Off Season Changes Impact 2008-2009 Season

In the months following the Final Four, there has been a flurry of activity that will have a major impact on college basketball next season. Our basketball columnist Kennedy Cosgrove gives us his thoughts on the changes to the basketball landscape...

There should be a name for the college basketball's yearly off-season personnel scramble, that period between the Final Four in early April, and the day in mid-June that underclassmen must officially decide whether or not to turn pro.

I mean, baseball has the Hot Stove League. The NFL has The Draft. College football has Signing Day. Hockey has, well, they must have something. It's time for college hoops needs its own catchphrase.

The Jump? The Declaration of Financial Independence? Premature Matriculation? Hoops Exodus?

After all, college basketball is rapidly carving out a nice little off-season niche for itself: soon after the national champion is crowned comes the flood of announcements that players with eligibility left are submitting their name into NBA draft, and the next two months—until the decision is final—are replete with wheelings and dealings, roster changes, uncertainty and overall intrigue that seems to become more dramatic each year.

Who will hire an agent? Who is getting bad advice? Whose stock will rise? Who will get exposed in their pro tryouts? Can we sign someone late?

It verges on histrionic at times, but understandably so, because the shape of the upcoming season pretty much hinges on this period. A team can go from prospective national title contender to conference also-ran in the space of a few weeks, depending on the decisions of a few young men.

This year was no different. Every top team seemed to have major questions about which young guys were going League. But with the June 16th deadline come and gone, the dust has settled on the college landscape, at last. And a recap is in order.

The big winners? Nationally it has to be North Carolina, as all three of its underclass stars who declared for the draft ultimately decided to return to Chapel Hill, making the Tar Heels the odds-on title favorite next season. Close on their Heels is UConn, who kept its talented core intact when Hasheem Thabeet decided to return to Storrs.

Locally, USC cleared some cap space with the departures of O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson, but took a major PR hit with the Mayo scandal—chronicled so prominently by ESPN—and appears to be a program in limbo, less from a roster standpoint than a karmic one.

In other Pac-10 news, Cal was doomed to the bottom half of the conference when Ryan Anderson left early—but, big picture, the Bears came out ahead with the hiring of Mike Montgomery as coach. Arizona State figures to make a bid for a top three finish, with the return of freshman star James Harden. And UW could ease out of its two-year funk because Jon Brockman is coming back for his final year in Seattle.

The big losers? Stanford and Arizona. [More on them later.]

UCLA, the glamour team of the West, fresh off its third straight Final Four, was arguably the team that had the most off-season question marks in the nation, let alone the Pac-10. Given that the Bruins had only one senior, as many as seven players' futures—essentially the whole team—were up in the air.

Some wildly optimistic (okay, delusional) hopes were for Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and company to all return en masse for one more run at a title. On the other end of the spectrum, some UCLA fans feared that not only would Love, Westbrook, Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute all declare for the draft, hire agents and bid adieu to Coach Howland's demanding ways, but that Alfred Aboya would forgo his last year of college eligibility to either begin his quest for a career in Cameroonian politics or to play overseas (take your pick), and Mike Roll would have to quit the game due to his foot injury.

At about that time, I randomly heard the Third Eye Blind song "Jumper" and its lyric, "I wish you would step back from that ledge, my friend," seemed apropos for us Bruin fans—because really, what team had ever lost SEVEN underclassmen in one season? No way. And as it turned out, the Bruins fared surprisingly well.

Love turned pro—a foregone conclusion—hired an agent and buffed up his body. And given his history, I'd bet a fair sum of money that he will continue to surprise people at the next level. I'm not an NBA General Manager, but I swear Love may be (after Memphis's Derrick Rose) the safest pick in this draft.

Michael Beasley lovers may scoff at that notion; the conventional wisdom is the Kansas State freshman is pretty close to a can't-miss NBA all-star. Few if any people are publicly saying the same thing about Love. But I can't get over the fact that Beasley's a 6-6+ guy (not 6-10 as previously hyped) who shoots and rebounds really well, and is a really good athlete. All good things, all Lottery Pick type of attributes, sure… but that doesn't make Beasley the Second Coming of anyone. Maybe I'll be proven wrong on this, but it would not surprise me if he doesn't end up being quite the NBA superstar everyone projects.

Love, though, is unique. He possesses a singular talent (his outlet passing), an exceedingly rare ability (a power forward type who can stroke jumpers like a shooting guard), he's the most fundamentally sound post player that anyone can remember, and he possesses an uncanny knack for doing so many things well (scoring inside, drawing fouls, defensive rebounding, guarding guys without fouling) that he regularly ends up as the best player on the court. Pass him up at your peril, GMs.

Also as expected, Russell Westbrook turned pro, and continued to climb the projected draft charts. It is now widely assumed that he's a lottery pick; it's been an amazing 12 months for Westbrook, who wasn't even a clear-cut starter in October, and now may be a top-five NBA choice.

The loss of the two most talented Bruins wasn't surprising, but what happened next was: UCLA point guard Collison, who many people thought would jump to the League last year and who was considered a lock to leave this year, decided to stick around for his senior season. This was huge. He announced that he wanted to come back to Westwood to help hang a banner, after coming so close the past three seasons. Could be. And could be that getting dominated by Rose in San Antonio proved too thorny (sorry) an issue to his draft stock…whatever, it works for this fan.

Collison's decision was like unexpectedly finding a C-note in your pocket, and it single-handedly shifted the talk of next season's Bruins from "rebuilding" to "reloading." It's hard to overstate the value of a senior point guard, especially one so talented, and as motivated as he figures to be.

But the good news didn't stop there. A sequence of events in Palo Alto, and of all places, Baton Rouge, broke just right for UCLA, cascading into quite a windfall for the Bruins.

First, Stanford's 7-foot twins, Brook and Robin Lopez, declared for the draft. The Cardinal, which would have been the conference favorite had they stayed and UCLA's only serious Pac-10 contention, plummeted to also-ran status, and could finish as low as 9th.

And then LSU, of all teams, made a decision that sent shockwaves all the way out to the Westwood. The Tigers (inexplicably, in my book) hired Stanford Coach Trent Edwards, who as his first order of business in the Dirty Dirty South either failed to re-recruit—or just plain alienated—J'Mison (Bobo) Morgan, the Tigers' best recruit. Bobo decided that life in Baton Rouge with Johnson was not his scene, got out of his letter of intent, and announced he would instead attend UCLA, the school that finished second in his recruitment battle.

Suddenly, the Bruins were gifted a top 25 national player at a huge position of need. If Collison's decision was some unexpected good luck, Bobo Morgan's about-face was like tripping over a briefcase full of money. Coach Howland had already secured the nation's top recruiting class, headlined by all-everything guard Jrue Holiday, but the addition of Bobo (yes, I insist on calling him Bobo. When you have a nickname like that, you use it at every opportunity) gave the class a pleasing five-man symmetry that harkened back, at least a little, to Michigan's Fab Five in the early 1990's. And no, I'm not saying this class is as good. Bobo isn't Chris Webber. It's just got that symmetry, is all. And let's be honest, it's a pretty ridiculous recruiting class; better in my opinion than the 1998 Gaduzuric-Moiso-Rush-Young-Barnes class, especially when you factor in intangibles, and coaching.

More good news for UCLA followed. The word on Aboya became more solid that he would return. Roll reportedly was playing and working out every day, and at this point no one connected with the program has voiced any concern for his future. And Shipp, in a modest surprise, also decided to return for his senior season. Coach Howland, relentlessly positive and supportive in public, sounded excited that Shipp will finally have a summer to actually work on his game and his body, rather than just rehabbing after hip surgeries as in previous years.

Shipp's decision was interesting. He's probably the most polarizing figure on the team to fans; and it's not clear whether Coach Howland has a soft spot or a blind spot in regards to the mercurial wing player. It's clear, though, that the 5th year senior—like Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, and Lorenzo Mata-Real—is at least a little bit special for the Bruin coach. That quartet comprised Howland's first recruiting class at UCLA back in 2004, signing on with a guy they probably didn't know much about, trusting their basketball futures to him and helping deliver this three-year run of Pac-10 titles and Final Fours.

And while Shipp at times seems to match every good play he makes with a lackluster one moments later, he should be a key figure. Being a senior means something, and if Dijon Thompson, Ryan Hollins, and football's Drew Olson can make shocking transformations in their final seasons at UCLA, why not Shipp? He needs to exhibit more consistent effort at both ends, more discipline, and a willingness to rediscover his midrange game. Too much to ask? We'll see.

While all of this was playing out for the upcoming version of the Bruins, two 2009 recruits—Reeves Nelson and Brendan Lane, both highly-ranked forwards from Northern California—committed to UCLA, as the Howland recruiting train kept rumbling along. Plus, North Carolina's Alex Stepheson, an imposing, athletic post player from L.A., decided to transfer to a West Coast school to be closer to his family. No final decision has been made, but it looks good for him to choose UCLA, where he'd be eligible in 2009 for two more seasons.

All in all, a string of good results for the Bruins. Still, there was one final decision to be made: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's.

A rebounding and defending revelation from Cameroon when he burst onto the scene three seasons ago, Luc seemed a bit unlikely to leave now. His overall play, especially his offense and decision-making, had regressed. So good as a college four, he looked lost as a three (his projected pro position). But he declared anyway, and as the draft deadline neared, it became clear he wasn't just going through the process to get feedback. He mentally had moved on. "If I have to go back to college, I will," he said with little enthusiasm, in an interview.

Most commentators opined that Luc wasn't ready, and that there was a fair chance he wouldn't be drafted at all, but on June 16th, the junior forward announced that he would stay in the draft. Was it sheer economics? Bad advice? Wanting to move on from college life, and from Coach Howland? Did his series of injuries play into this thinking? It's not really clear, and it doesn't really matter. We'll wish him well, and see what happens on Thursday at the draft.

Still, in a kind of bittersweet way, Mbah a Moute's decision marks the end of an era at UCLA under Howland. If the Afflalo-Farmar-Shipp-Mata class of 2004 was the foundation of Howland's reclamation project, the class of 2005—Luc, Aboya, Collison, Roll (and the now-transferred Ryan Wright)—was the ground floor, and essentially cemented what the Bruin program was going to be like.

They were going to play defense, they were going to play hard, and smart, and tough. And, they seemed to say, "you may have more "talent" than we do, but we're going to beat you anyway."

Surprisingly, Luc ended up being the key figure in that class. Unheralded, under recruited from his Florida prep school, the lithe wing player from Cameroon arrived with little fanfare. But there was something about him, some hint he might be special… and as Bruin injuries piled up early on in his freshman year, Luc was thrust into the starting power forward slot. And he never came out, for three years.

From the first, he showed an uncanny rebounding ability, with great hands, long arms, exquisite timing and instinct, and a knack for making plays at key times. And he proved as that first season wore on that he was a defensive prodigy—a freak, in that he could essentially guard any opposing player, regardless of position, from point guards to centers.

I'll never forget sitting up close in Pauley during the 2006 USC game in that first season. Luc was matched against Trojan star Nick Young, an explosive athlete who in a few short months would be a first-round NBA draft pick. And little-known Luc fairly well dominated Young. Sticking him one-on-one, he'd patiently wait out a series of spins and fakes, before altering or outright snuffing Young's shot. Young became a non-factor, jacking up bad misses, turnovers, and the Bruins romped. It was flat-out impressive, elite level defending, the kind on which reputations are made. The kind which helps forge a team's identity. Opposing coaches recognized what made him special, and despite less-than-gaudy stats, named him the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.

But Luc's impact wasn't confined to games. Reports from UCLA practices were that Luc and his countryman Aboya brought an attitude and a sensibility almost from a bygone era. They were both excellent students, who really did want nothing more than to go to class, to play really hard in every practice, and to win. With egos that would fit in a thimble, and old-school toughness in an And-One Mix Tape Tour world, it wasn't just a breath of fresh air—Luc and Aboya were part of a cleansing tropical storm for a program not far removed from the malaise and rot of the Lavin era.

And Luc's signature moment proved to be the pivotal point of the Howland Era, thus far. How can you assess Luc's career without talking about that unreal sequence against Gonzaga in the 2006 Tourney? His calm catch and lay-up from Farmar's steal and dish to put UCLA up by one, and then a play that absolutely may never get its due, simply because it was so stunning: Luc chasing down Gonzaga point guard Derek Raivio from behind, and instinctively and inexplicably diving at the spot on the floor where Raivio's dribble would hit, and catching the ball as it hit the hardwood. Steal. Game over.

I've watched basketball for about three decades. I've never seen that play, before or since. Enough said.

A week later, at the Final Four, Luc outplayed LSU stars Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Tyrus Thomas in a Bruin romp, and his future seemed incredibly bright. "Ron Artest without the crazy," was one NBA scout's pithy assessment of the freshman from Cameroon. Future lottery pick status seemed reasonable.

But as a sophomore and junior, that huge learning curve flattened out. His defense was still fantastic, but overall he was not quite so consistent or memorable. A lasting impression I have of Luc's sophomore year is of him missing an inordinate amount of lay-ups. And this past season, his role undefined, he drifted between the post and the perimeter. He played like Freshman Luc in the Elite Eight against Xavier and was fantastic. He then jacked up bad shots against Memphis in the Final Four and looked ordinary.

But in the end, in assessing and appreciating Mbah a Moute, he was a three-year starter on a trio of Final Four teams. He peaked early, in many ways, and as his game became more "Americanized" and conventional, he became a bit less special. But Luc was an absolute warrior for UCLA, a gamer who did the unglamorous tasks of rebounding and defending incredibly well. And when he was out due to injury, it was pretty glaring how much his team missed him. It's too bad, in my opinion, that he didn't continue to play within himself more consistently in his final season. But that's life, sometimes. Freshman Luc was almost too good to be true, and those kinds of situations never stay that way for too long.

Give it some time and distance; and let those last few seconds against Gonzaga crystallize as the lasting UCLA memory of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, when his poise and instincts coalesced into an utterly unforgettable UCLA moment.

Back to the bottom line: Despite the losses of Love, Westbrook and Mbah a Moute, these chaotic two months have left the Bruins of 2009 in a surprisingly strong position. Still the class of the Pac-10, a fourth-consecutive Pac-10 title seems almost inevitable. Opposing conference teams must know that they're likely playing for second place, and have to be wondering when this recent cycle of UCLA hegemony might hit some real snags.

And to finish off, let's look at one of those teams: UCLA's continually imploding rival in Tucson. Once-proud Arizona, and once-proud (but now prickly) Lute Olson, spent the off-season in direct contrast to UCLA, repeatedly one-upping itself in search of new lows, and has become basically a cautionary tale for teams on top, and seeking to stay that way.

Now, one might think that a 73-year old man in an out-of-the-way desert town shouldn't be able to generate so much intense drama, spite, emotional wreckage, and general nastiness. But one would be wrong.

The entire Lute Olson saga—the season-long leave of absence, the undermining of interim coach Kevin O'Neill, then reclaiming his job as soon as the season was finished, which resulted in O'Neill's dismissal along with several assistant coaches—was sadly paralleled in his personal life, with a very messy and public split from his wife, which included financial allegations, sordid rumors, and constant questions about his health. Arizona beat writers must have felt like they were working at Us magazine, or or something.

And in terms of the Lute's handling of Wildcat players, things were just as bad. Worse, maybe.

First, star freshman and surefire lottery pick Jerryd Bayless turned pro, an absolute no-brainer. But Lute, instead of supporting the move and thanking Bayless for sticking out a difficult year that he himself created, chose to pout, and made the odd complaint that Bayless's agent hadn't spoken with Lute first before signing Bayless. He was quoted as saying it "wasn't very intelligent on Jerryd's part," and vowed that the agent would never be welcome at Arizona again.

Lute then poor mouthed the NBA readiness of his other star player, Chase Budinger, sometimes directly criticizing, and sometime damning him with faint praise. The whole thing was pretty transparent. "Save my season, Chase!" is how I read that subtext. Budinger eventually decided to return to Tucson.

Then came the case of star high school senior Emmanuel Negedu, who committed to Arizona and was excited to be a Wildcat…until he came for his official visit. Apparently, it was so poorly run that he didn't have a host, and stayed in his room most of the time. "Terrible," was his nutshell. His take on the players: "No one seemed happy." Shh…here it comes…Surprise! He de-committed.

Olson reacted understandably by calling Negedu and trying to persuade him to reconsider. Negedu said no thanks. Lute then gave an interview and said that the kid was a head case and they didn't want him anyway, that he was doing Arizona a favor by staying away. Negedu, when reached by a reporter for a response to those quotes, said he didn't know why Lute would say that, but still thought Lute was a fine coach and wished him well, and declined further comment—you know, a grown-up response. Negedu recently committed to Tennessee.

So, after the Negedu imbroglio, I happened to be watching a Seinfeld re-run. And while watching, I figured out who this new, emotionally labile, thin-skinned, irritable Lute is. Remember that episode where Elaine had this boyfriend who, whenever a girlfriend would end their relationship, would explode into a verbal torrent of vitriol, listing everything wrong with the girl?

Hmm, I thought. This is ringing a bell… angry, insecure, pissy. That's Lute! He's the Bad Breaker-Upper Guy! Just like in Seinfeld.

So what to make of the whole sordid mess? Well, I'm hardly immune to schadenfreude. I don't mind taking at least a little satisfaction when my team's rivals fall on hard times. But this dysfunctional saga is verging on being kind of sad, to the point where you almost can't even laugh at it.

Almost. Maybe I'll give it a few more weeks.

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