebounding fundamentals range from "terrible" to "non-existent." I'm curious as to how these people could explain how the Bruins rebounded so well out of a zone and with only one true post player, but no one has responded to my questions. Honestly, I'd like to know. My bb knowledge is obviously very limited…
On the coaching front for the season, the Bruins seemed much better prepared for particular games than has been the case in the past. Although Steve Lavin was often criticized for not using more timeouts at the end of games, and notwithstanding the suggestion that some of the Bruin vets "lost their minds" in some games, the Bruins also often showed a remarkable composure and ability to call and execute plays on their own in crunch time without the need for micro management from the bench. I'm not about to compare Lavin to John Wooden or Bobby Knight or Denny Crum, but before ESPN took over college bb it used to be considered a virtue if a coach could teach his players to understand and execute the game based on practice. Coach K at Duke seems to be one of the last coaches around who still believes this. Finally, in an interview with BRO, Dan singled out Patrick Sandle as a factor in explaining his improved play this season.
Next, a look at Lavin and his tenure at UCLA...