Four years ago UCLA brought in a freshman recruiting class widely viewed as the best in the country. Coming on the heels of three straight final four appearances and with presumably untouchable coach Ben Howland in charge, most assumed the stage was set for another extended run of UCLA west coast dominance.
Four years later the Bruins have managed a record of just 82-52 despite recruits that are the envy of every team in the conference except perhaps Washington and Arizona. The Bruins have a tournament record of just 2-2 over those four years, missing the tournament entirely twice. Worse still, accusations of questionable off and on court discipline launched speculation that Howland might lose his job.
But, as it likely always will be, high school recruits still view UCLA as an elite program. Despite the unusual level of turbulence and uncertainty, the Bruins still managed to pull in another elite recruiting class. And just like when the class of 2008 signed, reporters and fans have begun to speculate about the heights UCLA can reach with their newfound talent.
Which naturally begs the question: Is it possible that UCLA wastes this type of talent the same way they wasted 2008’s haul?
I would imagine the answer to that question boils down to your opinion of Ben Howland. If you think that Howland is the same coach that succeeded at Pittsburgh before promptly leading three straight final four runs, it’s hard to imagine UCLA not maximizing their talent. If you think that Howland is a questionable team manager that lost his way by chasing stars rather than players that can play his system, then you might be thinking that UCLA fans are again set up to be let down.
My take: I think Howland is smart enough to learn from his mistakes. His problem clearly isn’t recruiting talent. It’s not in game management. It’s not Xs and Os coaching or skill development. It’s getting players to buy into his system and committing themselves to UCLA. Only when his best players do whatever they can to leave UCLA as quickly as possible has Howland failed – and even then, he’s only finished in the bottom half of the conference once, in his first year rebuilding Steve Lavin’s mess. Players like Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson are too good to not succeed – assuming Howland can convince them to play within his system.
There’s another issue worth considering: How often do freshmen led teams truly succeed? Kentucky’s recent national title seemed to validate the ‘talented youth over less talented veterans’ concept. But to illustrate the danger, one must look no further than Arizona last year, when four talented freshmen were expected to mesh with solid veteran contributors to create a title contender. The veterans held up their end of the bargain, but the freshmen were found wanting.
How Howland and his freshmen fare will likely be the single biggest storyline in the conference next year. A failed season would be schadenfreudelightful, but for now I'm giving pure talent the benefit of the doubt.
In other news
Utah breaks their word
Nobody envies Larry Krystowiak. He was handed a horrible situation, and by most accounts did a reasonable job improving and motivating his severely overmatched team over the course of the season. Hell, they ended the year with a win over the eventual NIT champions.
Josh Hearlihy, a senior at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that Krystkowiak has asked him not to come to Utah despite signing with the Utes in November. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 12.6 points and 4.4 rebounds as a senior but sat out half the season as a result of a non-surgical treatment for a condition related to growing too quickly.
Trying to wriggle out of a signed letter of intent due to injury concerns sounds about as low class as you can get. I want to give Krystowiak the benefit of the doubt because of his the friendship he shares with Monty, but it's hard to see how this can be spun as anything other than a cold-blooded move to make the right basketball decision rather than the right moral decision. Some comments at BlockU imply there's more to this story, but all we can judge is what the primary parties are saying.
And it’s also worth noting: Utah gaining one extra scholarship probably isn’t worth the recruiting reputation hit Krystowiak and Utah will take. It’s not like the Utes are going to be contending for anything any time soon.
Turner’s departure is hardly a shock considering the disciplinary issues he was facing under Sean Miller, but Natyazhko’s decision to go pro (presumably in Europe) is somewhat more surprising. I would say that the general rate of attrition at Arizona under Sean Miller is reaching a concerning level, but it looks downright normal compared to everybody else in the conference. Frankly, I’m struggling to measure what should be considered ‘concerning’ in regards to player movement as transfers appear to be more and more common across the country.
Arrested: Jesse Perry
Of course, I wrote that paragraph before Jesse Perry was arrested at some point late last week. It's pretty early to say anything meaningful about the situation, but the charges are serious enough that Perry might not be playing for the Wildcats next year. He was one of three key players for the Wildcats, and his potential loss would place even more pressure on Arizona's collection of talented underclassmen. And that's not even addressing the mounting disciplinary issues facing Sean Miller. Yikes.
Washington adds USF transfer
Washington has won a recruiting battle over the Bears. Perris Blackwell has averaged double digits two years in a row while playing in the WCC*, and can play immediately after graduating. At 6’9’’, 240, it would have been easy to see Blackwell fitting into the post rotation alongside Richard Solomon and David Kravish. Alas, Blackwell chose to leave the Bay Area and the addition of a potential low post scorer adds more intrigue to an NBA-depleted UW squad.
*Which, you know, was functionally identical to playing in the Pac-12 last year, so I’m sure he’ll get right up to speed.