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UCLA And What A Down Season At An Elite Program Looks Like

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In recent days people have looked back on the 2010-2011 UCLA basketball season and wondered what we should be expecting from Ben Howland and his Bruin program. At the moment, Howland's program is not elite. They haven't made it to the second weekend of the tournament in three seasons now, something that wouldn't be a huge issue if they hadn't missed the tournament in that span with a horrid season, gone four years without a Pac-10 title and seen their recruiting momentum sag with a couple glaring holes in the future roster.

At the beginning of the season we set making the NCAA Tournament as the minimum expectation for the program, an expectation they met. However, those expectations were set as a building block for next season that will get the program back into the national picture, where I'm pretty sure everyone expects the program with the most national titles, three recent Final Fours and almost every conceivable recruiting advantage there is. If next season doesn't result in the Bruins being one of the top ten teams in the country then it makes three consecutive lost seasons for the program.

Now, for a minute here we are going to forget the 2009-2010 season because it's better for all of our health that way and because we are going to evaluate just the 2010-2011 season. The Bruins had some bad losses (Montana, Oregon), some good wins (BYU, Arizona) and a lot in the middle. The team struggled to play hard and poised for 40 minutes and any disadvantage the Bruins were at in their NCAA Tournament second round elimination at the hands of Florida in Tampa Bay were the result of their inability to get the job done in the regular season so they weren't a seven seed on the opposite side of the country.

Let's call the 2010-2011 season the Bruins' down season. It was their rebuilding year. While the team lacked seniors, they weren't exactly inexperienced since most of the team had played heavy minutes at the collegiate level before. One could argue that the team was inexperienced in big, high pressure games though. That wouldn't excuse debacles like Oregon and an striking lack of effort in other games, but it might explain some of the mistakes at the end of the Florida game. Such inexperience in big games is usual in down seasons though. Down seasons are usually down because of things like that.

So UCLA had a down season, but let's examine what a down season really is. A down season is not quite a rebuilding season, but it's a building season. It's a season where you build for something much greater the next season and if the program does build, that's fine. All of the top programs have these down seasons and UCLA is no exception, but we need to take a look at what down seasons are and look like at elite programs around the country.

  • North Carolina- The Tar Heels didn't make the tournament last season. Just like that's considered unacceptable in Westwood, it's considered unacceptable in Chapel Hill. What makes that down year somewhat passable is that it came as defending national champions with three consecutive ACC regular season titles (one shared). What makes it really okay though is the way that down season was used to cultivate and develop talent in a year they still went to the NIT championship so this season they won the ACC, earned a number two seed and are in the Sweet 16.
  • Kansas- It's actually somewhat difficult to call any of the Jayhawks' seasons under Bill Self truly down seasons because they've either won the Big XII or made it to the Elite Eight in all of his years there, but let's call 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 down seasons. In those years the Jayhawks went out in the first round after capturing the Big XII title. What Bill Self was doing in those two seasons was recruiting players like Mario Chalmers, Sasha Kaun, Brandon Rush, Russell Robinson and Darnell Jackson. All of those players were part of a nucleus that played regularly while younger and learned, then were central to the Elite Eight team in 2006-2007 and the national championship team in 2007-2008.
  • Duke- In the past decade the Blue Devils have had one down season, 2006-2007. That year, Duke went just .500 in conference and were eliminated in the first round of the tournament. The next season the Blue Devils bounced back by finishing second in the ACC to a top-five national team in North Carolina, but still went 13-3 in the conference and were a number two seed in the NCAA Tournament. They also played Jon Sheyer heavy minutes that year as a freshman and managed to still recruit Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith coming off of that season, all essential to their national title team last year.
  • Michigan St.- Take a look at the team that UCLA eliminated in this season's NCAA Tournament and you see how to handle rocky times. Despite two consecutive Final Fours there were attitude issues on the Spartan team that caused problems and Korie Lucious was suspended for it. Tom Izzo kept control of the program even in the down year with plenty of issues and got them a fourth place finish in the Big Ten. Also, Izzo brought in a top recruiting class anyways with two top 50 players going to Lansing next year, another top 150 player and a project player, but one with huge upside to round out the four-man class. Still building even in a down year.
A quick look at other elite programs show what a down season looks like. For the most part you still make the tournament with the only exception being a team coming off of a national title so there undoubtedly a little more slack given there. The key to those down seasons though was what they built towards. They built to conference titles or if they weren't winning the conference they were losing out to other elite programs. Those down seasons saw no slowing in recruiting and they saw the core of future successful teams being built. 

The question now is whether 2010-2011 was a down year for UCLA or just what the program is. Are they an elite program? Will they prove it by building off of a down season like elite programs do?

The expectation for next season is that the Bruins win the Pac-12 and earn a high seed that has them playing in either Portland or Albuquerque for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament next season. When you get to the tournament anything can happen. Maybe UCLA wins the Pac-12, is a top seed and gets upset in the second round or Sweet 16. It would be disappointing and upsetting, but the reality is that those upsets we love to watch so much always sting one fan base. It happens because the NCAA Tournament is a crapshoot, but a 30+ game regular season is not and that's where the Bruins need to get the job done to make sure they have all the possible advantages in the NCAA Tournament.

That is what elite programs do. They build off of down seasons and reestablish themselves among the elite. That is what UCLA has to do next season. If they can't do it then the 2010-2011 season isn't a down year like they had at Michigan St. this year or at North Carolina last season. It's a lost year, not a down year, and guess what, UCLA has already lost a season, something the other programs haven't done.