Around this time last year, Ben Howland was out on the road recruiting, Tyler Honeycutt and Jerime Anderson were in their rooms watching their opponents light it up on national television and Joshua Smith was in class at Kentwood High in Kent, Wash., contemplating the decision he’d made to attend UCLA just a handful of months before.
After a 14-18 season, the team’s worse in a half-decade, March was a rather uneventful month for the Bruins. A time for players to catch up on some schoolwork, maybe hit the beach, relax, kick back. There certainly was not a lot of basketball for which to prepare.
UCLA was a scattered group after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003-04.
But there they were on Sunday, together once more, ready to find out where they were headed for this season’s tournament, and the news came in late, in the bracket’s last region: Tampa, Florida, as the Southeast Region’s No. 7 seed, a date with No. 10 seed Michigan State looming on Thursday at 6:20 p.m. (PST).
“The seeding is about what we expected,” Howland said during a press conference with reporters, after players and family cleared out, fresh off watching the Selection Sunday special. “A seven, that’s no surprise. Every team is tough in the tournament, there’s no easy out, but when you get to those seedings – 7-10, 8-9 – you have very tough opponents.
Michigan State in particular. They were in the Final Four last year with the majority of guys being on that team. They are very much an NCAA-tournament-battled team and program, with (head coach Tom) Izzo probably having the most success in the NCAA tournament with Michigan State over the past 12 years more than anybody.”
And ultimately that’s what this game is about, a matchup of two hallowed coaches and two programs who have been in vastly different places the last two years.
Forget Honeycutt or Reeves Nelson or Malcolm Lee. Forget, too, Kalin Lucas and Draymond Green and Durrell Summers. This is not a matchup of talent versus talent, game versus game. No, this is a matchup of grizzled, gnarled old veterans, grown men who have appeared in two-straight Final Fours, versus…32 combined postseason minutes.
Among the entire UCLA roster, only Lee and Anderson have appeared in the NCAA Tournament, both as freshman in 2008-09. Lee played total 19 minutes in a win over Virginia Commonwealth and a loss to Villanova, scoring zero points and collecting two rebounds. Anderson played even less, buried behind some guy named Darren Collison, tallying 13 minutes and zero points.
For comparison: Michigan State’s Lucas, who ranks fifth in Spartan history with 1,985 career points, has played 322 NCAA Tournament minutes alone.
“They’re a good team, well-established,” Honeycutt said. “They were just in the tournament, players returned who have been in the tournament, and deep in the tournament. (Izzo) has been there. We’re going to have to look a lot to our coach for just exactly what to do and what our mindset needs to be.”
That did not seem to happen in the Bruins’ last game, a horrific 76-59 loss to Oregon in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 Tournament at Staples Center on Thursday.
No. 2-seeded UCLA (22-10) came out flat, never gained momentum, could not catch up and ultimately played a lifeless second half in falling to the seventh-seeded Ducks. Some said it was a long time coming, that the Bruins had been playing with fire for so long – overcoming massive deficits, losing big leads, generally playing a bit unevenly – that it was bound to happen.
Howland disagrees with the notion, that the team has looked almost like two completely different entities during the previous few months. He disagrees because, well, the Bruins are 19-6 after a 3-4 start that included losses to eventual Tournament teams in Kansas, the Southwest Region top-seed, and Villanova and Virginia Commonwealth.
“I don’t characterize the team as a Jeckyl and Hyde,” Howland said. “I think it was pretty consistent. You look over the course of the year as a team grows, matures and gets better. It was disappointing the way we played the other night no question. But that’s behind us, and now we’re moving forward.”
They are moving forward to a daunting opponent, a seasoned opponent, one that knows the ins and outs to tournament play, albeit a Spartans (19-14) squad that has been just as unpredictable as UCLA, having finished the season on a 10-10 stretch.
They are moving forward to a Southeast Region gauntlet that also potentially includes
Howland’s old stomping ground in top-seed Pittsburgh, No. 2-seed Florida and two teams UCLA has already beaten this season in No. 3-seed BYU and No. 6-seed St. John’s.
They are moving forward…together.
“It was easy to see we didn’t play the way we should’ve played; we didn’t play as hard as we should,” Anderson said of the Oregon loss. “That’s something that the coaches, everybody can talk about, but it’s all got to start with “me” first, individually. Individually, if we all take that upon ourselves, then collectively we’ll come together.”
As opposed to this time last year, when they were miles apart.