While we have tended to focus on the problems of the last four years, what were some of the keys to success of the those three Final Four years? Recent articles and the hype of the number one recruiting class bring these things into perspective.
1. A "Go To" Guy
The Final Four teams all had one or two guys who not only wanted to take the last shot but had the ability to create as the shot clock wore down and the offense broke down. First it was Jordan Farmar and Arron Affalo, then AA and Josh Shipp, then Kevin Love and Josh Shipp. The FInal Four teams always had someone to create and who wanted the big shot.
Beginning with Shabazz Muhammad, it seems this years team has it as well. Shabazz is not just a very talented athlete, he is a scorer, a guy who wants the ball in his hands and will find a way to score. There is a reason he set records in high school all-star games and a reason why he led virtually all those teams in scoring. Then there is Kyle Anderson. Anderson was the guy who came back from an injury in the U.S. vs. the World All Star game and was the guy you could see make a difference on the court. He has the potential to be the most unique player Howland has had in his time at UCLA but also a last second go to guy. While it is hyperbole that was likely said before, there could be some truth to this line:
UCLA has not had a freshman class so highly regarded since Lew Alcindor, Lucius Allen and Co. showed up in 1965
2. A Defensive Stopper
AA was a phenomenal player because of what he did on both sides on the floor. He was a great defender as well. But when AA left, UCLA was not done as Russell Westbrook was arguably an even better defender. That tradition continued with Malcolm Lee, when he was allowed to play man to man. The team really suffered at times on defense, without that stopper two out of the last three years. What made all three of these guys unique is they could play defense on the other team's best player from point guard to small forward.
Which brings us to this 2012-13. Is there a stopper on this team? Norman Powell has the athletic ability to do so. Ironically those saying Larry Drew II as a playmaker is the key player are wrong. But they could be right as a defensive stopper as he was a good enough defender at North Carolina to briefly keep Kendall Marshall on the bench. So while I have little doubt this team will have a couple guys to carry us on offense down the stretch, Drew or Powell could be key for the defense. As Ben Howland said, emphasis mine:
Howland said the Bruins will "get back to pressuring the ball," and intends to get away from the plod-and-post tempo that produced a 19-14 record last season.
Powell or Drew will be key to that effort.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was the only three year starter for those Final Four teams. He was the "glue guy" that held the team together. He was also the key to the interior defense. Looking at this team it has hard to see even a potential LRMAM anywhere. It is one of the reason why Josh Smith will be a key. Not for his offense. This team can score without him. But for his defense.
But again there is no LRMAM on this team. So how can they compensate?
To be blunt I am not sure. But let's discuss briefly the most frustrating loss to many on BN and UCLA fans in Howland's time, the Memphis Final Four game with the "Kevin Love team." While many focus on what Rose did against Darren Collision and blame Howland there, many ignore another key to the game. LRMAM had more shots than Kevin Love. Memphis' game plan was simple on defense: double Love without the ball and make LRMAM beat them. LRMAM missed a number of open jumpers, some layups, and even then was reluctant to shoot. LRMAM did not like being the go to scorer, it was not his role.
Howland is gambling on something different now. While there are many critics of the Wears, in that aspect they would have done just fine. An open Wear will hit those jumpers. It will be hard to double Smith without the ball with Travis and David at the four.
Again, I am not sure this works but maybe Howland still has nightmares from this game and the Wears, in this sense, could be a solution. He is trading defense for offense, will it work? We shall see.
4. Two Pro Point Guards.
Another fascinating thing about Howland's Final Four teams was the depth at the point guard spot. JF backed up by Darren Collison and then DC was backed up by Russell Westbook. Wow. The next season had DC and Jrue Holiday, however, for whatever reason Howland used Jerime Anderson as the backup point on that team, so I am not counting it.
This year team has two point guards in Kyle Anderson and Larry Drew II. Drew seems unlikely to be a pro. Anderson like most other top five high school recruits seems likely to be a pro. This does not seem to be as good.
5. Efficient Offense vs. Running
A lot is made about the "boring" Ben Howland teams. Many say the offense stunk. This is wrong as shown by kenpom. Those teams were good on offense, among the best in the country.
But Howland has consistently saying this team is going to push it. This team is going to try to score even more and play quicker. It will be interesting if that makes this a better offensive team. I mean I love what I have seen of Shabazz in the open court but I am not sure anyone can be better than Russell was.
Again the key may be Anderson. Anderson will likely run the offense but may officially be the starting three, his likely defensive position. Anderson may be a better three than all the other final four teams on offense. Shipp had a tendency to not pass and force shots. Bozeman was defense first and pass second. Anderson will be the best all-around offensive three UCLA has had. Anderson, like Magic Johnson, is a guy who can get the defensive rebound and start a break.
Howland has the team he wants. Did Howland make the right choice in a potentially better offensive team by trading some defense? We shall see. I for one can't wait to find out.