UCLA outside looking in at NCAA tourney
LOS ANGELES (AP)
UCLA is out of the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years, leaving the Bruins plenty of time to think about what went wrong in a dysfunctional season that included standout player Reeves Nelson getting kicked off the team.
They didn't even make the NIT, although four other Pac-12 teams did.
''Damn,'' backup center Anthony Stover tweeted Sunday night.
Big man Joshua Smith called it ''an extremely hard season with losing Reeves.'' The Bruins began the season ranked in the Top 25 and were picked to win the Pac-12; instead they quickly dropped out of the rankings with early double-digit losses to mid-majors Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State. They finished fifth for the second straight year and lost in the quarterfinals of the league tournament, giving them a 19-14 record.
''It hurts,'' senior guard Lazeric Jones said afterward. ''It's not the way we wanted it to be.''
It was the third consecutive season in which the Bruins recorded double-digit losses following three consecutive trips to the Final Four. They went 14-18 and missed the NCAAs in 2009-10. They finished 23-11 and beat Michigan State in last year's tournament before losing in the second round.
The Bruins' disappointments coincided with a down season for the Pac-12, which landed just two teams in the NCAAs. Tournament champion Colorado, one of two newcomers to the league this year, earned the conference's automatic bid, while California was one of the last four teams to get into the NCAA field. Washington became the first team to win a regular-season title in a power conference and get snubbed.
Arizona, Oregon, Stanford and Washington made the NIT.
Coach Ben Howland had said the Bruins ''would not snub our nose'' at the opportunity to play in the tourney for the first time since 1988. But the invite never came, ending a season in which they had the third-most losses of his nine-year tenure.
Off the court, Howland was busy doling out discipline, twice suspending, then kicking Nelson off the team in December for his bad behavior, and suspending senior guard Jerime Anderson for two games in connection with the theft of a laptop.
''I really feel that I came here with a big recruiting class and a lot of hype,'' Anderson said during the tournament. ''I don't really think we lived up to it that greatly. But it's just part of life. There's going to be ups and downs and adversity. Every time that myself and my team experienced adversity, I think we responded pretty well.''
Then came last month's Sports Illustrated story that anonymously quoted former players and staff members from the past four UCLA teams saying Howland had allowed an influx of talented but immature recruits to undermine team discipline and morale. The story suggested the storied program that boasts a record 11 national championships had dissolved into fights among players and alcohol and drug use by team members.
''If there's any need to make changes, I will make them,'' Howland told reporters after the story appeared.
Athletic director Dan Guerrero addressed the story in his weekly email to Bruin supporters, telling them, ''Like many of you, my resolve to restore our program to its place among the nation's elite has never been stronger.''
The Bruins will lose starters Anderson and Jones to graduation. Their returning starters are guard Tyler Lamb and forwards David and Travis Wear. Smith, who has yet to live up to his potential in two seasons, was relegated to coming off the bench because of persistent foul trouble.
Smith's weight has topped 300 pounds since he arrived in Westwood, and whether he significantly improves his conditioning by next fall will speak volumes about the futures of both him and the Bruins. At times, Smith appeared either energized and focused or totally disinterested on the court.
''I sincerely hope that over the next two years he develops into the kind of player he wants to be,'' Southern California coach Kevin O'Neill said about Smith.
The sophomore said he was upset with himself after the Bruins lost to Arizona in the league tourney, when Smith fouled out in nine minutes.
''I realize my numbers aren't what they should be and not what they were last season,'' he said. ''I know the work I have to put in during the offseason.''
Next season the Bruins return to Pauley Pavilion, which was closed this year for a major renovation, turning them into vagabonds who split most of their games between the Los Angeles Sports Arena and Honda Center in Anaheim. Attendance waned as the losses mounted.
Jones, the rare junior college recruit during Howland's tenure, leaves the program feeling optimistic about its fortunes.
''UCLA will get back to where it belongs,'' he said. ''The future is bright.''