With 10 games remaining in the regular season (14-7, 6-3 in the Pac-10), Coach Ben Howland's team has a reasonable shot to meet this community's minimum expectations of making the NCAA tournament. The squad's record has been hindered by a pair of weak losses to VCU (in NYC) and Montana (at Pauley), and a shortage of key wins - the Wooden Classic victory over BYU looking more impressive than we had expected a few weeks ago, but not as impressive as it looked a few days ago. Despite the early struggles, but the team has come through in recent weeks when most needed. The team came through during the 4 must win games against the Oregon and Bay Area schools, and while falling in Tuscon, was then able to hang on for dear life against Arizona State to keep its tourney hopes alive.
However depressing the struggles of the program over the past year and a half have been, Ben Howland still has the clear opportunity to thread the needle and reestablish his program by meeting a couple of objectives heading into next season. First, he needs to make the tournament by getting into it on a good note. Second, during the off-season he needs to be able to break the habit of his players looking to leave a year early to the NBA - or for other schools. Retaining guys like Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee and Reeves Nelson would be a welcome step toward pushing back the solidifying perception that kids do not like playing for his program.
Thankfully Howland still is on track to meet the first part. But folks need to appreciate the immense pressure he is going to be under this week to stay on that track. This is the most crucial week of Ben Howland's career since his arrival in Westwood. The next few days sees a perfect storm of sorts; the two upcoming games - USC's last appearance in the 'old Pauley' and the Lavinoma's return to the site of his infection - have been circled on our calendars since the day this season's schedule was released. Along with last month's game at Kansas, these are the biggest games of the regular season for the Bruins. While the opponents would typically be enough to get the attention of this community and the greater Bruin Nation, the fact is that this week also marks a turning point for this team, for good or for bad. Not only due to the psychological impact of the opponents (not to mention the ever changing mental state of this team), but because of the impact of these games on UCLA's chances to get into the Big Dance, they will have an enormous impact for Howland's long term prospects in Westwood. He has no margin for error this week.
As I wrote above, the Bruins as of now have an identifiable and very possible path into the NCAA tournament, but there is little room for error. Given the weakness of the Pac-10 again this year, we cannot count on a 2004-05 like performance (18 wins, 1st round conference tourney exit) equaling a tourney at-large bid. In at-large bid terms, 20 regular season wins has to be seen as a floor, and I feel a lot more comfortable with 21 (21-10) as a reasonable number to get in. To get to 21 wins, we need to win 7 of the final 10 games; with the always tricky Bay Area trip, as well traveling to the Pallouse and the excruciating game in Seattle still to come, we have to take every win that can be had. Sweep the weekend, and the squad has some breathing room on the path to 21. Fail to do so, and there becomes no room for error.
It is difficult to overstate the difference between going 2-0 and anything less than that in the next two games. First, Ben Howland is now 0-4 against Kevin O'Neil, and has lost his last 5 games overall against USC. Keep in mind that O'Neil was essentially a desperate hire for a fairly irrelevant program entering a period of self imposed probation. USC basketball has been trying to build its image up over the years through the local media, but to little effect. It's most decorated modern alum was a mercenary from West Virginia, who after leaving the program on probation has starting developing an 'interesting' (but very SC-like) career in the NBA. It has no history of noteworthy success either at the conference or NCAA level. While he has a decent rep as a coach, O'Neil had been fired for multiple programs before the Trojans took him.
And despite this, Howland is 0-4 against their program in last two seasons. In our last contest against them his players provided eye opening quotes before the game (not appreciating what games against that other school means to the Bruin community), which was made all the more embarrassing by Alex Stepheson's postgame reaction to the trogan win. Players like J.R. Henderson offered up provocative "JustSC" quotes, but they always followed it up with a powerful and focused performance with fire in their eyes. If Howland and his team beat the Trojans at Pauley, it will restore some desperately needed goodwill from UCLA fans towards Howland and this basketball program, and it will also give everyone a much needed moral boost heading into the second game of the week.
Before segueing over to that second game, a final note regarding the SC game. A victory in this game will keep our NCAA at large bid alive and it will also ensure we retain the sole possession of third place in the conference. With the Oregon schools coming to LA the following week, a win puts us in position to enter the final two road trips in a more comfortable, though not relaxed position. If we don't win on Wednesday night, the clouds now hovering over Howland's program will get even darker, with an ever decreasing chance of disbursement as the season transitions into the offseason. A loss will only accelerate the continued loss of fan confidence in this program which is more than noticeable in the meager attendance figures of this current season.
This brings me to Saturday's game against St. Johns. There is little need to go into detail over Lavin's background (the tags in this post will tell you the story). We do expect Coach Howland, his staff and his entire program to understand what this game means to the Bruin community. If Howland and this current group of players (who have collectively embarrassed the four letters on multiple occasions in recent years) want to generate goodwill from Bruins who suffered through those dark times, they will have to come out and blow the Johnnies out of Pauley. If they don't prevail against the Johnnies, the resulting media coverage and direct attacks on UCLA fanbase will be insufferable, and the negative sentiments against Howland will only intensify in the greater UCLA community.
The Bruins need to put together a BYU-like total performance in next two games. We hope Howland, his staff, and the team understands the situation and decides to show up for the entire 40 minutes in next two contests. Once again ... there is no margin for error for Ben Howland's UCLA program this week.