College Basketball Nation: Nikola Dragovic

Cal seniors end UCLA's season

March, 13, 2010
LOS ANGELES –- The disparity in talent was apparent each time the teams huddled on the court. On one end, Cal was lead by a quartet of seniors who had combined to score 5,536 points during their careers and collectively averaged 60.1 points per game this season.

On the other end, UCLA was led by a senior who had scored 981 points during his career and was thrust into a leadership role this season as one NBA draft pick after another left Westwood early following the school’s three straight trips to the Final Four.

As the clock ticked down on Cal’s 85-72 win over UCLA in the semifinal of the Pac-10 tournament, Michael Roll put his hands over his head and looked up at the Staples Center ceiling and exhaled. This wasn’t the way Roll was supposed to end his collegiate career. Not after the way it began with three straight trips to the Final Four and 30-plus win seasons. But that’s what happens when you are a solid role player forced to become a leader on a storied program now full of role players and no real stars.

Roll finished his career scoring a career-high 27 points while the only other active senior for UCLA, Nikola Dragovic, scored eight points and hit just 1 of 8 shots from 3-point range. Senior forward James Keefe, who was averaging 2.2 points, had season ending surgery on his left shoulder last month.

While the Bruins lacked playmaking seniors all year, Cal has been brimming with them this season.

Jerome Randle, who was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year, surpassed Sean Lampley on Friday as the all-time leading scorer in Cal history after scoring 24 points. Patrick Christopher leaped over Kevin Johnson and Joe Shipp into fourth place on the school's all-time scoring list after scoring 16 points. Theo Robertson, who is the school’s all-time leader in 3-point shooting percentage, added 20 points, including three from beyond the arc, and Jamal Boykin, who was named all-conference second team this season, rounded out the Cal seniors by scoring 10 points.

Cal’s four seniors scored 70 of the Bears’ 85 points against UCLA and sparked the team’s comeback in the second half.

“When you look at their seniors, they have scored 5,600 points combined between the four guys, I think the next closest in the Pac-10 is about 2,500 points for graduating seniors,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “Those guys are special.”

Howland understands he too could have had a special group if he was able to keep his players from leaving school early. In a perfect college basketball world, where players stay until they graduate, Roll would have been the fourth option in a starting lineup that would’ve featured Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday.

“It’s always tough when you lose players early,” Howland said. “But that is the current climate in college basketball and that won’t change in the foreseeable future.”

Cal’s senior leadership was evident early in the second half when Robertson scored seven straight points, including a 3-pointer to give Cal its first lead of the game. The Bears shut down UCLA defensively and hit nearly every open shot, shooting a staggering 70.8 percent from the field in the second half and outscoring UCLA 50-33.

“We adjusted on Roll, who is hard to guard,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “Roll ended up with 27 but he had 16 at the half and for the first 10-12 minutes he didn’t score which I think was the key for us to be able to get back in it. It really helped that we did a job on the key guy who was Roll.”

As Roll’s career came to a close, he sat on the bench and put his head down, raising it from time-to-time to acknowledge the fans chanting his name and giving him a standing ovation. On the other end of the court Montgomery was also giving the senior a standing ovation. The Cal coach went up to Roll after the game to tell him how much he respected him as a player and how well he played during his career.

Meanwhile the college careers of Montgomery’s seniors continued as they shattered any notion that a Pac-10 tournament championship wouldn’t mean anything to the regular-season champs.

“This group is really close, having played together for the last four years and having been through a lot of games,” Robertson said. “We want to win this tournament. There wouldn’t be a better feeling than winning tomorrow. We understand in the postseason its win or go home so that’s in the back of our minds. We really enjoy playing with each other and we’re not ready for it to end.”

Howland admits recruiting mistakes

March, 3, 2010
UCLA coach Ben Howland is opening up a little more about what's led to this year's 13-15 team. What's to blame? His recruiting, he says.

From an interview with Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers:
"You can say I know failure because that's what it has been relative to our expectations here," he says. "It's no fun. I have sleepless nights wondering how the heck did we get here.

"But all of it starts right here with me. I'm in charge of making this program competitive year after year, but I did a poor job of evaluation of some of our recruits — from a talent, as well as a character standpoint."

As Howland talks, it sounds as if there is a lot more to be said about what is going on internally with this present group of Bruins.

It's an interesting choice of words because while Howland takes the blame, he does spread it around to his players when he starts talking about character.

Take the players who left for the NBA early -- Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday -- out of the equation, and those who Howland was left to rely on during a rebuilding year clearly didn't resemble some of his tough-minded teams of the past.

His senior class is made up of role players from his Final Four teams: Michael Roll, James Keefe and Nikola Dragovic, who has twice been arrested and suspended during his career.

There's not a single junior on the roster since Chace Stanback transferred (and is now flourishing at UNLV).

Howland clashed with sophomore forward Drew Gordon, who transferred to New Mexico. Guard Jerime Anderson and 6-foot-10 center J'mison Morgan have disappointed while McDonald's All-American Malcolm Lee is out of place at point guard, a position of need when Holiday caught Howland somewhat off-guard by being a one-and-done.

Freshmen forwards Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson have shown all-conference ability, but others in that class have struggled to get playing time.

It's a mix that has left the team lacking athleticism and Howland grudgingly utilizing a zone defense and deflecting questions about the NIT when his team is just struggling to reach .500.

There's still two more games and the Pac-10 tournament left, but Bruins are already looking to the future.

UPDATE: Morgan has been suspended for Thursday's Arizona game due to a violation of team rules.

UCLA wins, apocalypse upon us?

December, 31, 2009
UCLA survived Arizona State with a 72-70 win at Pauley Pavilion in Thursday's first Pac-10 game of the season, and it featured some odd occurrences.
  • Ben Howland utilized a 2-3 zone defense extensively for the first time this season, and it seemed to key the Bruins' first-half run, with the Sun Devils eventually trailing by as many as 16 points. This from the same Howland who despises the zone so much that as a high school player, he demanded his coach stop using it. When Howland hinted that he was going to use zone, it was seen as a sign of his team's lack of athleticism. Now it's a weapon?
  • UCLA forward Nikola Dragovic had been shooting so poorly that even the lawyer handling his felony assault case last week quipped, "He has to start making some 3-point shots." He was making less than 22 percent of those coming into the game and responded in a big way, going 5-for-5 from beyond the arc in the first half on his way to tying a career-high with 23 points. As a team, UCLA shot 83.3 percent in the first half.
  • There was a bizarre game-ending sequence at both ends of the floor with UCLA leading by two. Dragovic whipped a behind-the-back pass to Reeves Nelson, and as he was about to close it out with a dunk, Arizona State's Jerren Shipp came up with the foul with 16.1 seconds left. Reeves missed both free throws and Shipp got a shot at a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the horn. But much-maligned Bruins guard Jerime Anderson partially blocked the shot to seal the win.

It's going to be 2010, not 2012, right? Just wanted to make sure.