Can UCLA restore its Cali pipeline?

Originally Published: August 22, 2013
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

David Wear loves Los Angeles.

Sure, traffic is a nightmare, but the social vibe is unrivaled.

So it wasn't easy for the Huntington Beach, Calif., native to leave the West Coast. Picking the UCLA Bruins would have made sense for the former McDonald's All American. A traditional powerhouse where he could play in front of his friends and family members? A win-win, right?

Well, few cities can compete with L.A.'s buzz, but the metro's constant activity creates a drawback for college programs: There's usually a better game in town.

The Lakers, Clippers, Kings and a pair of popular MLB teams are perennial obstacles in UCLA's fight for exposure.

[+] EnlargeUCLA
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesUnlike many of the schools it recruits against, UCLA hasn't exactly offered a stellar game-day atmosphere in recent years.

North Carolina basketball, however, is the game in Chapel Hill. And the campus felt like a real college atmosphere to Wear when he visited.

So Wear and his twin brother, Travis, chose to cross the country and join the Tar Heels following high school in 2009.

"[UCLA] did a great job recruiting me," said Wear, who eventually transferred to UCLA alongside his twin in 2010. "I took my visit out to North Carolina during their Midnight Madness. I think I just saw the whole college environment. It was just intriguing to me. I've never seen anything like that. … I think I just wanted to experience that. Coming out of high school, it's something I didn't want to pass up."

New Bruins coach Steve Alford wants to keep the next David Wear and a generation of elite local players home by selling the school's legacy and potential. Alford wants in-state standouts to be pivotal components in his rebuilding plans.

But that hope could crumble if he can't attract the state's most coveted athletes. Alford called the task "vital" in a recent interview with ESPN.com.

"Obviously, the success and what's happened, in large part, at UCLA have had an awful lot to do with in-state kids," Alford said, "so they're obviously going to be a key part of what we're doing moving forward."

The UCLA brass offered him a seven-year, $18.2 million deal in March with the expectation that he'll win and find high-level players. He's blessed with a rich crop of talent within the Southern California region and the rest of the state.

The Bruins' strong legacy was built on local players. Lew Alcindor is the only non-Californian on the program's top-20 all-time scoring list. Some of the squad's most recent stars -- Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Arron Afflalo and Jrue Holiday -- were all California prospects.

But the program has lost some of the area's young stars in recent years. James Harden chose Arizona State. Jordan Hamilton picked Texas. Michael Snaer signed with Florida State.

There were 11 California reps in RecruitingNation's ESPN 100 for the Class of 2013. None signed with UCLA.

"Sometimes they find greener pastures," said Mark Olivier, executive director of the powerful Oakland Soldiers AAU program.

Many schools throughout the country have mined California. But Arizona's Sean Miller has been UCLA's greatest threat since he arrived in Tucson in 2009. Derrick Williams and Solomon Hill, both Los Angeles natives, were two of his first signees.

[+] EnlargeUCLA Bruins
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsUCLA students might mock Arizona, but Sean Miller and the Wildcats have certainly tapped into the L.A. area to help build strong recruiting classes.

Grant Jerrett, Gabe York and Brandon Ashley -- all California prep stars -- anchored his 2012 class, which was ranked third by RecruitingNation. Aaron Gordon, the No. 4 prospect in the 2013 class, signed with the Wildcats too.

"Those were guys UCLA has to get," said Joel Francisco, ESPN.com's Los Angeles-based recruiting expert.

But they were ultimately guys that Miller reeled in. The UA staff sells its location. West Coast players don't really leave the West when they pick Arizona, and they can attend school in a midsized city with a dedicated fan base.

Miller also offers recruits multiple examples of California natives who were successful under him and his predecessors. Think Steve Kerr, Gilbert Arenas and Chase Budinger.

That lineage is helpful on the recruiting circuit.

"It's amazing to me how many Southern California players, state of California players, were successful at Arizona," Miller said. "You have an opportunity to stay in the West Coast, but you go to a program that's surrounded by a true college town. … The only show in town, especially from a sports perspective, is the U of A."

But he's also established strong ties with coaches and players in the area.

Ashley said he picked Arizona in part because of his connection with Miller. He said he didn't have the same relationship with former UCLA coach Ben Howland and his staff.

"They were on the list, but I was never fully considering them just because, I don't know … it's hard to really say," he said. "I felt like me and Ben Howland, nothing against him at all, just didn't really click like that."

Ashley added: "I feel like some of the California coaches and schools take for granted some of our talent. When we see that they're not recruiting us as hard because we are close to home, that hits hard, and the schools that recruit us harder end up being the ones we go to."

The outsourcing of talent coincides with a turbulent time for UCLA. The program reached the Final Four three consecutive times from 2006 to 2008 but hasn't advanced past the first weekend since, winning a total of just two NCAA tourney games in five years.

The Bruins haven't won a national title in almost 20 years (1995), and they were ranked 45th nationally in attendance last season (9,549 average in an arena that seats nearly 14,000).

UCLA was a legitimate option for Snaer, who ended up starring for Leonard Hamilton at Florida State. But …

"Of course I wanted to stay in Southern Cal," Snaer said. "At the time, neither one of those programs [UCLA or USC] were appealing to me."

In the 1960s and '70s, however, young California stars dreamed of playing for John Wooden's Bruins. Jamaal Wilkes, a Berkeley native who won two NCAA titles in Westwood, admired Alcindor and the other UCLA standouts who guided those legendary squads.

[+] EnlargeSteve Alford
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesSteve Alford has made plenty of California ties during his coaching career. How will he do at the state's premier basketball program?

It wasn't really necessary for the Bruins to recruit him and his peers.

"If you were from California, most guys wanted to go there," Wilkes said.

But the recruiting terrain is more complex today, especially among the blue-chip players. Many won't stay long. They're often seeking the quickest path to millions in the NBA.

So coaches must persuade kids to come to their respective campuses and be prepared to replenish their talent pools if and when those athletes leave early. Plus, many local kids, who travel the country each summer on the grassroots circuit, are more comfortable leaving home today. Proximity is not always a guaranteed advantage.

The Bruins' recent woes haven't helped. The school's greatest stretch came decades before its current targets were born. The bottom line is just one national title since Wooden retired 38 years ago.

Alford's first season is an audition for a new group of players that never witnessed UCLA's glory years.

He is not intimidated by the challenge and its inherent difficulty.

He has better access to California's top prospects than most high-major coaches. And he has connections to West Coast high school and AAU programs after signing multiple players from the region when he was at New Mexico.

But will that be enough?

"Players have a lot of options," Alford said. "We obviously hope when they look at UCLA and they come see us and they get to know who we are and all the things that we have to offer, [they realize] you're not going to have to leave the state to fulfill the things that you're wanting to do in college."

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