So wanted to share with you some of my extended notes and thoughts from the weekend trip to Philly. The game wasn’t fun but we are more than glad to make that trip to see one of the best senior classes in the history of UCLA basketball to play their last game. Plus the rush of hearing our band, getting to do eight claps with hundreds (if not about a thousand) of fellow Bruin alums all decked out in UCLA blue, three thousand miles away from home is always more than worth it. As I said in my immediate post after the game the loss yesterday had a different feeling. It wasn’t the sense of shock, disgust and outrage we felt after losses in certain first round games in post-Wooden era. Saturday’s loss wasn’t the kind of loss we experienced against Penn State (91), Tulsa (94), Princeton (96) or Detroit-Mercy (98). We lost to a better team with a Bruin squad which was imperfect (more on that below). And after the loss instead of feeling angered, I am looking forward to next season given the players we have coming back and joining us next season.
I don’t feel like we have to do a lot of analysis on what went wrong on Saturday afternoon. It was clear Villanova was the better team. As Coach Howland said himself in his post game comments we were out played and outcoached. I think Jay Wright’s team would probably beat UCLA 6 out of 10 times in a neutral court. There is no shame and no reason to apologize for a "rebuilding" season featuring 25+ wins. That is a successful season in our book despite what you hear from people who didn't graduate from UCLA. If people want to denigrate what this group of players did by posting outlandish, nonsensical takes, they need to find another venue.
Our regular season record was just about what I expected with three seniors and upperclassmen who were role players in Final-4 teams and the freshman class of this season. As mentioned in the post game thread, I think Coach Howland built a team for this season with the expectation that he was going to lose KL and probably RW and DC at the end of last season. The dynamic changed when LRMAM decided to leave (which created a huge hole defensively and also in the front court) but DC decided to come back. With the return of DC, Howland had to move JH over to 2 (even though he is a natural pg) which shaped the dynamic of this year’s team.
DC did a great job this season and he will always be one of my favorite Bruins of all time. However, with him at the pg I think our offense at times (especially when the game was on the line) was predictable. DC as good as a shooter as he is and as fearless he has been in crunch times, doesn’t have the instincts and natural ability to pass as JH and create more options for the team. Again, I am writing this by no means to diminish what this kid has done for UCLA. No way. No how. I am just writing this because that is what my eyes saw through this season. That is all.
Moreover, I think the fate of our team’s post season run was also impacted by this:
Photo Credit: J Rosenfeld
Simply put our offense hasn’t been the same (with DC) ever since he went down against Oregon. He didn’t look himself last night or against VCU and during the Pac-10 tournament. He looked tentative from the free throw line. Not to mention he was bloodied up early in the game.
We all got glimpses of what JH can do from the 1 spot towards late in the season (during the Pac-10 and NCAA tournament). That leads to the question why didn’t we see Howland use JH at the spot lot more this season with ML at the 2? Here is my theory. Given all the hype and speculation about JH being a "one and done" player this season, my gut feeling is that Howland wanted prepare JA as much as he could to take over the 1 spot this upcoming season. JA by all account needed lot more seasoning his freshman season than JH. So I think Howland wanted to make sure he got JA as much experience as possible for next season.
As I mentioned yesterday following the game the two players who come closest to matching the gumption of AA and JF are DG and ML. I think it is difficult to sense the intensity and emotion DG and ML brings to the game just by watching TV or looking at cool shots like this:
Photo Credit: E. Corpuz
To me when we are going through tough times we usually get two different kind body languages from our players. First there is the kind of expression in which players look frustrated, dejected. There is also the second kind of emotion when things are not going to well. It’s the sense of anger we were so used to seeing in Ed O’Bannon and AA (again for those who followed Yankees during the 90s can remember the emotions of Paul O’Neil). DG was not a happy camper on Saturday. He was the only Bruin player that seemed to be upset (at least externally) with the way events were unfolding inside the Wachovia Center. I was really zeroing in on the bench. To me it seemed like all the emotion of the entire team was exploding out of DG. We have seen this kid's explosion all season long:
I think once Coach Howland refines his defensive skills and he develops a consistent low post move the sky is the limit for him at UCLA:
Speaking of taking things in personally, it’s clear to me at least the guy who takes playing defense personally is ML:
Photo Credit: E. Corpuz
At the beginning of the season Howland wanted JH to take on the mantle of defensive stopper of this team (in the mold of AA and RW). While JH made some noticeable impression throughout the season (as evident in the way he defended Derozan at Galen and Klay Thompson during the Pac-10 tournament), I think ML is the best defender among freshman. Again, I don't think one can really get a sense of how active this kid is on unless you see him defending in person:
He has that grean wingspand and he is lightning quick in the way he rotates on defense. In fact he rotates much faster than JH (at least he did on Saturday). He also gets all over his player just like AA and RW used to execute their defensive assignments. If anyone wants to get a sense of how ML defensively impacts a game go back and watch the first half against ASU (in Tempe) from few weeks ago. Go back and see how our defensive intensity changes when Howland brought in ML. I simply love this kid’s game. He is fearless:
He still has to develop physically. He also had the offensive tools which I think will come through once he gets the mins like RW did in his second year at UCLA. Still to me he has the best potential of emerging as the true leader of this team.
I also don’t see any reason to get down on JA. He had a tough game yesterday like he did on some other occasions against more physical guards (ala Washington). But he will get there. After a year or two in Howlandwood and going through off season workouts, he will be ready. Same goes for JMM. Obviously JMM wasn’t ready to contribute this season in Howland’s defensive scheme but his comments from this weekend were more than encouraging. Moreover, if anyone wants to question the possibility of the kind of leap a player can make in Howland’s program, just think back to where ND was just last year. Sure ND has lot more room to improve but two years ago he couldn’t even manage to stay on the floor because he had no clue how to play defense and would just chuck up bad shots. Now ND is playing within himself offensively lot more. He still needs to get quicker on his rotations. We can always hope for that to happen next year. What I am hoping for next year is Coach Howland trusting his bench a little more. I think it could help if he allows kids like MM and TH extended mins in early season, if our current guys at the 4 spot are not stepping up. We can always hope that the switch will go on for JK next year like it did for PAA this season. However, in case it doesn’t I hope Howland is not afraid to trust his freshmen.
BTW, yes the refs were terrible on Saturday. No doubt about it. But at the same time, we have to be honest with ourselves and can’t blame what took place against Nova on the refs. From my pov, we didn’t get the calls on Saturday and frankly throughout this season, because we haven’t been as aggressive on defense as we had been in previous years. The rebounding numbers speak for themselves (you guys pointed to it all day during the game thread and aftermath). Couple of instances stood out to me. I think they both occurred in the second half. In one sequence the Wildcats pulled down three consecutive offensive rebounds and break our back with a three pointer. Then another time, a Nova player pulled down an offensive board with four Bruins in the paint. Pretty inexcusable.
I think the talk of Villanova having a home court advantage is somewhat overblown. No doubt the crowd inside got loud when the Wildcats were making their runs. However, I didn’t think it was anything overwhelming. The arena seemed like a typical NBA arena which is kind of cavernous and built to amplify the acoustics, however it doesn’t give the sense of kind of intimidating atmosphere of a college arena ala Mac Court in Eugene (where the rafter shakes) or Cameron Indoors down in Durham. Besides as mentioned yesterday, the Bruin contingent was loud. And I have to say our band did a great job as much as they could to fire us all up in the early going:
BTW here was another sign when we knew we were going to be in trouble. Our camera battery ran out right after we took that picture and we realized that we had left extra batteries back at our hotel. Yikes. That was a bummer because we had fantastic seats in the lower section (4th row) right behind Plaschke and rest of the MSM haters from Southern Cal. lol We are sorry about that guys because we could have gotten some great shots of the Bruin contingent who did a great job rooting on our Ben Ball warriors.
Speaking about being at the game, let me share something about Don McLean. We have talked all year about Donnie Mac is our favorite announcer during Bruin broadcast. He does his best to sound impartial without trying to do too much and sound completely fake (and annoying in the process) ala Marques Johnson. He was sitting in just few rows ahead of us. And I wish I could describe the anguish in his face as the game was unfolding in front of our eyes. Donnie was in pain. I also loved how Coach Garson came over to him right before the tip off and did a little fist bump. McLean is clearly a big part of this program and I love it.
Going back to Coach Howland and what he would have, could have, and should have done. I think the tone 98 percent of this community has struck is the right one. Sure it is all right to express frustrations or disappointment with some of his strategic decisions (i.e. the way he decided to shape his backcourt mins this season) this season. However, some of the washed up and recycled second guessing we have seen on other boards and sporadically on here about his scheduling decisions, the way he uses TOs etc, are LOL funny. All on a sudden the coach who has reestablished this program as one of the best in this country, and taken to three straight Final-4s has to make whole sale changes because he lost a second round game with an imperfect team, despite winning 25+ games in a rebuilding season. Again as mentioned above, we just have a simple suggestion for these people: call in the local radio show or write to the dying LA Times to get off your cheap thrills but please keep that nonsense out of Bruin Nation.
Lastly, I wanted to end with a plug for Philadelphia. It’s a fun town. Sure it doesn’t have the name recognition of Boston or NYC out in the West. I get the sense many people have the notion that Philly is a gloomy and a depressing city. It’s anything but. There are tons of fun stuff to do in this cool sports town with great bars, restaurants and parks. We didn’t get to stay in the team hotel because we planned our trip at the very last second in late Friday afternoon. Still we ended up having a great time. We stayed in the Warwick, near Rittenhouse Square (around downtown I think). It was right in the middle of tons of cool places to hang out. Despite the tough afternoon, we decided to make the best out of it and enjoy a great weekend.
This trip was very different than my last trip to Philadelphia to see UCLA lose to Nova (in 2002). After that game we went out with other alums from East Coast at a local bar, and commiserated about a lost program being conned by a head coach in name only, who now poses as an "analyst" on ESPN. This time around we left the arena knowing that we still have one of the best coaches in the country, who will bring us back next season with another edition of Ben Ball season, contending for a Pac-10 championship, ginning us up and getting excited for March Madness. The fun will never stop in Howlandwood ...
... as long as we have the Caretaker leading our program.