Thursday, June 2, 2011

UCLA Basketball 2011: A Microcosm Of What College Basketball Has Become

By Charlie Scaturro

Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America
It's never easy to watch your favorite team lose in the NCAA Tournament, but even as UCLA succumbed to a more experienced Florida Gators squad this past March, Bruins fans had to be excited about the team's future.

Despite the fact that Ben Howland's team played the entire 2010-11' season devoid of any senior leadership, they posted a respectable 23-11 record overall, which included a 13-5 mark in the Pac-10 and a trip to the third round of the Tournament. 

Before college players officially declared for the NBA Draft, it was possible that UCLA could return a roster that would be on the brink of realizing some special talent, and one that had the potential to return the Bruins to the Final Four.

The inside tandem of Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith often proved to be too physical and skilled for opposing frontcourts to handle and they figured to combine with the perimeter play of Malcolm Lee and the multi-faceted game of Tyler Honeycutt to be one of the best teams in the country next season.  All four players brought a little something different to the team and because Lee was the only upperclassmen of the group this past season, it was hard to ignore how much potential this UCLA team possessed going forward.

With Lee, Honeycutt, Smith, and Nelson all being a year older and more experienced, there's little doubt that each would have been even better and more consistent than they were the year before.

When you throw in solid supporting players like Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson, not to mention the fact that the Wear twins (who are at least tall and somewhat coordinated) will be eligible to play this season after transferring from North Carolina the year before, all signs pointed to the Bruins being one of the most talented teams in the country.   

These dreams of a return to national prominence after a brief two year hiatus quickly came to a halt when both Honeycutt and Lee decided it was in their best interest to enter the NBA Draft.  It looks like both players will have a shot to succeed professionally and while neither will be a lottery pick, they should both find themselves on the roster of an NBA team next season awaiting the same set of circumstances that a player like Jeff Teague did this past year

At the same time, neither Lee nor Honeycutt set the collegiate world on fire last season and, like many other players who still have aspects of their game that need work, both might have been better served coming back to school for another season. 

Photo Credit: J. Meric/Getty Images North America
Honeycutt and Lee didn't have seasons like Kemba Walker or Derrick Williams and while both players certainly have the skills and measurables that NBA teams look for, this doesn't mean they needed to make the jump with years of eligibility left.  Plenty of development can happen at the collegiate level and many players who left school only to wash out of the NBA after a few inconsequential seasons will tell you that just because you got drafted, doesn't mean you made the right choice.

While the decision to leave UCLA for the NBA may or may not workout for Honeycutt and Lee, their departure certainly won't workout for UCLA.  The Bruins will be without two of their best players and probably won't even be the best team in the Pac-10 this upcoming season, much less one of the best in the nation.       

Unfortunately, the tale of what could have been for UCLA basketball in the 2011-12' season is an all too familiar one in today's college basketball landscape.  The instance of a promising young team's best player bolting to the NBA rather than sticking around and potentially becoming more prepared both physically and mentally for playing at the professional level happens all the time today. 

Of course, I'm not talking about college stars like John Wall, Blake Griffin, or Kyrie Irving foregoing the rest of their college careers to play professionally, because you really can't fault a kid for jumping at the chance to be a high lottery pick (although it certainly would be nice if they stuck around too). I'm talking about guys like Honeycutt, Lee, and Jereme Richmond (just to name a few) who certainly have talent but might not be making the best decision in terms of their future development as basketball players.    

Not only do these early entry decisions leave their teams scrambling around to plug up the holes and their fan bases bitter, it robs the college game of a much more intriguing brand of basketball. 

Obviously, I say this with a tremendous amount of bias stemming from the fact that, as a selfish college basketball fan, I would have loved to see what a starting five of Lee, Jones, Honeycutt, Nelson, and Smith would have been able to accomplish next season.
And speaking more generally, I would love to see what all of these early entry guys who probably declared too early would have done in college had they stuck around and how their NBA careers might have played out differently.  At the same time, I'm not delusional and I realize that these kids don't owe me or any other fan of college basketball anything.  

Most people know that not all of these kids have the luxury of staying in school for four seasons and for some of them, leaving early for that NBA paycheck is the decision that makes the most sense in their life. 

But it's certainly a strange world when a good couple of weeks in March can elevate a kid's draft status from "barely on the radar" to "lottery pick", and it's an even stranger world when kids will declare for the NBA and get drafted based on potential alone.  Which ultimately dilutes the college game and makes it frustrating to keep up with which players went pro and which will be staying put.

But this is the current state of college basketball and much like UCLA will have to do this season, college basketball fans will just have to take it in stride.   

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