Signs of Hope

UCLA played easily its best game of the season against #22 Oregon at Pauley Pavilion, losing in overtime, 96-91. It was the most encouraging and hopeful two hours of the season, with the future of UCLA basketball -- at least from a player standpoint -- looking good...

The rest of the 2002-2003 basketball season for Bruin fans is going to be an exercise in hope.  With the season going so terribly, and the program in a shambles, Bruin fans must look for signs of a future to console themselves.


Last night, when UCLA lost in overtime to #22-ranked Oregon, 96-91, it was perhaps the most encouraging game in the last couple of year for the Bruins. It showed that this team, despite what some easily-swayed journalists have purported, has some talent, and will have talent in the immediate future. 


In fact, most people who follow UCLA basketball closely have been claiming this all along this season  – that it was just a matter of utilizing the talent and personnel. 


It's pretty obvious that, if you want to compete in the Pac-10 and on the high major D-1 level, you have to play the players that can compete at that level. It's been mindboggling this season when players on this roster who aren't of that caliber have been getting as many minutes – if not more – than the players that obviously are more talented. It's a mystery how this hasn't been recognized, and that Ryan Walcott or Josiah Johnson could get more minutes than Andre Patterson in any given game, or just about as many as Cedric Bozeman and Dijon Thompson. Again, there is nothing personal against Walcott or Johnson. Both have played hard and worked hard for UCLA.  Walcott, though, has not scored a field goal in five games.  He would be best served – and serving UCLA – providing some limited minutes off the bench, bringing some ballhandling and playmaking in stretches (he did provide five assists Thursday). 


Against Oregon, Walcott didn't start.  He did still play 23 minutes. But -- and get this --  Bozeman and Thompson played 40 minutes each.  Bozeman had 17 points, 5 rebounds and five assists.  Thompson was good for 19 points. 


It doesn't appear to be a coincidence that when you get the best players on the floor for the majority of the game the team plays its best game of the season, and easily plays with the #22 team in the country.  And it's not a matter of labeling it the best game of the season because of the effort they put forth – but because they merely had more talent on the floor than they have in previous games.


Last night the starters were Bozeman, Thompson, Jason Kapono, T.J. Cummings and seldom-used freshman center Ryan Hollins (Andre Patterson missed the game with his ankle sprain).  Hollins, who like fellow freshman center Mike Fey, is raw and needs playing time to develop, took advantage of the most minutes he's ever played in a game.  Having averaged only 9 minutes, Hollins played for 34, and collected a double-double and almost a triple-double, getting 11 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks.  He was very much a contributor to UCLA jumping out to a strong 11-point lead on the Ducks in the first half of the game, blocking shots and throwing down dunks.  Mike Fey in just 12 minutes off the bench scored 11 points and had 4 rebounds and played well.  While they're young and inexperienced, and many times a liability on defense (Hollins got worked over a bit by Oregon's center Ian Crosswhite), their contributions showed Thursday that, with the lack of frontcourt players on this team, they need to be able to play through their mistakes and inexperience, and get better.  And it was probably the most promising sign of the season – the sign that Hollins and Fey are indeed good enough to play at this level and have the potential to be considerable contributors to this program in the future.


With UCLA's future talent on the court – the likes of Bozeman, Thompson, Hollins, Fey and Cummings – UCLA looked like a team that could easily play with #22 Oregon. In fact, they appeared for many stretches to be a better team.  They jumped off to that strong lead, but then, when Hollins, Cummings and Bozeman were inexplicably replaced en masse in the first half, the lead evaporated, with Oregon outscoring the Bruins by 18 and going ahead by 7 at halftime.  With the majority of the minutes in the second half again going to the personnel that have the talent to play at this level, UCLA was right back in the game and actually looked like the superior team for a majority of the second half.


So much for the conclusion that this team doesn't have talent. 


And, more than anything, watching that talent actually play somewhat at a level of what you might expect from a UCLA team against nationally-ranked Oregon, it was truly, so far, the highlight of the season. Even though UCLA will lose its top scorer in Jason Kapono next year, it's very obvious that the cupboard is not bare for next year, and the team proved that Thursday night. 


It would be great to see the future Bruins who have the talent to play at this level, including a healthy Andre Patterson, continue to get increased minutes and valuable experience, and see how well they play the remainder of the season.


Watching them play Thursday, and realizing that Bozeman and Thompson were actually going to play the majority of the game, was easily the most encouraging development to the dismal season.  Hopefully we'll get the opportunity to see more of the same the remainder of the season, and bring some hope back to the UCLA basketball program.

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