This Season: Trust Your Eyes

Our hoops columnist, Kennedy Cosgrove, pauses to reflect before UCLA jumps into the NCAA Tournament tomorrow. It's taken him the entire season to realize this team would not reincarnate into one of the Final Four versions, and to trust what he's seeing...

Hard to believe that the UCLA basketball team that got waxed by USC last Friday was the same team that itself dominated the Trojans in early February.

But, as my buddy Pete recently advised (we were talking about the economy, but I think it applies to hoops, too), trust your eyes. Don't be blinded by wishful thinking, or how things used to be -- even six weeks ago.

With that said, what to make of this ‘SC debacle in the Pac-10 Tournament semi-final? On one hand, that Trojan team bore no resemblance to the team pounded at Pauley back in February. And I have to say I've not seen a Tim Floyd USC team play that hard, ever.

Still, trust your eyes. It was one game, but it exposed every flaw the 2009 Bruins have -- marginal inside game, inconsistent defense and toughness, over-reliance on three-pointers, a lack of any starters who are really good on both ends of the floor, etc. The 65-55 scoreline flattered the Bruins, who came out flat, were never the aggressor, and trailed the entire game.

All very un-Bruin like, at least in the Ben Howland years. It's interesting; for the past few seasons, I've thought Coach Ben Howland's teams have been essentially blowout-proof. They worked so hard, played such intense defense and never gave up, that even when the Bruins lost, they'd end up making it close, somehow, some way. And that was basically true, until this season.

But 2009, clearly, is a new reality. It's own reality. I've slowly gone from trusting the process (my preseason mantra) to trusting my eyes.

And in this new reality, my peepers have seen that these Bruins can have games (both Arizona State contests, at Arizona, and last Friday vs. USC) where UCLA looks disturbingly similar to the opponents that it rolled over the past three seasons. The kind of teams I've subconsciously developed a kind of disdain for: not mentally tough, not physical enough, or poised enough, or good enough. The tables have turned. Hello, sports fan hubris. ‘Sup. Been awhile.

And what's so draining for us fans is that sandwiched around some of these stinkers are contests where the Bruins can look fairly good. To wit: the night before the SC game, the Bruins cruised past a tired but hot Washington State team in the Pac-10 tourney quarterfinal. Bruin guards Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday smothered their Cougar counterparts, Taylor Rochestie and Klay Thompson (3 of 22 from the field), the Bruins went on an early 21-0 run, led by double digits for most of the game and gained sweet revenge after getting upset in Pauley Pavilion a couple weeks ago.

Okay, I thought after the Wazzu game, it's March—maybe they're locking in. Despite this team lacking any great players, despite all their flaws, which include a string of very telling mediocre performances on the road, maybe the annual Howland alchemy could somehow be kicking in.

Uh, not so much. Because after the loss to USC, that game against Washington State, as well as the two blowouts of the Oregon schools the week before, didn't seem too meaningful. Not when some Trojan named Marcus Simmons can come out of nowhere, play 38 minutes and look as athletic as hell in shutting down Collison (1 of 9 shooting and seven turnovers, bruised tailbone and all). Not when Holiday goes 0 for 8 with four turnovers. It's just dispiriting.

Even the one guy who was putting the ball in the bucket for UCLA, senior swingman Josh Shipp (team-high 19 points), wasn't exactly dominating. I will say, though, that without his scoring in the first half, things would have been a lot worse.

It's interesting. Shipp's offensive numbers have been really impressive recently. Over the last 10 Pac-10 games, he's led the team -- by far -- with 18.8 points per game, 56% FG shooting, 51% on three-pointers, and a very efficient 1.50 points per shot.

But UCLA is 6-4 in those games.

And if I'm trusting my eyes, I have to say that I still take it all with a grain of salt. For example, I Tivo'ed the Oregon State game a couple of weeks ago, but heard before I watched it that Shipp had outscored the Beavers by himself, 22-19, at halftime. I sat down in front of the flat screen with the mild expectation that Shipp would've have looked dominating, maybe pull a man-against-boys act in his penultimate Pauley appearance. But to be honest, it was somehow a kind of quiet 22 points. He hit a few open threes, got a couple transition buckets, got to the line a little. Took a couple poor shots that found their way in. And before you know it, 22. Not to criticize; believe me, any Bruin fan will take it. Very efficient. But I wasn't watching greatness, I know that.

I will say that, on the plus side, there are times that Shipp is the only Bruin who looks remotely confident on the court. He does finish on the break. He can make clutch free throws. He's a crafty scorer, to be sure. So I'll give him kudos for that.

And if he'd been That Guy down the stretch last year, on a loaded team that needed one more guy to be a dead-eye jump shooter and efficient offensive player, well, that's pretty tantalizing -- painful, really-- to think about. Last year's team would have been a good fit for this-year's Shipp – with some very talented guys who play were good on both ends of the court that could have made up for Shipp's deficiencies and could have really used that one additional offensive threat. Yeah, had Shipp's maturation come one year earlier it might have meant Banner 12.

But this year, I don't know. I still see too much of Shipp and Collison seeming to look only for each other on the perimeter, and dominating the ball too much. And no Bruin except for Alfred Aboya is consistently doing the things that Howland loves—defending, rebounding, and playing with physicality -- which is a big part of UCLA's problem.

But enough doom and gloom. It's March and it's time for some positive vibes. So I'm giving big ups to spidery freshman guard Malcolm Lee, who once again came in for limited minutes and made things happen when few others were -- which brings me to a conversation that my buddy Gip and I keep having lately. A thought experiment, if you will.

Pretend you don't know who Lee and Holiday are. Pretend you have no idea where they were ranked coming out of high school, their stats, their history, and just watch them on the court for a few minutes.

Look at how tall they are, and how long; look at their lateral quickness, their hops, their fluidity. Look at their shooting stroke, and how easily they score, their on-court demeanor.

Could anyone with no previous knowledge of these two freshmen, after watching them both for a little bit, honestly say that that there's no question why one guy is getting 30 minutes per game, and the other guy is an afterthought who plays no significant role in the Bruin game plans this year? Just asking.

And I don't say all that to denigrate Holiday. Far from it. Basically, I'm just liking Lee more and more, each time I see him. Given that he will be back in Westwood next season, I'm anticipating a major step forward for him next year. Major.

I'm going to save my extended thoughts on Mr. Holiday for a later column, but suffice to say I'm very curious to see what kind of an NCAA tournament he has. Very.

Because for one thing, his stats the past 10 games are just painful to look at: 5.1 points per game despite getting 28 minutes per; 31% FG shooting, 31% on treys (he's only made five in 10 games), and a terrible 0.83 points per shot. He's earned only 10 free throw attempts that entire time. When your starting shooting guard averages one free throw attempt per game, and averages one made three-pointer every two games, you're in trouble. UCLA has lost four of those 10 games, and in three of the four losses, Holiday has not scored a basket. You read that correctly. In those three games, he's scored zero, one, and one point, respectively. I know he's done other things well (he still thrills with regularly with the sick, visionary pass, he can rebound, he can defend), and even though numbers don't tell the whole story, but wow. Just wow.

In fact, there are some parallels between Holiday and the team as a whole: really good in a few blowout home wins, surprisingly ineffective in the losses, and staring down a last chance at salvaging something memorable from a fairly forgettable season, which failed to produce a Pac-10 title, a conference tournament championship, or even an obligatory pre-season tournament title. In pro soccer, a season like this, with no trophies of any kind -- "no silverware" -- is regarded as a failure at a Big Club. And UCLA (like North Carolina, UConn, Duke, Kansas and a handful of others) is a Big Club.

But hope springs eternal and all that, and Howland could stay at UCLA for 40 years and I'd have a hard time re-setting my Bruin thermostat in the cynical/pessimistic range.

And so, on the eve of the tourney, here's how I'm seeing the possibilities:

--First-round loss to Virginia Commonwealth = Disaster. Think Charles O'Bannon getting backdoored by one of Princeton's future investment bankers in '96. Think yearly reminder on the highlight shows: "And who can forget VCU taking down UCLA in 2009?" Ack. My only solace would be that I don't know any VCU alums.

--Win vs. VCU, but bad loss to Villanova = Better than the previous scenario, but still could be considered underachieving. Would rank as Howland's most disappointing team in his six-year Bruin tenure, I'd think.

--Convincing first-round win, and a close, well-played loss to a Villanova team playing a home game in Philly = About what I'd expect, honestly; probably an accurate level for this team. The Bruins haven't beaten a good team away from Pauley Pavilion (yes, I realize Cal is part of that net).

--Sweet 16 = Suddently it's a nice tourney run. Making the second weekend is always big and, frankly, the best that can reasonably be hoped for with this team.

--Elite Eight = Shocking, in a great way. Definitely too much to expect.

--Final Four = Miraculous. Not George Mason in '06 miraculous, or NC State '83 miraculous, but still.

And as much as I want to say that there's absolutely no way that a fourth-straight Final Four could happen... of course it could. It's nearly unfathomable, but this is the Tourney, the greatest American sporting event with the coolest postseason format, where crazy stuff happens just often enough that teams from nowhere get to dream some pretty big dreams. And UCLA, warts and all this year, will never be a team from nowhere.

So what the hell, like my tourney brackets perpetually filled out by my heart and not my head, I'll call the Bruins to the Sweet 16. And then we'll see what happens.


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