UCLA Basketball Season in Review

While many fans might think the UCLA basketball team didn't reach expectations this season, watching them throughout the year and seeing their limitations, you could say they did about as well as expected. Here's a post-mortem on the season...

With the 2008-2009 season in the books, I thought I'd offer my perspective on the season as a whole.

Overall, I thought this Bruin team did about as well as could be expected, given the limitations of its roster. Maybe they could've won, or lost, a couple more games with some good/bad breaks. But they played in a pretty narrow range all year, never having any terrible losses (until the last game) or great wins. There was a lot of talk about the team being inconsistent, but the reality is the Bruins were pretty consistent. They were good enough to beat the bad teams, but vulnerable to any teams that were mediocre or better. At their best, the Bruins could beat a good UW team at Pauley or a solid Cal team on the road. At their worst, the Bruins could lose at home to a mediocre Washington State team.

Once the season starts, everyone naturally focuses on the strengths/weaknesses of each player, who should be playing/sitting and all the mistakes they believe Coach Howland is making ("if he wouldn't be so stubborn, and play a zone, this team could be in the Final Four"). But the truth is that all of the in-season issues were not nearly as important as the decisions made the previous spring by the three underclassmen to leave the program. Those decisions by Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute determined, to a large degree, the course of this season. Obviously, Love and Westbrook had to leave college to be the fourth and fifth picks in the draft. So it really came down to the decision of one player – Mbah a Moute. Luc's decision was not so clear-cut. He had no first-round assurances and he was hoping to be a second round pick. Of the three, Luc was the one who very easily could've come back to UCLA. If he had returned for a senior year, I feel pretty confident that the Bruins would've won the Pac-10, been somewhere in the neighborhood of a two seed and would probably still be playing this weekend in Glendale, Ariz. Obviously, there's no way to know that for sure. But given that this Bruin team's main deficiencies were rebounding and defending -- Luc's two areas of strength -- I think it's a reasonable assumption.

Of course, once the season starts you go with what you've got. And this Bruin team wasn't completely devoid of talent, particularly when it came to the ability to put the ball in the basket. UCLA was among the nation's leaders in offensive efficiency and led the Pac-10 in field goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage. The problem, of course, is there's more to the game than just putting the ball in the basket. If you've been paying any attention at all to the previous three years, you realize that things like rebounding, defense, toughness (mental and physical), experience and leadership all matter. And in those areas, this Bruin team sometimes came up short. Not every one of them, and not all the time, but often enough to cause this season to fall short of the previous three.

The problem that Coach Howland faced all year was that when he addressed one of those areas by playing a certain guy, he left himself with a deficit in another area. All of the main guys in the rotation could do certain things well, bring some positive attributes to the table, but they also had a negative. Not a single guy on this team was a complete player, able to consistently bring positives at both ends of the court. So for Coach Howland it became a pick-your-poison type of deal. Do you want to lose because you can't score enough? Or because you can't stop the other team? Or because you can't grab a rebound? Because this UCLA team wasn't going to do all of those things well at the same time.

In terms of the individual performances, Darren Collison was UCLA's best player over the course of the season. He was certainly the best offensive player, averaging 14 points a game and becoming the go-to guy when someone needed to create a shot late in the game. And while he's not a true point guard, and lacks a great feel as well as vision, Collison still managed a respectable assist/turnover ratio of almost 2/1. Where Collison struggled, however, was at the defensive end of the court. There were times – like during the four-game home winning streak – where he did a good job of putting pressure on the ball and either creating turnovers or helping to take the opposition out of its offense. And the rest of the players seemed to take their defensive cues from Collison. When he was going well, the rest of the team seemed to step up defensively. But there were also far too many times where Collison either didn't put pressure on the ball, couldn't stay in front of his man or lost his man to open shots. Collison obviously had a lot of responsibility at the offensive end, but his defensive inconsistency was a problem this year. He didn't play with a consistent sense of urgency and the Bruins needed better senior leadership in that area from him.

Jrue Holiday came to UCLA amid much fanfare and expectations. He was one of the top couple prospects in the country for 2008 and knowledgeable observers expected him to be one of the impact freshmen in the country this year. And by normal standards for a freshman, Holiday had a very good first year. He averaged eight points a game, he was third on the team in rebounds, second in assists, steals and blocks. He was also given the assignment of defending the opposition's best wing in virtually every game. Overall, Holiday made a huge contribution to this Bruin team. Of course, when you come to college with the accolades that Holiday received there are very high expectations. And in terms of his ability to score the ball, Holiday fell short of those expectations. Midway through the season, Holiday was actually shooting the ball fairly well. For the season, Holiday shot 45% from the field. But for the last 12 games of the year, Holiday shot only 31% from the field. He clearly lost some confidence in his shot as the season went on. He also went through a typical freshman learning curve at the defensive end of the court. He had some notable lapses on defense, but also had moments where he made a big contribution at that end (his defense on Demar DeRozan was a primary reason UCLA won at USC).

For whatever reason, Holiday never really looked entirely comfortable on the court. I thought he looked tentative at times and other times he would make bad decisions and be overly aggressive. He rarely seemed sure of what he wanted to do, other than during the four-game winning streak at Pauley (when the entire team seemed to be clicking and in sync). His best moments were clearly when he had the ball in his hands and he was looking to make plays for others. The fact that he had 129 assists to Collison's 169, despite playing 153 minutes (almost four games) less than Collison, and with Collison handling the ball the vast majority of the time, speaks to Holiday's impressive vision and passing ability. Of course, this is just one example of the many dilemmas facing Coach Howland this year. Holiday was best making plays for others, but Collison was a returning preseason All-American playing the position of point guard.

Josh Shipp made huge improvements this season at the offensive end of the court. After some early season miscues, he cut down on his forced shots and ill-conceived "drives to nowhere." He became the top three-point shooter in the league and also improved his ability to score in other ways. He stepped up several times when the Bruins were struggling to score and knocked down big shots. Coming into the season, Shipp was a career 31% three-point shooter at UCLA. This year, he shot 54% from that range in Pac-10 play. That's an astonishing improvement in one year and a big reason that UCLA's offense was much better this year compared to previous years.

Of course, like every other player on this Bruin team, Shipp had his problems in other areas. He's always given an inconsistent effort at the defensive end and this year was no different. With teams that had guys like Luc, Russell Westbrook, Ryan Hollins and Arron Afflalo defending, that wasn't always a big deal. This year, there were no big-time defenders to take up the slack and Shipp's deficiencies in that area hurt a lot more. He also did a poor job passing the ball. An assist/turnover ratio of 1/1.2 is not good, especially for a 5th year senior wing. But it was in the area of rebounding that I thought Shipp really hurt the Bruins. He was sixth on the team in rebounds per game, behind guys like James Keefe and Drew Gordon who played far less minutes. He averaged less than one rebound per game more than Darren Collison. Frankly, that's just not acceptable from a guy who is supposed to be a senior leader. Yes, Shipp stepped up at the offensive end and there's no question he made huge contributions in that area that led to some wins. But there's also no question this team was lacking, at times, in toughness, competitiveness and leadership. And Shipp has to take a portion of the blame for those deficits.

After a forgettable first two years at UCLA, Nikola Dragovic made huge strides this season. While he always had a reputation as a shooter, Dragovic had never actually shown in real games that he was, in fact, a shooter. But when Coach Howland stuck with him despite some early season struggles, Dragovic caught fire and became a real weapon as a three-point shooter. He also showed some surprising passing skills and a nice feel at the offensive end. Where he struggled, though, was with rebounding and defense. His rebounding still isn't good, but he did get a little better at it as the season went on. His defense, however, is below average and that's an area where he really hurt the Bruins when he was on the court. He was poor both in terms of his individual defense, as well as his help defense. Again, a typical dilemma for Howland this year. Play Dragovic, and get more scoring, but give up something on boards and defense. Or play Keefe, get less production offensively, but improved defense and rebounding.

While Alfred Aboya has his limitations as a player, it's scary to think about where this UCLA team would've been without him if he had decided not to return for his senior year. You think the defense was bad this year? Just imagine how bad it would've been if Aboya hadn't constantly been plugging holes for beaten teammates and taking charges. I spoke with a Bruin assistant midway through the season about Aboya and he offered the following comment. "Forget about the rebounds, or points he scores, or the defense he plays. Alfred changes the game just by the sheer amount of energy he puts out and by how hard he plays." Aboya had his struggles against some bigger post players and he seemed to wear down a bit towards the end of the season. But it's hard to find much fault with a guy that gave what he gave to the program and played with such energy and passion every time he stepped on the court. Collison might've been UCLA's best player this year, but Aboya was the one who came closest to maximizing his ability.

Like the rest of the starters, the Bruin reserves all had some good and bad moments to varying degrees. Mike Roll was the most productive guy off the bench. After a frustrating year off due to injuries (a shame that he never got to play with Kevin Love), Roll shot the ball extremely well. He was also one of the better passers on the team and the best decision-maker on the squad with the highest assist/turnover ratio. His limited athleticism hurt him in terms of his ability to finish and rebound, but he managed to play adequate defense due to his effort and savvy.

Malcolm Lee showed plenty of promise, especially in terms of his athleticism and defensive potential. A mid-season injury really set him back, though, just as he was starting to gain Coach Howland's confidence. He had to sit out a few weeks when he was playing his best basketball and it took him a while to get back to that level. Fellow freshman Jerime Anderson had some very good and not-so-good moments this season. Which isn't surprising given his role on the team. I'm not sure fans realize just how tough it is to play a couple minutes a half when you're a freshman trying to adjust to the college game. And it's even tougher if you're trying to play the position of point guard. Anderson didn't have many minutes available with Collison, and sometimes Holiday, in front of him. But he showed enough to make me believe he'll eventually be a very good point guard for the Bruins.

James Keefe came into the season twenty pounds heavier than last year and I thought it cost him something in terms of quickness, agility and explosiveness. He wasn't moving nearly as well as he did at the end of last year when he played the best basketball of his career. Combine that with what appeared to be a loss of confidence after some early season struggles, and Dragovic taking the starting job, and Keefe never seemed to get on track this year. Freshman big man Drew Gordon showed athleticism, energy and a willingness to rebound, but also displayed a somewhat raw offensive game and shaky defense. Of course, he's a freshman and that's not exactly surprising. It was encouraging to see his willingness to be physical and I do think he has a chance to be an excellent rebounder. He just has to slow down at times and learn some nuances of the game. Fellow freshman post Bobo Morgan came to school out of shape and was never able to get in the rotation. Morgan has the size and body you're looking for in a post player, as well as some decent low-post offensive skills. The question for Bobo will be whether he wants to put in the work necessary to become a player. This off-season will be huge for Morgan. Despite speculation about a possible transfer, I'm hearing that Morgan is expected to return to the Bruins next year.

Looking at this season from the standpoint of the preseason rankings, one would probably characterize this year as a disappointment. But I think it's pretty clear those rankings were misguided and too much faith was placed in the returning seniors, as well as the highly-touted freshman class. The seniors were role players on the teams that went to Final Fours. They played big roles, no question, but they were role players surrounded by pros. The freshmen, while talented and promising, made all the mistakes and showed all the deficiencies that you associate with freshmen.

But while I don't characterize this season as a disappointment, I certainly wouldn't call it satisfying. Did this team reach its highest potential? Probably not. I think we saw during the four-game home winning streak what the ceiling was for this team. Nobody expects them to play to their ceiling every time out, but I think they probably could've been at that level a little more often and it certainly would've been nice to be playing that way at the end of the season. If they had done that, the Bruins get a higher seed and avoid a trip to Philadelphia. But for whatever reason, that didn't happen and the Bruins were knocked out by a far superior Villanova team.

Next year brings in five new freshmen and a completely different dynamic with a very young team. There will be three returning seniors, but Roll, Keefe and Dragovic won't have the same kind of roles that Collison, Shipp and Aboya had this year. It's impossible to know how quickly young players will develop, but I'm excited to see a new group. They may not be as experienced next year, but the Bruins will have a lot of talent and it should be fun to watch them grow together.

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