The UCLA 'Non-Factor'

This is about a month old, written before Class of 2012 player Jordan Adams had committed to the Bruins. I decided I'd post it here and see what you think. -truebluebruin19

There's a hip new phenomenon that's taking the basketball world by storm this summer. And no, it's not the Miami Heat bandwagon, which, by the way, is veering dangerously close to failure after Thursday night's loss to the Mavericks. Don't expect the fairweather fans to ride out that storm. But enough on that, lest I run the risk of losing my temper.

This one comes from the heart.

ESPN College Basketball blogger Eamonn Brennan wrote a brief article Wednesday on the 'UCLA Factor', phrase-ology which is rapidly gathering momentum in NBA boardrooms and draft camps this summer in the lead-up to this month's NBA Draft.

First introduced by Bruins Nation, an online site dedicated to UCLA athletics, the 'UCLA Factor' is a response to the success that UCLA players have enjoyed in the NBA in recent years. For the two Bruins players in this year's Draft pool, it means good things.

Tyler Honeycutt, a sophomore forward, and Malcolm Lee, a junior guard, jumped the graduation gun and are currently participating in workouts for teams around the league.

The 6'10 Honeycutt, a rangy athlete, is projected as a mid-first rounder, despite never averaging better than 12.8 points in college. Lee's prospects are less bright than the gold lettering that once graced his road uni for UCLA, his stock much less certain than Honeycutt's. A surprise entry into the Draft, (and I'm putting that mildly), Lee is purveyed as a long-shot first-round pick.

Here's where the Bruins Nation word-creation bounces into play. According to the 'UCLA Factor', Honeycutt, and particularly Lee, have little to worry about.

NBA execs were once wary of UCLA prospects because of a stigma that coach Ben Howland's 'methodical' system didn't adequately prepare players for the faster pace of league play, where individual skill is at a premium.

They've since shed those qualms after the success of players like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison, Aaron Afflalo, and Jrue Holiday--players who put up steady if unspectacular numbers at UCLA, but have thrived in the pros. Collison, Afflalo, and Holiday  each started for their respective teams in the playoffs this season. Mbah a Moute saw a number of starts for the Milwaukee Bucks during regular season play.

The execs are looking past the perceived 'clamps' that Howland is alleged to put on individual exploits, instead appreciating UCLA players' proficiency in the fundamentals, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defense and toughness have long been Howland calling cards, and each player entering the pros from his program has them in his arsenal.

One NBA exec Brennan interviewed put it simply. UCLA players "get it." They come into the NBA ready to contribute. That's music to the ears of coaches around the league, who must consistently 'develop' the growing number of one-and-done's flooding into teams.

Here's my problem. It's all well and good that UCLA players are thriving in the NBA. But as a UCLA fan, I care about how they contribute IN COLLEGE. Their success in the pros is nothing more to me than a pleasant afterthought. Sure, it's good for recruiting--prospects want to see that if they go to UCLA, they've got a shot at the pros. But if those prospects don't deliver a title during their time in Westwood, I see them as a failure.

Take the 2007-08 Bruins basketball team as a prime example. Featuring three future pros--and two current NBA superstars in freshman Kevin Love and sophomore Russell Westbrook--it was one of the most talented editions ever to play in Westwood.

That team reached the Final Four, making it three years in row for UCLA basketball at that stage. A fine accomplishment, but they don't hang Final Four banners in Pauley Pavilion. Call it elitist, but when you've won a record 11 titles, you don't enjoy settling for anything less.

That team came up short, as each team Howland has coached in his eight years at the helm has done. Since he took over in 2003, North Carolina has won two titles. UConn has won two titles. Florida has won two titles.

I care nothing for a once-storied program to disintegrate into a glorified feeder to the NBA (looking at you, Kentucky). I demand titles. And I want it done the right way (looking at you, UConn).

The truth is, for all the players Howland has sent to the NBA, UCLA's program is a mess. The turnover the past five offseasons has been incessant. Six players have transferred during that time, not to mention the ones that have flown the coop for NBA millions.

UCLA has not tasted the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since that Final Four run in '08. It's natural for any program to  hit rough patches--both North Carolina and Duke struggled in years after winning titles, but UCLA isn't showing any indications of picking themselves back up into the elite.

The time has come for Howland to choose his identity. Does he want to become John Calipari, eschewing the principle of building a cohesive unit over a number of years, instead electing to import one-and-done's that never win a title?

Or does he want to build a team. Perhaps with less-hyped players, but ones that will stick around for longer than two years. Howland has worked wonders with rough gems like Westbrook and Mbah a Moute, recruits who flew under the radar, and are now in the NBA.

I know what you'll tell me. Get with the times. If you want to be elite, you take a gamble on top talent. They may only stick around for a year (under current rules, the NBA requires potential draftees to be at least one year removed from their high school graduation date). No one is a bigger proponent of allowing players to go pro than Howland. If he receives feedback from NBA offices that one of his players is a first-round block, they receive his blessing to leave.

That's great, but if you ask me, I want players like Honeycutt and Lee to want to come back for one more year and bring UCLA back into the national picture. Next year's team, with those two, had a shot to be great. Now, not so much.

UConn, winner of this year's national championship, saw star guard Kemba Walker go pro. Duke, the 2010 winner, saw their top recruit from the last year, Kyrie Irving, jump ship after his freshman year and declare for this year's draft.

The thing about those two teams, however, and to a further extension, North Carolina's title-winning teams in 2005 and 2009..and to a further extension, Florida's back-to-back title-winning sides in 2006 and 2007, is simple. Besides the fact that they won it all, those teams had core groups that had played together for at least two years.

Cohesiveness still plays a vital role in the makeup of a national title-winning team, a principle refusing to budge amid the swarm of contemporary, individualistic notions that threaten to engulf college basketball.

UCLA's best shots at the national title came, unsurprisingly, in those three Final Four years. The 2006 team consisted largely of the stellar 2004 recruiting class, which was in its second year of playing together. They were young, but not too young. 2007 followed the same script--only point guard Jordan Farmer (a member of the '04 class) had left for the pros--the '04 and '05 classes, two of Howland's best, had another year under their belts. In '08, there was veteran leadership from both those classes paired with the explosive young talent of Love and Westbrook.

Ask anyone in any sport. You need an experienced spine for support. Those youthful Fab 5 teams at Michigan? Gamechangers they were, national title winners, they were not. Calipari's first two Kentucky teams? Sure, they boasted absurd freshmen talent, but they've gone the way of Coach Cal's Memphis teams. Deep NCAA runs, no titles.

I could care less how Howland's teams play. Many critics have lambasted his plodding offenses, which have grounded the long-standing perception of UCLA basketball as a high-flying affair worthy of the bright lights of LA.

But, like Jose Mourinho, the coach of soccer's Real Madrid, who has been crucified in the press during his first season at the helm of the storied side for employing 'negative tactics'--ie. a philosophy of defensive-minded counter-attacking play. That's a big no-no for the Madrid galacticos, who have long prided itself for playing, and winning, with flair and panache. But Mourinho delivered a title this season. 'Nuff said. If it works, it works.

When it comes down to it, a win is a win. Would I like to see Howland relax his vice-like grip on the offensive reigns? Yes. But what I'd like most is to see some continuity in his program. I want players to want to deliver a title. Farmar was profiled in ESPN the Magazine before his freshman season in an article which hailed him as the player who would restore the UCLA program to its former greatness.

What did he accomplish, in the end? Two NCAA tournament appearances, one Finals appearance, no title. He jacked up a bunch of ill-advised shots against Florida in that '06 title game, as if it were nothing more than a glorified audition for NBA scouts.

I feel the same way about Honeycutt and Lee. They care more about making money than delivering a title. That infuriates me. Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith bypassed NBA millions last summer, electing to return to school and fight for another title.

It appears that the 'UCLA Factor' has clouded Bruin minds. The players now see the jersey as nothing more than a conduit to the pros. UCLA is a stepping stone to NBA money, nothing more.

Howland recently hired Korey McCray as an assistant coach. McCray's credentials? He was the head coach of the Atlanta Celtics, a top AAU team. The Celtics have a couple players that Howland is recruiting. Coincidence? Nope. It's nothing more than the latest indication that Howland is succumbing to pressure. Major programs have long made it a practice of employing package deals in recruiting--they hire a kid's coach, the kid comes along.

That's great if Howland gets his guys. But will they deliver a title? Or bounce after a year. We'll have to wait and see, but given recent indications, the outlook doesn't look good.

So, I'll root, somewhat half-heartedly, for Honeycutt and Lee in the pros. With the good vibrations resonating toward UCLA at the present moment, they appear likely to do well for themselves.

UCLA sits on the fringe of next season's top-25. It's a spot that has become all-too familiar territory. For a mid-major program, that's great. For UCLA?

<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.</em>

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