Season Ends with Dose of Reality

Tougher, stronger and more athletic Villanova ended UCLA's season in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday, beating up UCLA and throwing them out of the Wachovia Center, 89-69, like a bum in a bar. Of course, UCLA fans everywhere are grumbling, but was it fair to expect more?

UCLA's season came to an unsightly end in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when they were spanked by #3-seed Villanova, 89-69.

Villanova was bigger, stronger, more athletic and played harder.

Not much more analysis needed, really. That will get you ever time in sports.

We've been pointing out all season the limitations of this team. Mostly it was a team-wide lack of toughness and physicality, coupled with individual players that have some shortcomings in their game. That led to uncharacteristically poor defense for a Ben Howland-coached team.

The shortcomings were obvious and they were exposed throughout the season and it wasn't that tough to see them exposed again. What was tough to watch was the seeming lack of desire and effort against Villanova, again something uncharacteristic for a Howland team.

It did look like the team lacked heart, and threw in the towel once it was clear Villanova was much better than they were.

That is easily the most disturbing, and probably the most damaging to Howland's program. Howland has been recruiting well based on the premise that a recruit could come to UCLA, and at the very least, learn fundamentals, learn how to play tough defense and learn how to sustain a high level of effort.

That game, as a national showcase, with TV announcers Dick Enberg and Jay Bilas almost reluctantly wondering – forced to do it – how a Howland team could be so soft, physically and mentally, and fold like they did, might have set back the impression of the UCLA program. Or, it might have blown it out of the water altogether.

Howland has a lot in the bank for those three Final Four runs in terms of job security. The smarter heads who prevail, like UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, I'm sure aren't dissuaded in their opinion of his job performance. It would have to take, well, about three more seasons of a similar performance for that to happen.

But those are the opinions of smarter heads. The other ones, like with fans – not just UCLA fans, but nationwide – and that of recruits and their families, might not be as level-headed.

Howland has shown his first true vulnerability in four years. Yes, he lost a championship game and two semi-final games, but as we've maintained for a while – games like that mostly come down to randomness, of the match-up and the moment. The trick is getting your team into those potential championship moments as often as possible, which Howland was clearly doing. But this season, and that Villanova game, definitely displayed a chink in the armor.

It's not something that is irreversible. If Howland's UCLA team next season comes out and sustains toughness and plays defense and rebounds, the 2008-2009 season will be considered an aberration.

And it very well probably is.

Fans tend to look past the details of their favorite team and react emotionally. There are plenty of disconsolate UCLA fans out there right now, and I'm certain their emotions are clouding their judgment while they dwell on the bad images they took away from Saturday's game.

But, it's not difficult to analyze what happened here. Howland got caught this season with a personnel issue. He just didn't have the horses, as was very, very evident against Villanova. And it wasn't just the physical horses but the mental horses.

That will happen in any program. It's absolutely impossible to string together, say, 5 or 6 consecutive years of reaching Final Fours or, even, Elite Eights. In today's college basketball, where your roster is turning over constantly due to NBA jumpers, it's impossible to achieve that kind of continuity of success.

A year like this one had to be expected. Sooner or later. If your standards don't accept that then maybe you need to limit your sports fanship to, say, Tiger Woods. No, wait, Woods is in an all-too human slump, that's right. Maybe you need to find the complete DVD collection of the Wooden Years and keep playing them over and over because that distant remnant of history has no resemblance to modern day college sports.

Yes, it is frustrating the way UCLA lost to Villanova, with seemingly little heart. But that's all part of the deal here, folks. There are going to be times when the personnel just isn't very good, both athletically and sometimes mentally. Not even Howland, who we've seen do it before, can extract the type of desire and effort every time with every roster he has every year.

Some, then, will point to Howland's recruiting, which is naïve. Howland has a great deal in the bank in terms of recruiting, bringing in at least one player who went beyond expectations for every one that didn't. In our haste to hang something, let's not forget to give Howland credit for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alfred Aboya, Lorenzo Mata, Russell Westbrook and, yes, Darren Collison. Those were guys that weren't highly regarded as high school recruits that he saw something in, and they turned out to be invaluable parts of three Final Four teams. You have to understand: in recruiting, it's not like there's a Recruit Store out there that Howland can go shop in. It's not Recruiting Costco, where there are huge aisles of tough, physical guys who look like Dante Cunningham or Jon Brockman. It's more like AM/PM. There's some good stuff in there, but not much of it, and not much to go around. And there's quite a bit of junk for sale, too, like trucker hats. If there was a rush on, say, Reese's Pieces at AM/PM, how long before they'd run out?

Recruiting for college coaches is like being on a long road trip and you pull into an AM/PM in Visalia and often times you have to settle for what you can get.

Many times, if you're UCLA, you have enough players with strength at both ends of the floor to mask the ones you have that don't. But sometimes, especially when you lose Mbah a Moute, Westbrook and Kevin Love early to the NBA Draft, the next season you might not have that quality at both ends of the court.

Could there be another season when UCLA loses three first-round NBA draft picks in one season? Hopefully. Because that means UCLA would have had a darn talented roster the season before – one of those seasons where Howland puts UCLA in a prime position to win it all.

With the way recruiting is, you can't expect UCLA to have the likes of Westbrook, Mbah a Moute, Love, Mata, and Collison every year. I would think it would be reasonable, given how Howland's recruiting, that every few seasons the stars might align and Howland will have enough talent to win a national championship. But not every year. And certainly not, say, 9 of 10 years, or not even 4 of 5 years. And it's not reasonable to expect that you're going to get just one "down" year (and saying a 26-9 season is a "down" year just goes to show you how relative all this is, and how spoiled UCLA fans have gotten very quickly under Howland). You can sometimes expect two or maybe even three rebuilding years, when UCLA maybe gets bumped in the second round or makes just the Sweet 16. After North Carolina won a national championship in 2005, it went 23-8 (second round loss in the NCAA) in 2006. Florida won back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007 and now hasn't been back to the NCAA Tournament since.

So, UCLA fans, you've been spoiled by the three Final Four runs. Howland made it look easy. But it's not. In fact, there were some very random miracles for UCLA that made those three Final Four runs possible (Gonzaga comes to mind). Even in 1995, when UCLA was clearly the best team in the country, it still needed 4.8 seconds of a miracle to win a national championship.

So, adjust your expectations. Don't demand that UCLA comes back and makes a Final Four run next season to make up for this season because those type of unrealistic expectations are setting yourself up for disappointment.

Le't start off with baby steps for next season. Let's set an expectation that, with the personnel UCLA will have, the team will be young, prone to mistakes, and probably not as effective offensively. But let's venture to say it's reasonable to expect the team to play consistently harder, and return to a tougher style of defense.

Let's start with that.

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