And as the season progressed, and the reality checks kept hitting -- freshmen weren't interchangeable with veterans, it turned out; complementary players couldn't become stars just because they tried really hard; and the NBA draft really had gutted the squad -- a few things became increasingly clear.
First, the idea of earning another Final Four berth was essentially magical thinking. There was no way Coach Ben Howland could MacGyver this squad into an elite team, though you can't blame your average Bruin fan for hoping he could, especially during that mid-season mirage of blue-and-gold blowouts.
Second, I feel like UCLA watchers just witnessed the undeniable conclusion of something significant, as Messrs. Collison, Shipp and Aboya finished their college careers. These three seniors were the last core group of players from Howland's first two recruiting classes, which turned out to be a special group of players that revitalized and rebuilt a Bruin program that had fallen into ignominy.
And third, it's now time to deal and regroup. For Howland, for the players remaining, and for the incoming freshmen who arrive in Westwood this summer. Essentially, they've got to reinvent the Bruins again.
And while this is hardly the reclamation project that awaited Howland when he arrived in Westwood in 2003, in a strange way, the task might prove to be trickier.
By this point, the perceptive reader may notice that I haven't yet mentioned the 89-69 Philly cheesesteak dished out to UCLA by Final Four-bound Villanova two weekends ago in the -- ack! -- second round of the tourney. That's because, well, what else is there to say? Disappointing, disheartening, disastrous, it was a sad redux of the humbling by USC a week earlier. The same personnel limitations were made evident, and the same weaknesses exposed, only this time on national TV, with Dick Enberg and Jay Bilas providing the autopsy report.
After watching that thrashing, former Bruin/current Laker Jordan Farmar summed up the state of his alma mater: "They had a pretty great run for quite a while," he told the LA Times. "Now they have to pretty much restart. The older guys are going to be gone now, so it's up to the young guys to take it over again like we had to."
That pretty much sums up things. And while it sounds simple, it might not be so easy.
Back in 2003, when Howland arrived at his dream job and began the overhaul by immediately signing Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Lorenzo Mata-Real, and Shipp -- the nucleus of a new, fundamentally sound, defense-first approach in Westwood -- the Bruins were starting from ground zero. Not ideal, but it offered the advantage of being pretty straightforward (the après-Lavin motto: "Nowhere to go but up!"), with tons of early minutes for the newbies, lowered expectations, and an almost-reasonable amount of patience from the UCLA fanbase.
Cut to now. As Farmar said, it will again be up to the "young guys," like rising sophomores Jrue Holiday (maybe), Malcolm Lee, Drew Gordon and Jerime Anderson, and incoming frosh like Tyler Honeycutt, Mike Moser, and Brendan Lane.
The talent, though green, figures to be there. My question: Will the Bruins play Ben Ball, that relies so heavily on attitude, effort, and intangibles? That will be the interesting part. Because if one thing was frightfully evident this season, it's that maintaining a high level of achievement doesn't just happen by inertia, hyped-up recruiting rankings, or the expectations that were built on the backs of the teams that have come before. To borrow the saying about money in politics, complacency in a winning program can seem like water on a sidewalk: seeping into the cracks.
Honestly, I'd love to say with confidence that this year was an aberration and not a harbinger, that Howland and his staff knew they'd only have Kevin Love for a year, but might have been caught a bit off-guard by Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's NBA exodus last spring, and that this perfect storm just left too big of a personnel and leadership vacuum to fill. I'd love to reference Notorious B.I.G. in "Mo Money, Mo Problems," in noting that all success comes with a price, and in college hoops, being really good means that your really good players go pro early. Ultimately, it's a better problem to have than not.
And all that could be true. After all, the 2009 Bruins, despite their limitations, were a whisker away from their fourth consecutive Pac-10 championship. As many have opined, if even one of the three early departures had returned this year, UCLA probably would have won the Pac-10, earned a high seed, and gone deeper in the Tourney.
But as I watched this year's blue-and-gold model look a lot less tough, savvy, or selfless than any of the three previous seasons, it was pretty obvious that just because guys like Afflalo, Mata-Real, Mbah a Moute, and Westbrook used to be on the team, doesn't mean the guys who replace them inherit their talent, their maturity, their heart, by osmosis.
No, those kind of things have to be earned.
Bruin fans have gotten pretty used to watching Howland's teams end up greater than the sum of its parts. But this season, watching a team that too often seemed to get about 65 cents from its talent dollar, was an eye-opener. Believe me, I'm not hitting the fan panic button. It's just that, for the past three years, I'd sorta forgotten it even existed.
Now, onto some specifics for 2010.
In looking forward, the most pressing short-term question is the future of Holiday. Will he stay or will he go?
Even debating the question reminds me of Will Ferrell in Zoolander, pointing out the obvious: "Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigre? They're the same face! Doesn't anyone notice? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!"
I feel you, Mugatu. Because while Holiday's potential is obvious -- and he flashed it again with tantalizing open-court forays against VCU in the first-round win -- his weaknesses (poor shot mechanics, can't finish inside reliably, shaky decision-making, lack of explosiveness) are pretty glaring for a one-and-done candidate. And his production is so uneven I just don't get how it can be rationalized away by upside. The latest example: against Villanova, he not only had just one point (sorry, I'm not counting the garbage-time trey he made with a few seconds left to cut it to 20), but generally didn't play, which continued a trend of poor play, to the point of invisibility, in Bruin losses.
No, Holiday definitely hasn't dropped Magnum on us yet.
And to leave school without doing that, or even coming close? It may represent the reality of the college game, but it still doesn't compute to me. To do the things that stars do, like leave college for the pros after one season, shouldn't you actually be a star first?
Maybe that's overly simplistic, or naive. But I'm hardly taking a contrarian opinion here; every Bruin aficionado I've talked to seems to share a similar puzzlement. The self-interest of the fan? Sure, but I don't think it's unreasonable -- just like it's not unreasonable to think that with another year of seasoning, with it clearly being his team, Holiday could easily emerge as an actual star, as opposed to a potential one. And barring catastrophe or a surprising stagnation, it's hard to understand how he wouldn't greatly improve his draft status.
Of course, I'm not a scout or an NBA GM, so I'll leave draft projections, discussions of "upside," and all that to the pros. But speaking freely as a fan, I can't remember another instance in recent basketball history where a college guard had such a ho-hum freshman season and was taken as a Lottery Pick.
And while I'm in my selfish fan mode: It's hard not to feel, deep down, that if UCLA is going to have to live with the fallout of a star leaving the program early for the NBA, shouldn't we at least have one Season-of-Love type of year from him? Or even a Westbrook-like year? I'd even take a Mbah-a-Moute-type season. But c'est la vie; now I'm verging on entitlement territory, and this is an 18-year old kid we're talking about.
We'll see what Holiday decides. If Holiday does indeed stay in the draft, of course the best of luck to him. If he comes back, then UCLA in 2010 is young, talented, and dangerous. If he leaves, the Bruins are even younger, less talented, and not as dangerous, and truly would be building for runs in 2011 and 2012 -- which seems a long way off. But heck, even if he does return, next season could be a stepping stone to 2011 anyway.
Question number two: How will the returning sophomores, with or without Holiday, help shape the new culture and identity of the squad?
This is less straightforward than Holiday's decision, but probably more important, in the long run. Here's why: There was a moment in the Villanova game late in the second half, with the Wildcats up by 22 and on cruise control, and UCLA's Collison had just gotten a defensive rebound and was dribbling up court. A Villanova player named Dwayne Anderson, despite being a good three steps behind Collison, started frantically sprinting after the speedy Bruin guard, for seemingly no good reason other than because full throttle is how you play the game. Anderson gobbled up ground on Collison and eventually got close enough to lay out in a full dive, body parallel to the ground, and poke the ball away to a teammate. It looked like it really hurt, and he came out of the game a moment later. And all this while up by 22 points.
It was slightly reminiscent of former Bruin Mbah a Moute's dive and steal in the legendary Gonzaga comeback, but more to the point, it exuded toughness, effort, and self-sacrifice. And it reminded me of how hard the Bruins, especially in the Final Four runs of 2006 and 2007, used to play virtually all the time. The 2009 version could only approach that level for brief spurts, and never really came very close, in the final analysis.
But if guys like Lee, Anderson, and Gordon (and Holiday if he's back), who have the tools and the athleticism to all be pretty special on both ends of the court, can expend effort like that -- and teach the incoming freshmen to do the same -- then the results should eventually follow, and the team's culture might be more similar to the Pac-10 champions of 2006-2008 than to this year's squad.
For now, they're saying the right things. Lee: "We want to get to the summertime and work on all our stuff because we're amped for next season. It's going to start with the little stuff, being dedicated and passionate." And Gordon: "Losing like that, everybody's going to be very hungry for next year. Off-season workouts are going to begin very quickly."
Question three: Will the the chemistry and roster balance be better next year? The 2009 team had a strange dynamic: it seemed like everyone was a senior, or a freshman, with very little in between. With no sophomores this year -- due to Love (NBA) and Chace Stanback (transfer) both leaving Westwood after one season -- and a junior class (Nikola Dragovic, Mike Roll and James Keefe) composed of complementary players trying to find their own games, this imbalance turned out to be kind of big deal, in retrospect.
Howland, in his post-season press conference, tellingly called the team chemistry "okay."
Next year, the huge sophomore and freshman classes should soak up major minutes. And possibly, like in 2006, this could produce major improvements over the course of the year, with a large chunk of the team making that big freshman-to-sophomore gain.
Question four: How will Howland mix and match the lineup, and divvy up the minutes? This was the least physical and defensively-oriented team, and the worst rebounding squad, since his recruits arrived in Westwood in 2004. And it was probably the biggest disappointment.
Next year, the question is simple: Will the ability to play Ben Ball be the determining factor in playing-time decisions? Or will he have to make the same kind of Faustian bargains of sacrificing defense and rebounding for offense?
Finally, question five: How do you replace Alfred Aboya? And I don't mean his 10 points and six rebounds per game. But I ask this to pay tribute to the things that the 6-foot-7 senior from Yaounde, Cameroon, brought to UCLA. Things that probably can't be replicated.
It's not often that a player's defining on-court attribute is probably his unflinching willingness to take as many charges as is humanly possible. And while I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Aboya's toughness and heart will be sorely missed.
To me, he is UCLA's 2009 MVP and it's not close. He played the hardest, was the team's best defender, and was the only starter who was a physical presence. He improved his offense, his free-throw shooting, and his decision-making so dramatically for his senior season, it was at times remarkable.
On February 7th, on national TV, he dominated Notre Dame All-American Luke Harangody, outscoring him 19-5, in a game that proved the high point of the season. It was a nice moment for Aboya. So was his play at Madison Square Garden against Southern Illinois (career-high 22 points), his leadership on the Bay Area road trip, and his two final home games, to which his parents flew from Cameroon to Los Angeles, and got to see their son play in person for the first time in their lives.
He's the kind of player who deserves nice moments, because much like his former teammate Mata-Real, one never got the sense that Aboya was the kind of guy to ask what was in it for him.
Here is a guy for whom "early entry" meant the possibility of leaving school after three years (UCLA degree in hand) not to the NBA, but to return to Cameroon to work in government. Sure, his stated goal of ultimately hoping to be the president of Cameroon made for an easy, obligatory hook for any profile on Aboya. But, whether realistic or not, there was something charming about the idea. The lack of guile or pretense just kind of wins you over.
I remember reading here on BRO a few years ago when Aboya and Mbah a Moute were freshmen, that the word from inside Bruin practices was that they exuded an anti-entitlement vibe, that it was like going back in some kind of 1950s time warp where going to school, playing hard, and improving in practice were the only goals.
I'm not trying to canonize the guy, but in a one-and-done world where the goal always seems to be the bigger, better deal, doesn't that kind of fidelity of purpose, being that kind of teammate, doesn't that just seem at least a little bit inspiring?
And, like Aboya, the way these recent Bruin teams carried themselves on the court and off -- whether it was Afflalo helping up Adam Morrison, Mata-Real stepping aside without a complaint for Love, Luc scrapping for an offensive rebound, or Aboya flat on his back after another drawn charge -- to me just seemed like a rare combination of factors, that added up to a program with uncommon success, and one that was easy to support.
And now, that era is over. It's sad, in a sports fan kind of way, but necessary, too, as reinvention always is. You can't hang on to something that's already gone, and hopefully Howland and the Bruins won't try. You don't want to waste too much time before moving on (Just ask the New York Yankees, who have spent the past decade trying to Jeter and Rivera their way back to 1999).
But that's why I think the task before Howland and the Bruins for 2010 and beyond is a tricky one. But watching how they do it, if they can do it, well, that's the whole point, isn't it?
And with Howland, and the players we have coming back, you figure the foundation is pretty damned solid.