A Season of Disorientation

In this topsy-turvy, stop-and-start, indefinable season, our basketball columnist Kennedy Cosgrove tries to make sense -- from realizing there isn't much sense to make. But there are the seniors, who are certainly deserving of the attention they'll receive on Senior Day...

The 2009 UCLA basketball team is nothing if not disorienting, I'll give it that. So many corners have been turned, then u-turned, topped off with a 180-degree spinout. I'm about to whip out the GPS.

I mean, second place in the Pac 10? In March? Where are we? When are we? As a Lost fan (and a lost fan, at least this year), it's like my blue and gold sky went white, I got bombarded with some weird humming noise (or maybe it was just Barry Tompkins) and the UCLA island skipped through time to 2001 or something.

Consider: three weeks ago, UCLA was earning nationwide raves after going all black-smoke monster on Stanford, Cal, USC and Notre Dame in four straight blowouts at Pauley. Kool-aid drinking commenced, including by yours truly, and speculation centered on "winning out," a 1 vs. a 2 seed, Final Four chances, etc. The vibe was that this year's team could be special, too, like the previous three.

Then -- cue the white sky and deafening noise -- to the disastrous trip to the Arizona desert that was lamer than Daniel Faraday's skinny tie (okay, no more Lost references).

And though the clouds parted briefly with the nice rebound win vs. first-place Washington, the Bruins followed with that inexplicable home loss to Washington State, that basically scuttled any inside track UCLA had to the conference title. Two details that still rankle: Wazzu point guard Taylor Rochestie torching the Bruin guards for 33 points, and Jrue Holiday playing only 16 minutes, essentially being benched by Coach Howland, ostensibly for sub-par defense. Spalding Smails said it best, I think: Double turds.

I'm tempted to say that the Bruins' most recent weekend, which featured two very satisfying comeback wins in the Bay Area -- including at Cal on Saturday in ESPN GameDay's featured match-up, that was UCLA's biggest victory of the season -- is another corner turned, a harbinger of something good, some much needed momentum.

But who the hell knows?

I thought that by opening the Pac-10 season with three straight road wins at the Oregon schools and USC, UCLA made a big statement and, honestly, locked itself into a groove for consecutive Pac-10 title number four. I felt similarly when UCLA went on its four-game mauling spree a few weeks ago. And each time, an immediate letdown followed.

Confusing? Yep. Fun? Not so much.

But oddly compelling, in the sense that a season like this, to some degree, forces you to figure out what kind of fan you are.

Are you a bottom line, Pat Riley type -- there's winning and then there's misery? Then this season, with its seven losses already, in a very down year for the Pac-10 and with a terrible non-conference schedule, has been rough. There are games the Bruins lost that they shouldn't have, and frankly only a few games in which they've been truly impressive.

Are you a realist, who can see the context? Then maybe you're focused on the fact that Coach Ben Howland has weathered a ridiculous string of early-NBA draft entries the past three seasons, including the top three players from last year's team, and still has his guys fighting for a conference title, in the top 20, and in line for a top 5 (or so) seed in the tourney?

Are you a glass half full kind of fan? Well then, Nikola Dragovic, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya have all been very pleasant surprises.

Or is your glass half empty? Then, I suppose, you could say that Darren Collison's play has been just uneven enough, on both ends, that 2009 hasn't been the All-American, Conference-Player-of-the-Year type of campaign that some envisioned. Holiday has been good but not great, and the rest of the freshmen really haven't made the consistent impact that most Bruin fans had hoped for.

I'm still trying to figure out exactly where I stand -- probably some mixture of all of the above. But one thing for certain, in this strange season: most of the predictions I made in my preseason column were flat-out wrong.

A sampling from my column back on November:

-- "Holiday will be UCLA's best player." Well, that still might be true. Just not this season.

-- "James Keefe will be asked to channel some of Luc's rebounding and defense but not the bricklaying." Ouch. Seriously, have at it.

-- "Alfred Aboya will be asked to bull around the china shop without breaking too much stuff." What a disservice that line turned out to be, for the man who is the soul of the team.

[Blank space.] That's what I wrote about Nikola Dragovic, who earned a starting spot and has become one of the team's most important, and consistent, players.

-- To be fair, I predicted that if Josh Shipp understood his role, he could have an effective season. And he's done that and a lot more. Shipp has played better and more within himself offensively than at any time during his Bruin career. Remember the guy who two seasons ago never met an off-balance, feet not-quite-set, 23-foot jumper that he could turn down? He's pretty much gone. My favorite statistic of the season is Shipp scoring 19 points against USC without even attempting one three-pointer.

Starting with the game at Washington early on January 24th, Shipp is leading the team in scoring by averaging 17 points per game, shooting 55% overall from the field, 54% on three-pointers, and 80% on free throws. For a player whose flaws have been well-documented, kudos are in order for his performance this season.

-- "[Darren Collison] must have a great senior year for UCLA to do anything noteworthy. And he probably will." Partly right. I think.

With only two regular-season games left, it's pretty clear what the themes are for this season. The road tells all. It's all about the upperclassmen. Alfred Aboya is snark-proof, simply the most likable and frankly even inspirational Bruin players in a long, long time.

And, finally, there is the curious case of Jrue Holiday. Holiday has been very effective at times, and is pretty clearly the most gifted passer on the team, who does most things (handle, drive, play defense) well, certainly very well considering he's an 18-year old freshman.

But when you're named the national high school player of the year, and you're following the guy at UCLA who won the same award the year before, and who proceeded to have a phenomenal, expectation-shattering freshman year, then the hype and the hopes are pretty high. And understandably so.

Is it fair? Depends on where you're sitting. I think it is, mostly.

There's a great anecdote about the actor Bill Murray, that his friend and director Harold Ramis told. The two got lost while on vacation, in a remote jungle on a South Pacific island, and they stumbled on a village of non-English speaking, non-modernized islanders. Within a few minutes, language and cultural barriers be damned, Murray had somehow, effortlessly, taken center stage, charmed them all and was holding court for the natives, who of course helped the two men back to civilization.

Ramis marveled, and simply said: "When you see the hero, you just know it."

I love that idea when applied to athletes, as a kind of barometer of how they rate at the highest echelons. For Bruin fans in the Howland Era, Kevin Love personified this trait from shockingly early in his freshman year. Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo, to a lesser extent, did too, and certainly as sophomores.

Holiday has only intermittently flashed that kind of potential -- where there's little doubt that he is the hero, and you just know it -- and perhaps most tellingly, never away from Pauley Pavilion. There is no analogous Holiday game to point to like Love's demolition of Oregon at Mac Court last season. In fact, in UCLA's last six games, Holiday has scored in double figures only once. In the Bruins' three recent losses, he's scored zero, six and one point, respectively.

Not the stuff of which legends are made, clearly, but if he were a typical freshman, big deal. Learning curve, inexperience, and all that, and the real jump figures to happen between freshman and sophomore year in any event. But that's not the case here, because there is the constant undercurrent of speculation that Holiday will be gone from UCLA basketball in a few weeks, off to the NBA lottery because his potential is so good, while down the back stretch of the conference season, he regressed to a surprising degree. That, to me, is the part that's hard for a fan to make sense of.

But in this season that has been so hard to figure, that conundrum is par for the course.

This weekend I could see this team building on the Bay Area road wins and trouncing both Oregon schools, followed up by making a nice run through the Pac-10 tourney, and positioning itself pretty well for the Big Dance. It also wouldn't 100% shock me if UCLA struggled with one of the Oregon schools, even to the point of flirting with a massive upset loss. That really might just be one U-turn too many.

But my prediction: the Bruins win both, comfortably, and on Saturday versus the Ducks, on Senior Day, send off Messrs. Collison, Shipp, and Aboya in style. For three guys who have meant so much to the Ben Howland Era at UCLA, it would only be fitting.

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