Ed. Note: The following was written by die-hard UCLA fan, “Ebuzz.” Stop laughing.
Fifteen games into the season, it’s safe to say folks expectations of how UCLA will do in the regular season and the post-season need some recalibration. Our Bruins began this season ranked #13 in the AP rankings, and even rose to #11 a week later based on the belief that the only reason they shouldn’t be ranked higher was because Shabazz Muhammad’s future was uncertain, and without him the Bruins might not be Top Ten material. Our high ranking was fueled largely by the belief that we had the number #1 freshmen class in the country. Couple that incoming class with a respectable group of veterans and the pieces seemed to be in place for a possible #1 seed in the west and a legitimate Final Four run.
Then reality set in. We barely escaped UCI on our own floor. We went to Brooklyn for two days for a much anticipated possible clash with the #1 ranked Indiana Hoosiers. Instead, we got manhandled and upset by an unranked Georgetown team on the first day, and struggle to beat a mediocre Georgia team on the second. We come back home and actually lose to Cal-Poly at Pauley four days later. On the heels of that loss, Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith leave. While all this is going on, it’s abundantly clear we can’t play man-to-man defense, a staple of any successful Bruins team on Coach Howlands’ watch. After losing to then 23rd ranked San Diego State on a neutral floor, the Bruins find themselves at 5-3 with all thoughts of even making the tourney on hold and some folks even calling for Coach Howland to be fired mid-season. Thousands of unrealistic Bruins fans who bought into the hype going into November had to be stunned Dec 2nd.
To their credit, Coach Howland and his team seem to be steadily and earnestly trying to right the ship. A fragile victory over a middling Texas squad in Houston seemed to validate feelings of doom and gloom despite the win. However, that win turned out to be the first of seven in a row that included a rousing, fun upset of #5 Missouri. The win streak also include a 2-0 start to conference play with victories over Cal and Stanford. Inside the streak, there have been legitimate signs of improvement on defense. Individually, the freshmen continue to improve not only in their on-ball skills, but their help and rotations. The practice of doubling in the post, a hallmark of Howland man defensive strategy, is starting to reemerge as a weapon inside the scheme. This team is not only winning; it’s improving. That’s not the same as saying they’re where they need to be to do the type of damage we expected this season, but it is to say that there are signs that they could be very dangerous by the time post-season play begins.
So why the less than stellar start? The pre-season hype was just that: hype. I don’t care who you are, when it comes to freshmen and how a team loaded with them is going to perform these days no sane person can claim to confidently know. They can guess, and maybe guess right, but the truth is no one knows because it’s impossible. Look no further than Kentucky to see that year to year, great freshmen classes results can vary greatly. Kentucky won the national championship last season with a stellar freshmen class leading the way. They began this season with arguably just as good a recruiting class as the Bruins and ranked #3. Where are they now? They’re 9-4 and unranked. A year ago they were 12-1 after 13 games. Different team. Same coach. Same facilities. Same system. Different results. Hmmmmm.
But, Kentucky is improving. They’re progressing. They’re gelling. How do I know? I live 5 miles from the Kentucky border. I see every game they play on local TV. (And yeah, I hate them, but I’m fascinated by their progress as a parallel developmental matter, so I watch.) Anyone that believes they won’t make the tourney and be dangerous in it isn’t paying attention. The point is even the most talented teams can take time to gel and the hype that accompanies them is more often than not premature. Our Bruins are gelling. They’re going to have up games and down games. Veteran, but perhaps less talented teams overall like Cal or Stanford will be tougher to beat than we’d like and maybe even trip them up as the team progresses.
That stated, what should our recalibrated expectations be for this Bruin Team? I remain optimistic because of the progress I see on defense, and the obvious awareness the freshmen have that it’s key to their overall success. Therefore, assuming no season ending injuries, I believe it is more than reasonable to expect that they should make the tourney as a 4 seed or higher and make the Sweet Sixteen at a minimum. I think it’s highly probable they will make the Elite 8, with a sluggers chance at the Final Four. In some ways I would compare them, and the state of the program, with where it was in the 2004-2005 season; except that I would say this team is better. This team is not going to lose 11 games and it’s not going to get knocked out in the first round of the tourney.
One additional thought free of charge: In some quarters, folks are saying Coach Howland should be fired if the Bruins don’t make the Final Four or better. I view that question a little differently. It sez here that the gating factors on whether or not Coach Howland should be retained should be: making the Sweet Sixteen and keeping at least two of the freshmen (chiefly Adams and Parker) for a second year. In fact, it sez here the latter factor is the most important to yours truly, and that if three of the freshmen stay around there is no question but that Coach Howland should be left in place.