Portland: The Bigger Picture

Instead of breaking down the game, which would be painful, we look at the bigger-picture stuff as a result of UCLA getting trounced by Portland Thursday, 74-47. What will it take for this season to ultimately be considered a respectable one?

No matter how realistic, or pessimistic, you were toward this year's UCLA basketball team, even you had to be shocked when Portland slammed the Bruins Thursday in the first round of the 76 Classic, 74-47.

It was the worst loss for UCLA since Steve Lavin's last year in Westwood, when he lost by 30+ a number of times.

There was so much that was wrong in that game it's overwhelming to consider writing about it.

It was pretty clear before the season – and definitely after the first exhibition game – that this was going to be a bumpy road of a season. But the speed bumps have turned into potholes the size of Volkwagens.

There are three things to consider here:

1) What's wrong? Well, we'll get into some details, but there might not be enough bandwidth to hold it all so we're going to take the bigger-picture approach rather than the Xs-and-Os approach.

2) What can the team do to make this a respectable season?

3) Will the damage of such a loss, and potentially more similar losses, be irreparable to the program?

Okay, here were go with issue #1.

Where to start?

UCLA plainly doesn't have much talent. The senior talent, God bless ‘em, is poor. There isn't a junior on the team. There isn't a true impact player among the sophomores and freshmen – someone who even comes close to Kevin Love, Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Russell Westbrook, or Darren Collison – or even Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

Tyler Honeycutt might be in the Collison/Mbah a Moute category, but he hasn't played yet.

This is not to say that the team is completely untalented. This isn't saying that many of the freshmen and sophomores won't develop into very good – if not elite level – college players. But due to many factors, they aren't right now.

This is going to happen in a program. There are going to be recruits that 1) immediately hit the ground running, even beyond expectation 2) are busts, and never come close to living up to their projections as high school prospects 3) are slow to develop, that take time to find themselves as college players.

While it's too early to determine if any of the sophomores or freshmen fall into category #2, it certainly is easy to see that all of them, at the very least, fall into category #3.

And that's understandable. It's going to happen. In recruiting, even if you're UCLA, you don't have the luxury to pick and choose among category #1. Heck, even North Carolina, which comes the closest to being able to pick and choose among category #1, can't.

It's the randomness of sports, and college sports in particular, that the way luck would have it you look up and have a team full of category-#3 guys.

Many things contributed to that. Of course, you have to mention all the UCLA players that left for the NBA early. In the future, every time this pothole of a season gets mentioned it will probably be defined in one sentence as "the year UCLA really felt the ill-effects of players leaving early for the NBA."

While it's an excuse, it's a valid one. Coaches can't talk about it too much because it sounds too excuse-y. But we certainly can. Most of the elite programs in the country have had to deal with. Heck, Duke has been dealing with the fallout for 8 years.

You would counter by saying, "Well, Ben Howland knew that Love and Jrue Holiday were going pro early, why didn't he compensate?"

Well, that's easier said than done. As I said, Duke has been trying to compensate for eight years.

Taking players like Love, that you know are going pro after a season (or two at the most), is like having a piece of pecan pie for Thanksgiving. There is no way you're not going to do it but you know you're paying a price for it later.

And it's a completely double-edged sword – that you don't know sometimes has two edges. With Love and Holiday, you knew the risks. But Howland probably didn't realize the risk when he took Russell Westbrook, who would be a senior at UCLA right now.

At least when Howland made a great evaluation, on guys like Collison or Mbah a Moute, he had them for four years. With Westbrook, in which he out-evaluated everyone in the country, he only benefitted for two years (well, really just one) and it contributed greatly to the unexpected size of the current talent deficit in the roster.

I can say, being pretty immersed in recruiting first hand, that UCLA's recruiting over the last two seasons wasn't a case of settling for average talent. Given the talent that was available to UCLA, the Bruin coaches did an exceptional job in recruiting.

Really. I saw the recruits available, and given the ones that UCLA had a realistic shot at getting, well, UCLA got the most desireable ones.

As we've said before, recruits develop at different rates. When you're out recruiting, it's hard enough getting the good prospects much less being able to pick and choose among the guys you think will have an immediate impact and guys who will take a while to develop.

Take Mike Moser. He was a very good prospect out of high school. He has much of what you look for in a prospect – good athleticism for his size, a body that could get bigger and stronger, a skill set that may be raw now but shows the basis for being good down the road, a good mind for the game and a good attitude and work ethic.

But he's not John Wall – a guy who would be able to come in and play at a very elite level immediately. There just aren't many guys like that out there. UCLA fans, under Howland, have been incredibly spoiled. Not only did you get Kevin Love, who was the caliber of a talented big man that we may never see again coming into the college game in our lifetimes, but you happened to get other recruits who were far more ready to make an impact on the college level. Moser very well might end up a better prospect than, say, Jordan Farmar, but Farmar was far more ready to come into college and play. Then, on top of that, you had guys like Westbrook, Collison and Mbah a Moute who went way beyond expectation, in their talent level and ability to impact immediately.

Folks, this isn't the norm. You just passed through a Twilight Zone of elite talent that also happened to be able to impact immediately.

Now, in any other year the element of UCLA not having immediate-impact guys might not be felt so keenly if UCLA had some strong talent in its senior and junior classes. But it coincided – by, truly pure happenstance – that UCLA is without great upperclass talent (because of guys going pro early, the way the scholarship count fell on the junior class, etc.) at the same time that it happened to get some underclassmen that aren't as ready to make an impact immediately.

Now, if you think that in recruiting, with how random and unforgiving it is, that UCLA could have snapped its fingers and alleviated the problem, well, that's unrealistic.

Really, the one glaring mistake UCLA made in recruiting recently is not bringing in another guard with the 2009 class. That move was doable, since it was pretty clear that Holiday had a very good chance to go pro early. Even if he didn't, it was pretty clear UCLA still needed another guard.

But, alas, while having one more freshman guard on this team would help, it definitely wouldn't come close to filling in the size of the season's potholes.

Okay, so that's the partial answer to issue #1. The talent issue.

In terms of what is wrong, you can't let Howland off the hook. It's been well-discussed on the message board ad nauseum -- the issue of whether Howland's stubbornness is also a detriment to the team this season, given the talent issue.

Well, it's for bigger basketball minds than us. But it's not completely unfair – I mean, it's in the reasonable ballpark – to speculate that this team, with its lack of quickness but having considerable length, is far more suited to play a zone defense. Also, with the lack of immediate-impact talent on the team, Howland's inability to scheme an effective zone offense is far more pronounced. It's always been fairly evident, even in the Final Four years, that devising a zone offense might not be Howland's bag. But this season it seems to be glaring.

Also, the team doesn't seem to be playing with the fire, conviction and urgency of past UCLA teams under Howland. That would also have to fall at the feet of the head coach.

So, that leads us to issue #2 – how can this become a respectable season?

Again, better basketball minds than us probably couldn't tell you for certain. We would all be speculating. And we have to concede that Howland knows more about basketball than just about all BROs combined. So, even though Howland might doggedly stick with a philosophy or strategy, which we think at the time might be ill-advised, we're going to have to also recognize that he might know what he's doing. He's been second-guessed before and ultimately proved to be right. Last year, we thought that Nikola Dragovic, during the first third of the season, wasn't worth having on the court, but he proved his worth in the last two-thirds of the season. Howland kept playing him, insisting that Dragovic would find his shot, and he did. Howland has been criticized for not employing a zone defense in different seasons, but he has always seemed to develop a fairly strong man defense by the end of each season.

It will be very interesting to see if Howland does change course, say, and use a zone defense, which we think is unlikely. Howland's philosophy, also, is to do whatever you can to win the current game, and think about the future later, but it sure would be nice – and beneficial down the line (so we could possibly avoid another pothole season like this one) – to play the younger players to get them experience.

It will be very interesting to see, if in this, Howland's most challenging season at UCLA, if doggedly staying his course does ultimately prove to be successful.

Remember, even though Howland has been a head coach for 15 years, he hasn't been in this type of position as a head coach. He's always been the guy who turned around a program – he did it at Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and UCLA. He's never had the experience of sustaining a successful program. It begs the question: Is it a different skill set as a head coach to sustain success than it is to establish it? And does doing it the way you've always done it ultimately prove to be successful in sustaining success or, in Howland's case, will it demand more flexibility from him?

We do believe that this team will improve by February. It's not really that much of a stretch because, with a roster populated with so many sophomores and freshmen it's a pretty safe bet. They'll get better at executing on both ends of the floor and, as we said, they'll fare better against the weaker Pac-10 competition than they will against their tougher non-conference competition. Seriously, if Portland were in the Pac-10 this season it very well could win the conference. I would take the well-coached, experienced, hard-playing Pilots over the haphazard mess of a Cal team I've seen a couple of times so far this season.

Then there is issue #3. Will the damage be irreparable? Again, we're in unchartered territory for a Howland program – after the initial turnaround phase and now solidly in the sustaining-success phase. It's completely uncertain how a Howland program can weather considerable adversity when he's out of the honeymoon, forgiving stage. In terms of the fans, he has, though, earned a great deal of forgiveness and leeway because of the three Final Fours. That has to be good for some compensation from UCLA fans, right?

But in terms of keeping the program together when you're seven years in and you're past the initial turnaround phase and you're hit with some considerably adversity, does Howland have what it takes to keep it together?

This season has the potential to be a huge revelation for Howland as the coach at UCLA, either ultimately good or bad. How he handles this season, whether the team improves, whether it plays hard and with conviction, and whether it stays together emotionally over all the potholes (and there are going to be more) and buys into Howland's approach very well could establish the foundation for Howland's remaining years at UCLA.


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