-- Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"
This isn't going to be so much of a season review, but more of concise State-of-the-Program analysis.
There really isn't that much to review in terms of the season. We've been over it and over it.
And actually, when you're talking about the state of the program, I think I laid out a majority of it in this editorial in January: UCLA is at a Crossroads.
That article expresses much of the situation well – that Head Coach Ben Howland needs to re-define who he is and what his UCLA program stands for, because both of those images got a bit fuzzy this season.
The article was written in early January so, while it did touch on the use of Nikola Dragovic this season, it still wasn't able to capture the extent that the Dragovic Effect might have had on the image of Howland and UCLA basketball. From early January to the end of the season, Howland continued to insist on playing Dragovic, even while he played even poorer than he had, and was even injured. Howland's use of Dragovic grew into an even bigger emblem of the issues facing Howland's program since that article was written.
While many fans might believe we're lingering a bit too much on Dragovic and his impact, we believe it's quite the contrary. Howland's use of Dragovic has impacted his reputation in recruiting as well as greatly disrupted the environment and chemistry within the program. It comes down to simply this: Howland preaches that he emphasizes defense and playing hard, but insisted on playing Dragovic, who did neither, and did it in a very conspicuous way.
Internally, players in the program, who bought into the Howland-established parameters for playing time of defense/playing hard, were disillusioned. From what we've heard, players, of course, recognized that Dragovic wasn't the exact embodiment of Howland's philosophies, yet he played 33 minutes per game. In fact, some recognized that Dragovic was the poster boy for the extreme opposite. It's very difficult for a player, during the season to gain weight and fat. Most of the time players lose weight and muscle mass during the season, burning off so many calories through practice and the games. But Dragovic did, in fact, gain weight and fat, which is mind-boggling. If you look at his body in September and compare it to the end of the season, it's clear that it got softer and rounder.
Externally, recruits, AAU coaches and the SoCal recruiting community generally don't know what Howland stands for now. As we explained in the January article, recruits in the last five years knew that, at the very least, if they came to UCLA, they were going to be rewarded by playing hard and playing defense. While arguments always could be made that Howland isn't a players' coach, that there isn't a warm/fuzzy type of feeling to the program, they knew they were going to be well coached, and well-prepared for the NBA, and that defense and playing hard would be what got them on the court – since that's what Howland always preached. Now, they don't know what to believe, and don't know what they'll get if they come to UCLA.
All in all, yes, a losing season will do this to any program. When you're losing, the warts are glaring. When you're winning, those same warts tend to be disregarded.
But this goes beyond the effect of losing. Things happened this season – namely the use of Dragovic -- that could very well resonate beyond this season, that might not be disregarded even after UCLA gets on the winning track again. It wasn't the losing, but the way UCLA lost. It's not a matter of whether UCLA can bounce back from one losing season, but whether Howland can re-establish the reputation and image that his program had before.
There were also other things within the program that contributed to its poor season that Howland will have to rehabilitate, namely the impression of how a player can be so ill-prepared for a season like Jerime Anderson was. Anderson has admitted now publicly that he didn't put in the work he should have last off-season, and it clearly showed. We've learned that it wasn't a matter that he just didn't put in the work, but was, well, quite distracted. It's difficult for any coaching staff to stay completely on top of their players during the off-season, since the NCAA restricts how much exposure they can have to their players on the court and in training. But this was the guy who was supposed to take over the point guard position at UCLA, and, as we wrote back in fall, was the most critical part to having a successful season. It's a bit dismaying that the coaching staff was seemingly unaware of how far Anderson strayed from putting in the work. It's probably 80% on Anderson, but the rest is on the staff.
We've gone over the recruiting issues that contributed to this season, like mis-evaluations, wasting too much time recruiting nationally, poor judgment on whether Jrue Holiday would go pro or not, and not having some back-up option at guard last spring if he did. We don't want to get back into that in depth.
But looking ahead, it's clear that UCLA will have to improve its recruiting effort. For instance, take the recent article we did on Robert Upshaw, the 6-10 sophomore center from Fresno Edison. He said in the article that Texas was recruiting him the hardest. In our opinion, that should never happen with one of the top recruits in his class in the state of California, especially a kid who came to UCLA's Elite Camp last summer, and plays on the Pump N Run AAU team, which has been a pipeline to UCLA. Even if you later determined that Upshaw isn't good enough to play at UCLA, the Bruins should do a good enough job in recruiting him this early where he believes UCLA is recruiting him the hardest. That's one of the small issues – being able to get a young kid in your own backyard to think you're recruiting him the hardest – that add up in recruiting.
Here's my message board post from late February that sums up most of the recruiting mis-steps that contributed to the state of the program: Mis-Steps in Recruiting.
There have been many questions about whether someone on the coaching staff will be fired as a result of the recruiting issues and this poor season. We haven't heard about any potential changes to the staff, but going by conventional wisdom, after a program suffers its third losing season in over 55 years, it's not a stretch to assume that a change could be made.
In terms of the well-being of the program, and recruiting, which obviously go hand-in-hand, next season is probably Howland's most important one as the head coach at UCLA.
There are various reasons why, but primarily:
-- After the 2009-2010 season, if UCLA doesn't bounce back with a successful one and has another disappointing outing, the reputation of UCLA as one of the elite programs could erode dramatically. The bump from the three Final Fours would be severely diminished. Recruits who are juniors in high school don't remember much beyond the last two years.
-- The big recruiting class for UCLA is shaping up to be 2012. UCLA probably won't have that many scholarships to give to the 2011 class, and there isn't that much talent in the west in that class anyway, while 2012 looks pretty well-stocked. To be able to successfully recruit the 2012 class, though, UCLA would have to put a good product on the floor in the 2010-2011 season. If they did, the elite west coast recruits would probably once again have UCLA atop their list and the 2009-2010 season would be considered an aberration. For Howland to have sustained success at UCLA, the 2012 recruiting class is close to a make-or-break type of one for him, given the unrealized potential of the 2008 and 2009 classes, and potentially a disappointing class in 2010.
So, let's look ahead a bit to the 2010-2011 season.
We'll assume that Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt return for their junior and sophomore years, respectively, and don't somehow bolt for the NBA Draft. We believe that Lee could very well test the waters, but ultimately the odds are that he returns.
While many have voiced concerns about Lee as a player, and possibly justifiably, we believe Lee is a good player, with a great deal of potential to be an even better college player. You have to consider many things in regards to Lee. First, he does live up to the standards of Howland in terms of playing hard and playing defense. That goes a long way, and resonates within the team environment and its chemistry. In other words, Lee garners the respect of his teammates. Secondly, Lee, we feel, wasn't given enough credit for the tasks he had to take on this season. He was first given the responsibility as UCLA's lock-down defender, in much the same way Arron Afflalo and Russell Westbrook were. But never in recent history was the person given that role also asked to carry the responsibilities of playing point guard. That's too much for just about any player, especially for someone like Lee who needs to work to keep focused offensively. Most of the criticism of Lee comes from his poor shooting in the second half of the season, but it's not coincidental that his shooting percentage plummeted when he took over point guard duties. If Lee returns, and plays the shooting guard spot, there's enough evidence to support that, with more natural development, he'll be a strong player at the position.
Honeycutt, as we've maintained, is UCLA's most talented player, with the potential to be all-conference in his sophomore season. His play this season speaks for itself and there isn't too much that needs elaboration.
Those two starting wing positions would probably be locked down by Lee and Honeycutt.
So, the question marks for next season are power forward, center and, of course, point guard.
It's a very good bet that incoming freshman center Josh Smith will win the center position, at least sometime during next season. We've discussed before how imperative it is that he comes to UCLA in good shape, not at 320 pounds but, at least, under 300. With the fact that Anderson's off-season behavior was seemingly relatively un-monitored, you'd have to worry how Smith will do between now and next fall in terms of his diet and weight. As Howland conceded in a recent press conference, it's much easier to monitor a player already in your program than an incoming freshman before he enrolls. We've heard that a UCLA nutritionist regularly consults with Smith in an effort to have him come to UCLA this summer in improved shape.
But, even a slight out-of-shape Smith, we believe, will be good enough to win the starting five spot.
So, the question then presents itself: What to do with Reeves Nelson? He was consistently the most productive of the freshmen this season. But Smith is at least two inches taller, with better post moves and a better shooting touch, and better rebounding ability. It's very likely Howland intends to plug Nelson into the four spot, which presents some issues. In Howland's type of offense, the four is essentially a bigger three, who can shoot from the outside and put the ball on the floor a bit – and is also quick enough to guard smaller, opposing fours. Nelson doesn't have, really, any of those attributes. In high school, Nelson could bounce the ball a couple of times, and he had good vision to pass, but as he got bigger and thicker, and more like a center physically and athletically, he became mostly what you saw of him this season. There are some options here, though: Howland could go to a more conventional two-post offense, one that features a four that plays with his back to the basket and on the block more; or Nelson could improve his perimeter skills in the off-season. He has a decent outside stroke, and if he could just develop a consistent 15-foot jumper that could suffice in drawing out his defender and opening up the middle for Smith.
When it comes to Nelson and next season, however, the issue really isn't offensively but defensively. It's tough to envision Nelson being able to guard all the types of fours he's going to see, particularly the smaller, quicker ones who like to face the basket and take slower guys off the dribble. Nelson, even though he had a good offensive freshman season, was a poor defender this year, showing a lack of quickness in staying with fives, much less fours next season. Not only is he limited athletically to play defense, much of the time he didn't play hard defensively, and was very poor in terms of help defense, which is critical at the four, especially when you're breaking in a new, freshman center.
Since Nelson, though, was such a factor as a freshman, and does so many things that Howland covets (like being physical), you could see Howland do everything he can to plug in Nelson at the four. But Nelson also needs to mature mentally and emotionally, and be able to improve his ability to be coached and take instruction, which we've heard is something of an issue.
But then there is Brendan Lane who, many might not realize, has far more upside that Nelson at the four. Lane is probably two inches taller, longer, more athletic and far more skilled. He is, really, Howland's prototypical four – that is, if he gets stronger and is able to be physical around the basket.
So, this sets the stage for one of the most interesting aspects to watch over the next six or seven months: Who between Lane and Nelson will develop what it takes to get most of the minutes at the four? Will Nelson lean down some, or merely just improve his quickness to be able to guard fours? Will Lane get stronger, and also be able to defend effectively enough? It's going to be a heck of a competition.
The other position of point guard will be filled by either an improved Anderson, or a better Lazeric Jones, the JC prospect who is committed to UCLA, or perhaps someone else. It's possible that UCLA has even another candidate at the position by next fall, since they still are recruiting guards to sign in spring. Anderson has indicated he's going to put in the work this summer, and it's really unknown if Jones can step in and take the starting spot outright. Whichever is able to guard the position the best will win it.
As we've reported, we're hearing that Mike Moser and J'mison Morgan are contemplating transferring. It's not for certain, but it's a clear possibility. While Morgan showed some progress this season in flashes, it wouldn't really be devastating to see him leave the program. Moser, on the other hand, is a long, 6-6 athlete who has great upside. We're pretty certain that the staff is going to do what it can to keep Moser in the program, but there are whispers that his people back in Oregon are pushing him to transfer.
Then there is Anthony Stover, the 6-9 center who redshirted this season. He, reportedly, is up to 233 pounds, and has improved steadily this season in practice. Stover is expected to be better than Morgan, if not pretty early next season but down the line, with better agility and quickness. He's expected to get a good deal of playing time at the five, with Smith probably being a little behind in the learning curve coming in as a true freshman, also with the strong speculation that Nelson will be given a chance at the four and Morgan possibly transferring.
Incoming freshman Tyler Lamb has had a standout senior season at Santa Ana Mater Dei, and has shown marked improvement. He's expected to provide solid back-up minutes on the wing.
But the complexion of the roster will probably change considerably between now and next October. UCLA is trying to add two more recruits to the incoming class, and it very well could have more scholarships open up with players transferring.
There is also the strong rumor that North Carolina's Larry Drew is considering transferring back to his hometown of Los Angeles, and is contemplating UCLA, USC or Pepperdine. If he did transfer to UCLA he'd have to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules.
There is also the mystery of whether Howland will return exclusively to the man-to-man or still have the zone in his repertoire. He used it this season only out of total desperation, so it's anyone guess whether he'll consider it an option in 2010-2011. It's a pretty good guess that if he can get some guards who can stay in front of the ball he'll return exclusively to the man but, at the very least, the zone is now something Howland is comfortable enough to use if his roster warrants it.
The team will almost certainly be a better rebounding team. It's best rebounder, Honeycutt, will be bigger and stronger, and the rebounding production from the four and the five spots will improve with Nelson, Lane, Smith and Stover making up perhaps most of the rotation. If UCLA does return to being a good rebounding team that will restore the reputation of Howland's rep at least in some part.
If you're a keen observer of recruiting, the recruit to watch in 2011 is Angelo Chol, the 6-7 post from San Diego (Calif.) Hoover. UCLA might have limited scholarships to give to the 2011 class, and the talent is down in the west for 2011. Chol is probably the best prospect in the west that UCLA could get who has solid academics, so how well UCLA does with Chol will be a huge measuring stick of UCLA's remaining clout and relevance in recruiting.
But beyond recruiting, the true indication for next season will be whether UCLA returns to the staples of a Howland-coached UCLA team, one that emphasizes toughness, defense, rebounding and playing hard. And that means, almost most imperatively, having the mental toughness of Howland's UCLA's team in the past, not the front-runner mentality that this year's team tended to have. There is no one on the roster that even comes close to representing the type of pitfall that was Dragovic, so Howland is less likely to appear as uncharacteristic of himself in personnel use as he was this last season.
Hopefully, the 2010-2011 season will help to bury the 2009-2010 season and it will be remembered as an aberration in Howland's career at UCLA.