July 25th, 2013
With the Bruins getting ready to open training camp, it’s time to ask: can the team build on last season’s surprising success? UCLA’s 9 wins, and 2nd straight trip to the Pac 12 Championship game last season was more surprising than a sorority girl being sober on a Saturday night on the row. Head Coach Jim Mora Jr. completely change the culture of the program in one season, and quarterback Brett Hundley emerged as the best UCLA Quarterback since I was causing trouble in my college days.
Despite some big wins over ASU, USC, and Nebraska, the Bruins also had some nasty losses to Cal and Baylor, where they looked like a completely different, and horrendous team. The schedule will be much tougher this year, including back-to-back road games at Stanford and Oregon. Fortunately for UCLA, there’s quite a few winnable games at home.
The Bruins return 7 starters on offense, and 5 starters on defense. The biggest question mark on offense right now is who will be running the football? With Jonathan Franklin leaving for the NFL, UCLA will look to Jordon James and Damian Thigpen to emerge as a #1 running back. The Bruins were a solid 37th in the nation in rushing yards last season, but they’ll need to have someone step up in order to be just as effective as last season. The offensive line is still young, but added 6 four star freshman to the mix, which will provide some much needed depth. They are led by all-conference guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, who is entering his junior season.
Meanwhile, the receiving corp is still looking strong, led by the return of Senior Shaquelle Evans. Evans was recently named to the Biletnikoff pre-season award list, as a potential candidate for the top receiver in the nation. Sophomore Steve Manfro should emerge as a solid #2 receiver for this group as well, which was 34th in the nation in passing last season. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone made use of a very well balanced attack, and Hundley figures to improve in his second full season as a starter, which should make the offense just as lethal.
On defense, UCLA was surprisingly effective last year due to a solid pass rush. However, their lack of depth up front hurt them in the 2nd half of many of their games. This years defensive front will be led by senior defensive end Cassius Marsh, but will take a major hit with the potential loss of Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who will likely be lost to a hip injury. The Bruns added depth here with some quality freshman, but they key will be avoiding giving up the big play, which this unit was known for at inopportune times last season.
The linebacking corp is led by Senior Anthony Barr, who is one of the best 3-4 linebackers in the country, and also was 2nd in the nation in sacks last season. Junior Erik Kendricks should be very effective alongside of Barr, so the Bruins shouldn’t have much of a drop off here after losing Damien Holmes and Datone Jones.
As for the secondary, this is where Bruin fans might wet their pants in fear. 5 of last seasons 6 top defensive backs are gone, and that unit was horrendous. The Bruins added several 4 star recruits in their defensive backfield, so its hard to image this group getting any worse, but nevertheless, it’s the teams biggest concern.
If the Bruins are going to return to the Pac-12 Championship for the 3rd year in a row, they will have to come up with a couple of big wins on the road. Here’s my prediction:
vs Nevada- Win
@ Nebraska- Loss
vs New Mexico St – Win
@ Utah – Win
vs Cal- Win
@ Stanford- Loss
@ Oregon- Loss
vs Colorado- Win
@ Arizona- Win
vs Washington- Win
vs ASU- Loss
@ USC – Win
An 8-4 finish for the Bruins. As more teams get more film on Jim Mora Jr’s squad, UCLA is unlikely to surprise teams like last season without further adjustments. A number of incoming freshman will have to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball, and they will need a full season to develop. The road schedule will be a challenge for this group, but they certainly have the chance to go undefeated at home to keep them in the Pac-12 race. The 2013 season may not be as promising as the previous season, but the Bruins are building a new brand of football in Westwood, which could be a national player in 2014 and beyond.
STEVE ALFORD: STEVE LAVIN REINCARNATED
March 30th, 2013
When I work up this morning, I had to double check the date to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s day. Much to my disappointment, it was only March 30th. That meant the ESPN report that Steve Alford would be hired as the next UCLA coach was true.
UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero confirmed in a conference call Saturday morning that Alford will receive a 7 year $18.2 million contract. Alford will be paid $2.6 million per season, along with a $200,000 signing bonus to cover a buyout from his contract with New Mexico.
So let me get this straight: Ben Howland hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 in the last 5 years, and the Bruins just hired a coach who has been there just once in the last 18 years?? Not only is this a let down for Bruin fans, it’s an obvious downgrade from Howland and Steve Lavin.
Let me try to highlight the few positives of hiring Alford. Alford has had success recruiting on the west coast. He lured MWC player of the year Kendall Williams to New Mexico, as well as Riverside product Tony Snell, who has developed into an NBA prospect. The Bruins may also now have a shot at elite 2013 recruit Aaron Gordon, who is still undecided on where he will attend college. UCLA might also be able to steal a few undecided recruits to add some depth to their roster for next year as well.
Still, the drawbacks are devastatingly disappointing. Alford hardly brings the “uptempo style” that Guerrero claims. His teams were only 239th in the nation in possessions per 40 minutes, a style that is very similar to Howland’s. In fact, Alford’s teams have typically been know for their defensive discipline.
Even more disappointing is Alford’s post season record of just 5-7 in the NCAA Tournament. This includes losses to two 14th ranked teams in the opening weekend of the tournament this past season vs Harvard, and vs Northwestern State while coaching Iowa.
To put it in perspective, UCLA just hired a poor man’s Steve Lavin as their next head basketball coach. Lavin was a great recruiter, but had some up and down regular seasons, and a limited amount of post season success. Alford may have had more solid regular seasons, but almost no post season success.
Any Bruins fan that is content with the hiring of Alford is simply relieved that Ben Howland is gone and that there will be a new coach with a new approach. However, within two years UCLA fans will calling for the firing of both Alford and Guerrero.
Smart To Stay At VCU?
March 28th, 2013
On Wednesday, Shaka Smart informed ESPN.COM via text message that he would be remain the head coach at VCU. The University also issued a statement announcing that changes are being finalized to Smart’s contract.
These developments come as a major disappointment to the UCLA Bruins and their fan base, as the Bruins had hoped to lure Smart to Westwood to become to be their next men’s basketball head coach.
Many Bruin fans are asking themselves: Was Shaka Smart sniffing glue??? How can someone turn down the head coaching job at UCLA in favor of VCU??? Unfortunately for Bruins fans, they might need a reality check on what it really means to be the Head Coach of the UCLA mens basketball team.
Of course Smart would probably double his current $1.4 million salary by coaching UCLA instead of VCU. Of course Smart would be coaching a much more prestigious college basketball name with great tradition in UCLA than VCU. And of course he would be living in glamorous Southern California, as opposed to the dumps of Richmond, Virginia. However, with all those advantages comes tremendous pressure and expectations that may be difficult to live up to.
The Bruins just fired Ben Howland, who made it to 3 final fours, won 4 conference regular season titles, two conference tournament titles, and had an overall record of 230-105 during his 10 year tenure. To put it in perspective, no other Pac-12 team has made it to the Final Four in the last 10 years, while Howland has done it 3 times! That in itself is a lofty standard to exceed, let alone live up to, for a coach in his 4th year in a mid-major conference.
In 4 years, Smart’s team has made it to one Final Four, but has never won his conference regular season title, and they were eliminated in the third round of the tournament the last two years. By UCLA standards, this would already have many of the Bruins donors and influential alumni concerned, and making calls to Dan Guerrero complaining this isn’t good enough.
By no means is this article intended to diminish what Smart has accomplished at VCU. Instead, it is intended to show how easily he could turn down the UCLA job based off what he might feel are unrealistic expectations. At VCU, Smart has already begun to build great basketball tradition, and is building legendary status with the athletic department and the fans. In Westwood, he has to follow in the footsteps of the greatest coach of all time, and one of the most accomplished college coaches in the last 10 years.
It isn’t wrong for the Bruins to have aspirations of winning the Pac 12 every year, and being in contention for a national title. The Duke and Kansas men’s basketball programs are faced with the same lofty expectations year in and year out, and are able to re-load their teams without even blinking. However, there are only a special group of coaches who will be able to run these type of programs. Rick Pitino? Billy Donovan? Tom Izzo? These are the guys the Bruins need, but none of them are attainable. But maybe the Bruins should have thought of that before sending Howland packing.