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Three Lessons for UCLA Basketball from Montana . . . 1985

I was there the last time UCLA played Montana.  It was the first round of the 1985 NIT Tourney.  As I was watching us lose on Sunday to Montana, I thought of the differences between that 1985 victory and Sunday's game and the lessons our current players could learn. 

To set the table the 1985 team was coming off a disastrous season with the person I think was the worst coach in UCLA Basketball history, Larry Farmer.  The team had turned down an NIT bid the year before.  It's PG was a converted forward and its best player was a skinny big eared kid who cynics said chose UCLA because his sister went to USC.

Lesson 1 The Mystique

But I was reminded of where UCLA ranked in history by Montana.  Montana's team was in awe of Pauley.  It was not just in their faces but their hair. Yes, their hair.  You see Montana's entire team had shaved their heads to "prove" they weren't scared of UCLA and they were ready.  Of course it proved the opposite.

Oh and if you think this was some harebrained scheme of some "hick" coach, the coach was Mike Montgomery later of Stanford and now Cal.

It reminded me of how prestigious and revered Pauley Pavilion was.  Even if the Alumni literally were, in part, angry that we had bent so low as to play in the NIT, the students were into it.  Back then the media was behind the basket and I was literally in the front row with nothing between the court and myself cheering the Bruins on.

The students did not have the memory of the alumni (heck UCLA had not won a NCAA Basketball title in 10 years at that point and had not made a serious run in 4 years) but they were loud and having fun as we blew out Montana and went on to win the NIT Championship.  In the finals we beat a Bobby Knight coached Indiana team that would win the National Championship two years later.   

Montana played scared that night and the awe of Pauley and playing UCLA was definitely there.  It was not there Sunday Night.  Montana was not scared or in awe of Pauley, as the local newspaper wrote before the game:  Griz insist trip to Pauley Pavilion is all business.  They were ready and hungry and if any team played scared it was UCLA.

Pauley and UCLA cannot be another game, ever.  Especially to a mid-major.  We need get it back by the student section being loud again, our team not only winning but winning handily at home and by going deep in the tourney again.  The latter is unlikely this year but we need the first two to help us get back to the third.

Lesson 2: The Unlikely NBA Player

I stayed to the bitter end of the 1985 Montana game which we dominated 75-47.  As the bench emptied, out came a player who at the time was the unofficial team mascot.  The person Doctor Mexican  would praise.  Unlike Blake Arnett, this guy had a basketball body (6'10") and was on Scholarship as a forward-center.  (He was recruited blind, literally.  When he came to his first practice, Coach Hazzard first words to him were "I thought you were black.")

There were a lot of jokes about the kid who had surfed more than played basketball in high school and he rewarded them by screwing up.  But the thing was this kid, went on to play 10 seasons in the NBA.  

How did he do it?  He was a great teammate. He worked really hard in practice.  He was always the first to congratulate his teammates.  People joked that his job in the NBA was to cheer Jordan.  Fine, he was not an NBA All Star or even close.  But how many players on this team are going to play in the NBA for 10 years?  

So Reeves Nelson, you have a similar body type to Jack Haley.  But if you go cussing out your teammates or slumping your shoulders every time something goes wrong, you think the NBA is going to deal with you?  Are you going to work really hard all the time every minute as Jack Haley did, even in garbage time? 

Reeves, one of the important things you need to learn is being a good teammate is more than "liking your teammates".  You have more talent and basketball ability than Jack Haley of 1985 but I doubt you are going to come anywhere close to his NBA career unless you start growing up as a teammate and working hard all the time as a player.

Lesson 3 Being a Superstar is About More than Ability   

Unlike Haley, there was one player who we thought might be a NBA player  He was probably going to make it as 3 point specialist but not much more.  He was so skinny, few thought he was tough enough to do more.  But beginning around the time of this NIT tournament he started to take over.  

You see Reggie Miller began to drive and to start to draw fouls.  He stopped being the guy waiting on the perimeter for the pass to him.  He was only a sophomore on a team that started three seniors.  But he was the best player and he put the team on his back and stopped being content to jack up jumpers.  It was a startlingly transformation  that would become more clear his junior year.  Reggie was arguably the greatest outside shooter to ever play the game but to be a great player he had to be a scorer which meant drawing fouls and going to the basket.  

It was Miller who scored 21 on Montana that night and led UCLA to the NIT Championship.  Not just because he was the most talented player.  But because he was the leader who was working hard to be the best player he could be.

Tyler Honeycutt needs to learn from Reggie. They are different players but they have something in common.  As sophomores, they are both the starting threes for UCLA and the most talented players on the team.  Will Tyler learn to take over and lead as Reggie did?  Will Tyler be content to jack up outside shots as he did with a career high 8 three attempts against Montana or will he be the leader as he was against Kansas when he shot a career high 7 FTs?  One thing I know, is Tyler has the ability, but does he have the desire?  

Step up Tyler and start leading this team.   Don't be content to sit back and jack up threes.  Reggie Miller wasn't and he was a better outside shooter than you will ever be. 

Enough of the history lecture.  Go Bruins!