In a year that saw two of its scholarship players leave the team, one of its most famous alumni call for the coach's dismissal, an agreement for the players to wear some ghastly uniforms, and a loss at home in its newly renovated arena to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, UCLA still managed to finish the regular season as the Pac-12 champions.
Bruins coach Ben Howland, whom ESPN analyst Bill Walton thought should be relieved of his duties during a memorable, rambling, free association talk for two hours during a UCLA win at home over Washington on February 7, had brought in a highly regarded freshman class. Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, and Tony Parker were expected, by very optimistic people, to lead the Bruins to a national championship in the style of Kentucky last year.
However, it didn't quite work out that way. Muhammad missed the first three games because of an NCAA investigation into possible illegal benefits. He has shown flashes of greatness along with complaints about his selfishness on the court. (Howland has already said that he expects Muhammad to be playing in the NBA next year.) Anderson struggled for much of the year to fit into a position, although he has seemed much more comfortable the past two months.. Parker did not seem ready to play in Howland's system and sat on the bench for most of the season, although has contributed more in recent games. Adams has played well all season and helped greatly in keeping the Bruins afloat during their rocky start.
UCLA lost two of its scholarship players during the season in Tyler Lamb and Joshua Smith. That left the Bruins with just eight scholarship players, three of them transfers from North Carolina: point guard Larry Drew II, forwards Travis and David Wear. Guard Norman Powell is the lone non-freshman, non-transfer scholarship player on the roster.
A renovated Pauley Pavilion, with wider concourses, more eating opportunities, and bathrooms that look big enough to house a joint session of Congress, was expected to create a big buzz on campus and among alumni to create a much more vibrant atmosphere during games. However, aside from a few games, most UCLA home games were not markedly much more exciting to watch than they had been in the previous 2-3 years.
There are two main reasons for this:
1) Ben Howland. The UCLA coach likes his teams to play a tough defensive brand of basketball with a tightly controlled offense. This year, Howland said he had the talent to make his offense much more open. That really never happened. It was mostly the same Howland-style offense with players who were not particularly suited for it. Also, the team was not nearly as good defensively as Howland expected. Combine these problems with Howland's penchant for using his timeouts to tightly control the pace and rest periods of his team, watching a UCLA game was often an maddening experience.
2) College basketball in general. UCLA is not the only traditional basketball power to suffer from an up and down season. With the possible exception of the current number one team, Gonzaga, every team has been inconsistent. The #1 ranking has been an uneasy place to reside. Few college teams are entertaining to watch as college coaches, who realize that some of their best players will only be with them for one or two years, try to control the action as much as possible. Trying to find a favorite for the NCAA Tournament will be a challenge. The projected top four seeds seem to change by the hour.
The Bruins last two games of the regular season were quite typical of their year. On Wednesday, they travelled to Pullman (where they had not lost since 1993) to play last place Washington State. They were blown out by the Cougars, falling behind 25-4 at the outset. They were outrebounded by a 46-23 margin. However, UCLA still was tied for first place because Oregon had lost at Colorado.
Three days later, UCLA travelled to Washington, a place where they hadn't won since 2004. The Bruins came up with a much better effort and took advantage of numerous Washington turnovers to win 61-54. The Bruins then had the championship all to themselves as Oregon lost to 10th place Utah.
However, all that first place in the regular season gains the Bruins is the top seed in the upcoming conference tournament, which starts on Wednesday in Las Vegas. The conference moved the tournament from the Staples Center, which often looked empty, to the more intimate MGM Grand Arena. (Staples Center will host the NCAA West Regional on March 28 and 30.)
UCLA gets a first round bye and will play the winner of the Stanford-Arizona State game on Thursday afternoon. UCLA beat Stanford twice, but split with Arizona State, losing badly in Tempe and winning in overtime at home. College basketball conference tournaments are notoriously difficult to predict and the Pac-12 this year will be especially so.
Last year, the Pac-12's regular season champion, Washington, lost in the conference tournament and did not even get a bid to the NCAA tournament, a first for the conference. This year, the Pac-12 is expected to get 4 or 5 teams invited to the NCAA tournament: UCLA, Oregon, Cal, Arizona, and possibly Colorado.
Even though UCLA is the Pac-12 regular season champion, it is best for everyone to set their expectations on low. But, fans of every college basketball team should say that this year. This is the year for people in NCAA tournament pools to get out their random number generator to pick the champion, although it is has been many years since a team outside one of the major conferences has won the title (UNLV in 1990.) The winner of the NCAA tournament may be more of a survivor than a champion, sort of like UCLA has been this year.