2010-11 Needs to be a "Stepping Stone" for UCLA Basketball Towards an "Elite" '11-12 Season

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 19: Malcolm Lee #3 of the UCLA Bruins pushes the ball up court against Kenny Boynton #1 and Scottie Wilbekin #5 of the Florida Gators during the third round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at St. Pete Times Forum on March 19, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Blue Me -  a long time member of BruinsNation- posted a microscopic and macroscopic view of UCLA's basketball program:

To consider this a satisfactory season (3rd best team in a historically-bad Pac 10 and a 2nd round exit as a 7 seed in the Southeast), one has to take a 3 year microscopic view of the program and designate it as a stepping stone and recovery from a 14-18 debacle back to elite status next year. Looking at this season macroscopically, that is, the bar that is set for this program as historically one of the elite programs on par with Duke, UNC, Kentucky, etc, then this counts now as three down years in a row. If you are coaching at an elite program and have 3 down years in a row, you are either fired or on the hot seat.

Howland absolutely needs to have this team performing at an elite level next year. This can and should be achieved if everyone stays. That means Honeycutt too. Howland believes that if a player is a top 15 NBA draft pick, then his position is to encourage that player to declare. I think this is reasonable. Honeycutt is not a top 15 NBA draft pick. He is a fringe 1st rounder, at best. Howland should encourage Honeycutt to stay and help this program make a run at a national championship. He will probably fail. So be it. He needs to try anyway. If Honeycutt leaves, all signals point to our perimeter game being a glaring weakness, and not too many teams have elite seasons with glaring weaknesses. It will be an uphill battle.

I think all of us on the front page - if not overwhelming majority of us -  agree with Blue Me's dual perspectives. The caveat here is that we don't think Howland is on the "hot seat" per se, but the pressure remains on him to bring UCLA back to elite status by next season. Same sentiment is expressed by Penny2i in his fanpost:

I am sure we all can agree that reasonable expectations are for UCLA to compete for a championship every season, but sometimes even elite programs have seasons that act as stepping stones toward that end.  This season I would give a conditional B to the job that was done with the assumption Howland finished that job by bringing back all the players on a very inexperienced squad. Yes we were maddeningly inconsistent and failed to close games properly. We need to be a more consistent 3 point shooting team. We need our ball handlers to be able to make plays down the stretch. We need Honeycutt to learn to get into a more dangerous position in the lane where his full talent can be on display. We need Smith to get in better shape so he can move those feet to not get in foul trouble and late in games to dunk that damn ball with authority. All of these things are achievable and I expect more than a few of them to happen.

An elite status would entail putting together regular seasons like the Bruins did in 1991-92, 1994-95, 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-8 when the Bruins won their regular season conference titles and locked up a top-2 seed in the Western region.  Even the UCLA team from 1996-97 season put together an elite season without a head coach as they won the Pac-10 title, and was mins away from a Final-4 in San Antonio until Jelani McCoy's hurt ribs ended that run.

The results from those years should provide the markers in shaping up the expectations for next season no matter who returns after this off-season. There are folks who want to wait to set the expectations. We do not think that is the right. The markers need to be set now because it is up to Howland to vigorously recruit his key players to come back next year. Elite coaches are able to do that at places like Duke.  A good coach striving to be "elite" should be able to do the same at UCLA.

I agree with Blue Me that Howland should encourage Honeycutt to return for his junior season. It is probably a lost cause but Howland needs to give it a shot. He should communicate to Honeycutt in a persuasive manner by selling him the vision of the upside of retuning to Westwood. Both Honeycutt and Lee (along with Reeves Nelson) can emerge as the bright lights of next college hoops season if they can lead UCLA to a wire to wire top-5/10 type of regular seasons, resulting in a protected seed in the Western region. They can build themselves the same legacies left behind by guys like Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, and Luc Richard MBah A Moute if they can put together seasons that are in par with UCLA's elite level expectations in the post Wooden era.

While Lee's return is essential, without Honeycutt UCLA could remain vulnerable around the perimeter. Neither of the incoming recruits is known to be a sharp shooter. The same sizes for Wear twins are negligible. We can hope that rest of the players will work on their outside shooting during the off-season. These are issues Howland and his staff will need to work around as they will be faced with expectations appropriate for an elite program next season.

Blue Me's last point on recruiting is an important one too:

Howland also needs to regain some footing on the recruiting front. Elite programs are well-suited to bounce back quickly after early departures to the NBA by being an attractive destination year in and year out to 4 and 5 star talent. This has not been the case the past few years, at least not at the level of the other elite programs. This is largely why we have had problems with our depth and our bench the past couple of years. We have not adequately replenished the talent lost to the NBA. I am aware that we had the top recruiting class in the country 3 years ago and what transpired afterward. This, however, should not hold up as empirical evidence that Howland cannot and should not recruit elite talent to UCLA. Other teams have won championships with elite talent. Other teams have ended our seasons with elite talent, and will continue to do so. Howland has got to find a way to do the same. I don't think this is an unreasonable expectation for this program.

I wrote above about UCLA not having any reliable shooter on its roster. Our troubles with recruiting elite level guards have also been well documented on this site. It was cringing to watch Jordan Mayes play a key role in Arizona's championship season and its run to Sweet-16 (in its "bounce back" year). Mayes wanted to attend UCLA but never got a look from our coaching staff.

Howland will not only need to produce elite results on the court, he will need to put together complete classes with the right blend of elite talents and solid players committed to his defensive mindset on the recruiting trail. If that means he has to overhaul his coaching staff bringing in tenacious recruiters such as Kerry Keating, then so be it.

I will end with the following from Peter Yoon after the stinging loss to Florida:

The thing is, UCLA didn't have to be in this position. Had the Bruins played the regular season with as much vigor and intensity as they had played the last two games, they might have been seeded higher than No. 7 and probably wouldn't have had to travel into enemy territory to face a No. 2 in the third round.

Had they not mailed in their Pac-10 tournament game against Oregon, or sleepwalked through a 3-3 finish to the regular season, UCLA very likely would have played closer to home and most definitely would have played farther away from somebody else's home.

"They earned it by doing well in the regular season," UCLA forward Reeves Nelson said. "They got the two seed close to home so that was their advantage and their crowd definitely helped them at the end of the game."

Lesson learned for next year?

Let's hope so.

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