UCLA has suffered through four years that should never happen at UCLA: a losing record, missing the NCAA tournament twice, and not even a Sweet Sixteen appearance As we enter the second week of March Madness, UCLA should be in the discussion. As one person who knows said:
"This is UCLA," he said. "The expectations are higher here than anywhere. The amount of success both in terms of championships and wins as well as success off the floor has been second to none in college basketball.
That person, of course, was Ben Howland. But why are the expectations so high? Inevitably someone says something to the effect of Coach Wooden has been gone for 37 years. While Coach is the foundation, UCLA basketball is more than just him.
It is why Shabazz Muhammad will likely come to UCLA. It is why UCLA is still thought of (wrongly) as a basketball school. UCLA is a premiere place to play basketball and will be again.
Here are some reasons in no particular order, after the jump.
1. During summers at UCLA you get to play with the pros
Think about it. Do you think any pro comes by North Carolina to get in shape for the season like they do at UCLA? The pickup games are incredible and the rules for the pros are simple: every game must have at least one UCLA player. Freesia39 wrote about last year's version here.
I have seen it a number of times. One of the most memorable times was with Pooh Richardson, the then all-everything UCLA freshman. I saw him shaking like a tween at a Justin Bieber concert one day when he had the chance to play against Magic Johnson. For kids that live in a gym, this is unbeatable.
2. Stars come to LA
To be a basketball player you have to have a bit of an ego. Do you want a kid when he takes a shot to think, well there is a 43% chance this one will go in? No, you want a player who believes he is going to make every shot he takes.
If you have a healthy ego, do you want to be playing in a place that the idea of widespread coverage is both the college paper and the local small-town paper covering the team? Not really.
Los Angeles is a major media market: the second-largest in the United States. It's the home to Hollywood. It is well, I don't really need to elaborate, do I? The best players want to play in the bright lights. And it's hard to find brighter lights than in the City of Angels.
3. The Best in the West
As is obvious by my name, I am on now on the East Coast. And I can tell you that the East Coast thinks basketball on the West Coast begins, and in some cases, ends with UCLA. On the Selection Sunday ESPN radio show the Pac-12 came up and the announcers, led by John Thompson Jr., talked about UCLA. Now if I was not a UCLA fan, this would make me furious. UCLA was a fifth place team that lost in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. They should not be in any NCAA tournament discussions this year.
But that's just it: basketball in the west begins with UCLA. Two more examples: the last two times the Pac-10/12 had only two teams in the NCAA tournament (2010 and 2012) UCLA did not make the tournament. How UCLA goes impacts not just the entire conference, but maybe the entire West Coast basketball scene.
Perfect example: if you look at this year's Sweet 16, the most western teams are Baylor and Kansas.
And it goes deeper than that: the best players in the west have UCLA connections. Coming from the Pac-12 champions and the only Pac-12 team team to win a game in the tournament, Colorado's all-freshman Spencer Dinwiddie wanted to come to UCLA. Outside of Gonzaga and Colorado, the only other school that went beyond the first round was a New Mexico squad led by Drew Gordon, a UCLA transfer who was conference player of the year in the Mountain West.
Yes, the west is down this year, in no small part due to UCLA. The west needs UCLA so that Kansas won't be the western-most power program.
4. The NBA
While Howland has done well, UCLA has always turned out NBA players. The complete list is here. Not to take any credit away from Howland who definitely prepares players for the NBA, the fact that the list contains UCLA players from the Lavin
error era proves that there is something about UCLA, regardless of who occupies Coach Wooden's seat on the bench. The next likely UCLA basketball Hall of Famer Reggie Miller played under two of the worst coaches in UCLA history in Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard. Yet, he did okay for himself, wouldn't you say?
In short, UCLA is a place where future pros play.
5. Coach Wooden
Coach Wooden is the greatest coach in basketball history. He was a great man and teacher; much more than just a basketball coach. If you don't agree with that, please leave here now.
But the other great basketball schools can claim they had great coaches as well. But who is the better model?
- Kansas had James Nasmith, who invented the game but never won a nation-wide championship.
- Kentucky had Adolph Rupp, who will be remembered best for losing a championship game with an all-white team to an all-African American team in 1966. He was a racist and his team was even involved in a point shaving scandal.
- North Carolina had Dean Smith. Dean is probably the closest to Wooden and was a real positive force and role model. I can't say anything negative about Dean except he only won two national championships with all those great players and teams while Wooden won ten.
No one has an icon and legend like Wooden other than UCLA. As Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said on UCLA after the Sports Illustrated scandal broke (emphasis mine):
"I think it's fair to say that whatever you read in the article, you are naive if you think that's not happening at every campus in the country amongst the general student body," he said. "But knowing the leadership at UCLA, and knowing the high standards they hold themselves to, I don't think they'll use that as some excuse."
He said that the story is noteworthy mostly because it is about UCLA, which has a rich basketball tradition and a reputation of integrity in the college sports world and that the article might serve as a wake-up call to get UCLA back on top.
"It really is the gold standard based on history and championship success and Coach (John) Wooden," Scott said. "
UCLA fans, alumni and students have every right to expect the best from their basketball team. UCLA was elite and should always be. Anything less is selling ourselves, Coach Wooden's legacy, and the university short.