Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Ever-changing college hoops world
By Eamonn Brennan ESPN.com
Exactly 11 months ago, the world was closing in on Ben Howland.
His team, the favorite to win the Pac-12, was struggling. It had opened with back-to-back home losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State, which were disconcerting in their own right, but would have been less so if UCLA had improved even slightly during two 16-point losses to Kansas and Michigan in Maui. In December, it lost by double digits at home to a young Texas team.
Then there was Reeves Nelson. He had been suspended in November, after which he tweeted a snide comment about his team's performance. Then he missed his bus to the airport for the flight to Maui, but, not to fear, joined the team later and still played in its first game against Chaminade. Then, in early December, Nelson was indefinitely suspended again. Writers far and wide shredded Howland, imploring him to do something to prove the inmates weren't running the asylum. (Our own Dana O'Neil's story -- "Time for Ben Howland to grow a backbone" -- said it all.) Eventually, Howland had to dismiss his team's most productive player.
A 19-14 sludge of a winter later, the lasting impression of Howland's team was enshrined in a Sports Illustrated expose that revealed Nelson to be far more of a bully than anyone thought, and which indicted Howland's entire leadership culture as coddling stars, unfair to scrubs, and generally anathema to John Wooden's legacy. Could a more damning charge be leveled at a UCLA coach? Fans were outraged. The buzzards were circling. Howland's time was up.
As the Reeves Nelson situation played out, a UCLA season that began with high hopes fizzled quickly.
And now, in about five months' time, UCLA might just win the national title.
There is perhaps no greater example of what may be the most specific change to the college basketball landscape in the one-and-done era: Programs wax and wane with much greater frequency and volatility than at any time in the past. The development cycles of the dominant college programs of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s -- even through the preps-to-pros era, when the divide between four-year college players and NBA guys was wider than ever -- have rapidly accelerated. There's no going back.
There are still some coaches who grind out the slow rebuild, seeking out undervalued prospects and developing them into savvy system seniors. But this is mostly out of necessity. At the elite programs, where top-25 prospects are common, and every top-25 prospect is a potential future pro, there is no particular reason that last year's NIT team can't be this year's national title contender.
Recruiting, of course, is the best way to make it happen. Howland returned some promising pieces from last season's team -- forward/mountain Joshua Smith, the Wear twins, Tyler Lamb -- but there is no particular reason to think that combination of players would have been all that much better than 2011-12's blase group. So Howland got the best recruiting class in the country, led by future NBA starters Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, and rounded out by one of the nation's best freshman big men, Tony Parker. Muhammad is still awaiting NCAA clearance, but provided he receives it, there's no reason UCLA can't compete for a national title.
The Bruins finished last season ranked No. 43 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. They begin this season ranked No. 6.
Or take Kentucky, where this blueprint has truly emerged not only as a method of controlled chaos, but as an entire modus operandi. John Calipari has established a monolith of recruiting prowess since arriving at the school, but it's easy to forget just how down and out the NIT-bound Wildcats were when he arrived. Then Calipari landed John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, and voila: overnight national title contender.
The modern UK model is unsustainable for well, for pretty much every coach not named John Calipari. But it is applicable in a less grandiose way, too. Indiana won exactly 12 games before it landed center Cody Zeller; in 2011-12, Zeller's freshman campaign, it won 27. This year, the Hoosiers are the preseason national title favorites.
It can work at a less flashy model of consistency too, and recruiting isn't the only way to get it done. Jamie Dixon had one of his worst seasons ever last year, with a struggling defense and an injured Travon Woodall keeping Pitt from making its customary trip to the NCAA tournament. But thanks to a transfer hardship waiver request granted by the NCAA -- a more frequent-than-ever method of switching schools without sitting out a season -- former Central Michigan star and NBA prospect Trey Zeigler will join the Oakland Zoo this season. Oh, and Dixon added one of the top centers in the class, Kiwi Steven Adams, for good measure. As a result, the Panthers may challenge for the Big East title, and they weren't even close in 2012.
Or take North Carolina. In 2009, the Tar Heels embarked on one of the most impressive NCAA tournament runs we've ever seen, one in which their six tourney wins were decided by an average of 20.2 points. Their national semifinal and final were decided by 15.5 points per game. They destroyed everyone.
A year later, as sophomore next-wavers Ed Davis and Larry Drew II largely disappointed, Roy Williams lost 17 games, one of the worst seasons in modern UNC history. In 2010-11, thanks to the arrival of Harrison Barnes and the unleashing of Kendall Marshall, Carolina finished ranked No. 12 in Pomeroy efficiency, with a trip to the Elite Eight to boot.
There are more than a few reasons for this dynamic: more transfers, widespread acceptance that the NBA is always calling, diffuse talent, the rise of mid-majors, the inherent one-game wackiness of the NCAA tournament.
But chief among them all, of course, is the one-and-done rule. Not only does it make the quick fix more tantalizing -- as Calipari has proved at Kentucky -- it can also be self-fulfilling. Why spend four years developing a pretty good college player when you can get a future top-five pick on campus, in shape, in your offense and defense, and paired with one or two of the nation's other top talents this very season? Condense four years into eight months and a national title is no longer a far-off wish. It's a tangible short-term reality.
Seems hard to believe UConn was celebrating a national title just a year and a half ago.
Naturally, the acceleration works both ways.
Two years ago, I sat courtside as Kemba Walker clipped his section of netting and smiled at the JumboTron as it rolled clips of Walker's immense March performance. That moment came just after his Connecticut Huskies won a national title no one could have seen coming even six months prior. UConn burst onto the scene in Maui that season, slowed to 9-9 during Big East play, then won the league tourney title and burned hot all the way through the national title game. We celebrated Jim Calhoun's legacy; we discussed where he belonged in the pantheon. And rightfully so.
A year later, UConn finished 20-14, lost its first game in the NCAA tournament, and was without question the single most disappointing and listless team of the 2011-12 season. In 2012-13, thanks to academic penalties imposed by the NCAA, it's not even allowed to compete in the postseason. How's that for volatility?
Still, few coaches will understand this better than Howland. Before he was "Ben Howland, Program Destroyer" he was "Ben Howland, Program Savior," the man whose style and system (namely, intense man defense) took UCLA from irrelevance to three straight Final Fours after just two years at the school. The Bruins went 97-17 during that stretch, winning three straight Pac-10 titles in the process. In 2008-09, they had a pretty good comedown season (26-9 overall, second place in the league). In 2009-10, they went 14-18, and 8-10 in the league. It was one of the worst seasons in UCLA history.
We've since come full circle. Once a Final Four regular, UCLA has hit the depths in the past three seasons. Now it's back to national relevance, with the nation's top recruiting class and a downright reasonable shot at winning the national title.
There is no guarantee of the Bruins' success this season -- Muhammad must get eligible, and the disparate parts must congeal in a way that Howland teams haven't since that great mid-aughts run. But after last year's utter all-encompassing debacle, the sheer fact that I'm telling you, like Lloyd Christmas, that the Bruins have a chance, is proof enough.
A national title, or a job-killing catastrophe, is only ever a few months away. And the clock begins ticking