Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. What do these guys have in common? Besides sharing the spotlight for hoops royalty in the basketball city that is Los Angeles, Black Mamba and CP3 possess the same unrelenting will to be the best at the expense of anyone in order to project the ultimate trait every team needs to succeed: an assassin.
When most East Coast cats think of L.A., they recognize this city from afar as one place: killa Cali. This nickname draws references to the inner-city culture depicted from the iconic litany of gangsta rappers like N.W.A., 2Pac and Snoop Dogg, as well as the timelessly classic movies Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society. The explicit message was that West Coast cats ain’t nobody to f@#$ with. Their mindset had zero regard for authority. It’s why Kobe’s and CP’s assassin-like approach on the basketball court is revered amidst the overall fabric of the city and its hoops scene. Yet, it is this very same murderer characteristic that has been sorely missing within the UCLA basketball program for some time now.
Thirty Pac-10 conference titles, 17 Final Fours, and 11 NCAA titles. That’s been the standard of excellence established at UCLA since the days of John Wooden. Those glory days now feel like a figment of one’s imagination. Hell, the three consecutive Final Four runs from 2006 to 2008 feel like a distant memory. The past few seasons ended in large disappointments and failures to meet their lofty expectations. UCLA fell off the college basketball landscape quicker than the New Boyz’s jerkin’ movement. And there’s one primary reason why the program has been in disarray recently.
When college hoops schools reach the basketball mountain top — Sweet 16 success or better — and continue to achieve this level of success repeatedly, some programs lose sight of the type of players that got them there to begin with. This happens to nearly every school, regardless of how they’re recognized — be it a high-major, mid-major, or low-major.
For instance, Gonzaga was a mid-major team during the late ’90s. As a Cinderella, they busted plenty of brackets come March Madness. The combination of winning and exposure paved the way for interest from kids that previously wouldn’t consider going there. Now, they’ve built a viable program, elevating their status to a high-major. Gonzaga is now producing pros. Adam Morrison — can’t believe I just typed that name — Austin Daye and Jeremy Pargo are a few that have made it. However, they haven’t reached the Sweet 16 in four years. This development is quite comparable to what UCLA has faced in recent seasons.
The last time UCLA played like an original member of the bluebloods was in 2008. They went to the Final Four and couldn’t get past Derrick Rose’s Memphis Tigers. That UCLA squad was stacked. Four of them were drafted thereafter. Two NBA superstars were produced from that group: Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook. Darren Collison and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute were prototypical Ben Howland guys. The toughness, attitude and work ethic these Bruins brought hasn’t been seen since. Because of the high-profile winning wave they were on, UCLA was a prime school for many five-star recruits, and yet, these same blue chippers were at the root of their lack of sustained success.
The following season, Howland hauled in the no. 1 recruiting class in the country, which featured two McDonald’s All-Americans in Malcolm Lee and Jrue Holiday. This group never lived up to the hype, though. As highly-touted as these guys were out of high school, Howland was blinded by their talent and didn’t properly gauge the real attributes that have made his program successful. Two of these five recruits ended up transferring. Drew Gordon went to New Mexico because of apparent “conduct detrimental to the team,” while J’mison Morgan dipped back home to Baylor for undisclosed reasons. Jerime Anderson was a complete bust. And Lee and Holiday went pro after their junior and freshmen seasons, respectively. Nothing good came from these cats, especially since they didn’t collectively possess the will, intensity and discipline to excel under Howland’s system as a unit.