More often than not, a reliable warning sign that a power conference is struggling is if its signature program is having a hard time. Last season was a bad year for the SEC; and in a completely related story, Kentucky missed the NCAA Tournament.
I’ve argued before that the Pac-10 isn’t as bad as most experts are saying, but if UCLA’s play is any indication, the conference is headed for a season more jacked up than the “Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew” cast.
Getting off on the bad foot with a season-opening loss to Cal State-Fullerton (a team that finished under .500 last year), the Bruins are 2-4 and coming off an embarrassing performance in last week’s 76 Classic tourney where they got blown out by Portland and beaten by Butler and Long Beach State for a last-place finish. And that was supposed to be the easy part of the schedule: UCLA has Kansas (Dec. 6), Mississippi State (Dec. 12) and Notre Dame (Dec. 23) on deck before conference play begins.
Then to make matters worse, yesterday it was announced that sophomore PF Drew Gordon — a high school All-American in ’08 and part of a much-hyped recruiting class that included Jrue Holiday, wing Malcolm Lee, point guard Jerime Anderson and center J’Mison Morgan — is leaving the Bruins and intends to transfer. Gordon was the team’s third-leading scorer (11.2 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (5.3 rpg).
So what’s going on? Like I wrote the day after the CSU-Fullerton loss, UCLA doesn’t have a go-to scorer. Senior SG Michael Roll, one of those Toby Bailey types who’s been in school for like seven years, is the leading scorer at 13.2 points per game. But Roll is basically a broke undergrad’s Jon Scheyer, an outside shooter by trade who doesn’t create his own shot and is better off as a safety outlet instead of a focal point. Lee is putting up 12.3 points, second-best on the Bruins. He’s versatile, able to play up to three positions at 6-foot-5, and he can make things happen off the dribble, but Lee isn’t strong enough yet to consistently finish in the paint and his range is limited as a 23% three-point shooter.
Some of it falls on Ben Howland, but there also doesn’t seem to be strong leadership on the court. Roll is one of three seniors who get playing time, along with forwards Nikola Dragovic (think a broke, short Mehmet Okur) and James Keefe. Dragovic was a projected All-Pac-10 player by a few publications going into the season, but he has yet to stand out in a game and has already been suspended once this season following an assault arrest. The team has gotten booed by their own fans for not showing heart and effort, which tells me the seniors aren’t stepping up and getting their younger teammates in line.
Anderson and Morgan, the other two sophomores expected to be impact players, have struggled. Anderson has started every game at point guard, but hasn’t been a scoring threat (6.2 ppg, 46% FT) and has more turnovers than assists. Morgan was considered a lucky catch for UCLA when he backed out of a commitment to LSU to sign with Howland, but he’s barely getting off the bench this season; logging DNP’s in half of the Bruins games and averaging four minutes in the games he has played.
It seems hard to believe that talent would be the problem. I mean, this is UCLA. All due respect to Carolina and Kentucky, but this is the most successful, tradition-rich program in college basketball. Howland recently had a run of three straight Final Four appearances, his team is on national TV all the time, and the school is in Los Angeles. I was in L.A. a few weeks ago and wandered onto the UCLA campus — by the time I left, I couldn’t imagine how any kid who comes in for a visit could turn it down. And this was in the wintertime.
At least things are looking up. This year’s freshman class was ranked No. 1 in the Pac-10, led by SF Tyler Honeycutt, SF Mike Moser, and PF Reeves Nelson, who I once saw play in high school and described as “Shawn Marion wearing an Adam Morrison costume.” For 2010, Howland has secured commitments from behemoth center Josh Smith (he’s from my neck of the woods near Seattle and I promise he’s a legit beast) and two-guard Tyler Lamb, another stud from the Mater Dei H.S. factory in Cali. The Bruins are also in the mix for five-star prospects PG Ray McCallum and PF Terrence Jones.
UCLA won’t be down for long. It’s a lot easier to rebuild a traditionally great basketball program than, say, Notre Dame football. In the meantime, the Bruins die-hards might want to avert their eyes for the next few months and use that time to read some good books or something.