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Just One Game - Balancing UCLA Basketball Hopes With Expectations

Make each day your masterpiece.  - Coach

Saturday's game against Arizona was a masterpiece, an epic day with a magical ending for the long and storied history that is U.C.L.A. Basketball and Pauley Pavillion, and Bruin Nation was justifiably ecstatic.  (If you haven't already, please go over one more time to our thread honoring Pauley and share your favorite memories of our hallowed ground.  Saturday certainly deserves a spot on that post.)  The elation that resulted from all the aspects of the game - the raucous crowd, the fantastic 40 minute effort, the raw emotion, and the storybook finish - inspired enormous pride, hearty cheers, and joyous tears

It also inspired more than a few platitudes which made me pause just a bit.   Some of the untempered praise for our players, our coach, and our team, culminating with suggestions that this is a Final Four squad, was understandable given the emotion of the day, and is really very dangerous if we take it literally. 

I don't mean to be a buzzkill.  I just want to restore a bit of balance.  The Bruins got it all right on Saturday and showed how good they can be.  But what he hope for and what we can realistically expect are two different things.  After all, as was pointed out recently under different circumstances, this was just one game

An explanation after the  jump...

Reeves Nelson has been the subject of a lot of keystrokes on BN.  After Saturday's fantastic all-around performance with 27 pts, 16 boards, and fantastic man defense against Arizona's lottery pick Derrick Williams, his undying supporters are out in force calling Reeves a great team player.  Those supporters love his intensity and offensive production on the court.  His detractors crucify him for defensive apathy, frequent mental lapses, and his apparent selfishness and bad body language on the court.  Which is it?

The truth is, Reeves is both.  He has the uncanny ability to be great and horrible seconds apart.  He has fallen asleep on defense numerous times this season, most famously on that Cal free throw that gave the undermanned Bears the ball and led to a damaging loss for the Bruins.  He also asked his coach for the responsibility of guarding Arizona's most dangerous player and then went out and shut him down.  Maybe he is learning.  Maybe he is getting it.  I am encouraged by the ongoing development of his leadership and his improved commitment to the team's style of play.   I hope this is the Reeves Nelson we see every game.  But he is not perfect, and so I don't expect every game to look like Arizona.

Coach Ben Howland has been the subject of a lot of keystrokes on BN.  After Saturday's game, his undying supporters are out in force, calling him the perfect coach for the Bruins and that he has turned this program around, and are mocking those who ever said a critical word about him.  Those supporters will cite that he led three schools to the NCAA tournament, restored U.C.L.A. basketball to prominence, and led the Bruins to 3 consecutive Final Fours.  His critics have pointed out he made huge mistakes in recruiting, failed to discipline malignant personalities, is a bad communicator with his players and drives them from the program early, is prickly with high school coaches and with administration, and was at the helm when that same program crashed to historic lows. 

The truth, of course, is that Howland is both.  As the coach, he deserves both credit for success and blame for failure and the Bruins have had a lot of both.  But I am encouraged with some signs.  He showed more flexibility this year by playing zone when the situation required it.  His substitution pattern at center with Stover and Smith has helped protect the big(ger) man and made him more productive.  His apparent tolerance of bad seeds killed us last year with the unnamed Serbian, but may be paying off as we see signs of growth and maturity from Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt, and which has already paid off with vastly improved play from Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson.  His icy personality is countered by the true emotion he displayed yesterday when referencing Coach and his role in U.C.L.A. history.  I hope this is the Ben Howland we see going forward. But he is not perfect, and so I don't expect every game to look like Arizona.

This basketball team as a whole has been the subject of a lot of keystrokes on BN...

You get my point by now.  Yes, there are signs of encouragement all around, and the Bruins in Pauley on Saturday were everything we have hoped for.  But this is still the same team that lost to Montana on that same floor in that same building, and was called soft in the national media after our previous game against Arizona.  There are still reasons for concern.  Though they are in a good spot for now, the Bruins still have not assured themselves of that necessary tournament berth, and need at least a split this weekend and/or a Pac-10 tourney win to really make things comfortable on Selection Sunday.  A return to the lazy uninspired efforts that this team is capable of will add an 0-3 to the record before the season is done. 

Anyone who thinks that the team we saw on Saturday is how it is going to be from here on is ignoring reality, or maybe they just believe in the power of that Trepani moment.  Well, maybe there is a little something to that second one.  But getting too caught up in the moment and calling Nelson a complete player and Howland the perfect coach and these Bruins a Final Four caliber team is going too far and is setting things up for failure.  As fans, and I am as guilty of this as the next, we get too high and too low.  That's the emotion of the moment.  This is my call, after the emotion has settled a bit, to keep things in perspective, and not confuse our hopes with realistic expectations.  Saturday's game was a masterpiece in every sense, but It's dangerous to ignore the reality of this team and expect that game again.  

Thursday night in Washington will go a long way to showing what sort of team this is, and what we can expect going forward.  And if this team wants to prove me wrong, and show that Saturday's masterpiece is the new norm, I'll be very very glad to be wrong.