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5 Dates to Circle for the Upcoming UCLA Basketball Season

With all the injury news on Basketball, I thought it might be a good time to change the subject and look ahead at the other news from last week: the release of the basketball schedule.  IMHO there are five games which are key not to this season but the future of UCLA basketball for the next few years.

1.  Friday November 12.  Opening Game against Cal State Northridge.  CSUN Lost 5 players from a 11-21 team, including arguably their best.  Last year we opened with an OT loss to a mediocre Cal State Fullerton who went 16-15 for the year and UCLA also lost to Cal State Long Beach.  We must beat CSUN convincingly.  There is no excuse for losing to CSUN or to be frank for CSUN to be in the game. 

Bottom Line on why this game is important:  Unlike last year, UCLA always needs to beat "lesser" California teams and there is no excuse for losing these sort of games, ever. 

2.  NIT Season Tip Off, Second Game.  UCLA was beyond terrible in the 76 Classic last year.  We went 0-3 and ended with a loss to another mediocre Big West Team in Cal State Long Beach.  Why is the second game important?  The 2009-10 UCLA team was terrible in games preceded by a game two days earlier or less going 2-8.  This is an alarming trend which must be reversed.  CBH has shown a great ability to win the first game of a two game set but last year's record was terrible in the second. 

Bottom Line:  This game is not a must win as we do not even know who we will play yet.  However, CBH must be prepared and show that his team will be ready to play in the second of back to back games.  This will be the first chance to see if he has improved on this.

Rest after the jump.

3.  Friday December 31, University of Washington. Even last year, CBH showed he is a great coach when he has time to prepare.  UCLA was 8-2 (counting the PAC 10 Tourney) in the first of a pair of PAC 10 games.  The two losses came against Oregon in OT on the road in an emotional last UCLA-Oregon game ever at McArthur Court and at Arizona in a game UCLA was winning until Malcolm Lee got hurt.  (IMO we would have won but for ML's injury.)  Thus in a injury-riddled-bad-year, CBH had us a heartbeat and an injury from going 10-0 in the first of a pair of Pac 10 games.  But we were beyond bad in the second of two and were often embarrassed.  One of the top two destructions came against UW on National TV when a number of our players, including Reeves Nelson, literally gave up on Defense.  Often on Saturdays or second games we seemed lost and a bit confused.  It also seemed that CBH threw strategy out the window and went back to our pre-season plan.  For example, inexplicably we often went back to M2M in second games of series (for example in the 2nd PAC 10 game of the year against AZ and in the last PAC 10 game of the year against CA on 3/12). 

But the best contrast between the two CBHs may have been the last weekend at home against the Oregon schools.  On Thursday, we played against Oregon State whose entire game is based on their trapping defense.  The defense wants you to dribble the ball into their traps and on its face would seem to be a tough match up against a team like UCLA last year with weak PG play.  Further, we were without Nelson and Brendan Lane, forced to start Drago at Center, and only played 7 players for the game, including three guards.  On its face, this was a good spot for OSU.  Yet, CBH was brilliant in beating the OSU trap by the inspired idea of playing Michael Roll at point on Thursday.  MR would not dribble into trouble but would pass over it.  His 7 assists was a career high and we won despite only two rebounds from the Center position and being out rebounded by 15 for the game.  We won because the OSU trap did not work and UCLA, a TO plagued team for the season, won the TO battle for the game. 

But two days later, CBH admitted he blew it by going away from a hot Brandon Lane and inexplicably had the ball in Jerime Anderson's hands with the score tied 65-65.  The next two possessions JA turned the ball over both times (Including a pass with no pressure out of bounds), and in between gave up a three to Tajun Porter and we fell behind 70-65 until a late meaningless three by MR provided the final margin.  Two observations, the details of which differ in games last year but something like this seemed to happen often on Saturdays:

1.  It was as if CBH on Saturday had decided not to take advantage of the game flow which had allowed Lane to score four uncontested layups.  Oregon was defending the perimeter only because our lineup had no inside play (Nelson was hurt).  CBH would say after this game: "Brendan Lane in retrospect I should've played him more minutes." 

2.  CBH seemed to forget the season.  In the clutch, the ball was in Anderson hands.  Anderson had been benched because he was not a good enough point guard and because of nagging injuries.  It was not fair to anyone, including Anderson, to expect him to do well in this pressure filled situation.  Much like his going away from zone, on "second games", CBH seemed to be sticking to his pre-season plan as if the season had not happen.

Bottom Line.  The contrast between Thursday and Saturday games is something that has to change.  The first Washington game at home is a key test.  We will beat WSU on Thursday.  But how will we do Saturday against UW,  arguably be the best team in the PAC 10 next year.  Winning this game may not be crucial but showing up with a game plan that keeps us in the game is essential.  If we win this game UCLA can legitimately start thinking about winning the PAC 10.  If we lose a close game, we won't know until later in the season how far back we have come.  If we get blown out, uh oh. 

4.  Wednesday, February 2, Southern Cal.  As bad as the UW loss was, the worst loss of the 09-10 season had to be the $UC game at home.  It was bad on every level.  It was our worst loss to Southern Cal since 1945.  As CBH said: "I feel embarrassed for the program, for the former players and coaches. That's all you can say, it was embarrassing."

A point lost in the embarrassment of that game but one Nestor made is the Trogans played "ben ball" better than UCLA.  IMO, this is the most important game of the basketball season.  This game will be big for us. 

Bottom line: No way UCLA is back unless we beat the Trogans at home.  This is must win as UCLA must own LA.

5.  Next comes the oddity, Sat., Feb. 5, St. John's.  A game that means a lot for reasons not related to these players.  A game that was not a big deal when it was scheduled but now is huge.  UCLA plays St. John's.  Or more importantly UCLA plays The World's Second Biggest Oil Slick, Steve Lavin.   .

Lavin has made a living off his lucky break of being a low level assistant on a UCLA championship team that no one would hire when the rest of the staff got other jobs.  When this game happens, all the terrible things Lavin did to his players and UCLA will be revisited on BN.  And for those who think the Lavin nightmare is over and should be forgotten, keep in mind Lavin is still using the "We" for UCLA and is making his recruiting choices in part based on UCLA choices.  (Witness his pursuit of California High School student Remi Barry who UCLA was after first.) 

Everyone over 26 will remember the Lavin disaster.  The players of this year's team will hopeful do their part to ease the pain by beating Lavin on TV.  This game is big for the ESPNs of the world as well.  They would love the story of St. John's winning. 

Bottom Line: The second big game of the biggest week of the Basketball season is without a doubt the most important non-conference game of the year. 

The pressure this season is more on CBH than ever before.  Last year can be forgiven but not forgotten with a good season this year.  These five games will be key toward that season.