Resurgent UCLA, USC Shift Balance of Power in the Pac-10

by Rob Carpentier | February 28th, 2007

Los Angeles is known for its beaches, its weather, Hollywood, and several less-than-savory items that don’t need to be mentioned.But, for the first time in nearly 30 years L.A. is now known as one of the foci of the college basketball universe. An incredible collection of banners hanging in the Pauley Pavilion rafters has a lot to do with that distinction. But there’s more to it than that.

Over the past 20 years, the center of the college basketball universe, with some hiccups here and there, has been the state of North Carolina. Four major Division I college programs are within 80 miles of each other. Duke and the University of North Carolina are as close as eight miles apart.

But this would not have been the proverbial center of the hoops universe if the teams in question were not competing for a national title on a regular basis. It’s like the yin and the yang, black and white, night and day. Where would Duke be without North Carolina as its foil?

Before 1986, when Duke made its first Final Four, college hoops revolved around the Big East. Why? Because as great as Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown teams were, they became more well known because of their rivalry with a Chris Mullin-led St. John’s team, and later with Syracuse. Fast forward to February of 2007 and look at UCLA. By themselves they are a very good team. With a foil, they can become a great team. Finally, as they had in the late 1960s and early 1970s, UCLA has that foil in the University of Southern California.

Not many people remember that for many of UCLA’s championship years, USC was also a top-ranked team. At the time, the NCAA Tournament would only take one team from each conference. Maryland suffered through the same problem in the mid-70s when faced with the might of North Carolina State. During the 1970-71 season the Trojans finished 24-2 with their only two losses coming at the hands of UCLA. The 1973-74 season saw the Trojans finish 24-5, with two of those losses coming against the Bruins. An argument can be made that the Trojans would have defeated UCLA the third time around but they never got the chance. In 1970 St. Bonaventure and Jacksonville made the Final Four. With all due respect to Artis Gilmore and Jacksonville, it’s hard to imagine that USC would not have beaten one if not both of those clubs.

So does that mean USC’s quality of play led to UCLA being the national power that it was? Not entirely. That would be disrespectful of what John Wooden accomplished, not to mention the myriad of wonderful players that came to Westwood. But having that foil—having the Trojans—certainly helped.

Los Angeles is the second-largest media market in the country. Any team that does well in L.A. is going to be recognized nationally. Just look across SC’s campus at the Trojan football team.

The problem is that the residents of the City of Angels tend not to get too excited about their sports teams, even when they have reason to cheer. But that changes when the Trojans and the Bruins are both very good at either football or basketball.

When the Bruins defeated the Trojans in football in December and denied USC a chance at a national title, the city was buzzing. The city was buzzing again in January when the Trojans hosted UCLA, coming off its first loss of the season.

Then, a few weeks ago, the city was at a fever pitch again when, with both teams ranked for the first time in…well, you get the picture. The Bruins defeated the Trojans in another hard-fought, close contest. It doesn’t matter that the Bruins swept the Trojans in the major sports games this year, (barring a meeting in the Pac-10 Tournament); the fact that both teams are good is enough. Both teams are nationally recognized. Both teams have respect. But that has only been a recent occurrence.

By the late 1970s USC had fallen on hard times. They were a schizophrenic program that had one year of 19 or 20 wins followed by a season with 10 or 11 wins. There was no consistency in their level of competitiveness from year to year. Sure, they had some very good years, such as the season that Harold Minor was in South Central, but they were nothing particularly special. Minor’s team flamed out early in the NCAA Tournament.

Along with that inconsistency came a conveyor belt of coaches. There was Stan Morrison, George Raveling, Henry Bibby and Jim Saia. Finally, two years ago, Athletic Director Mike Garrett decided on Tim Floyd, formerly of New Orleans, Iowa State, (where he got to the Elite 8), and the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.

UCLA had similarly gone through a coaching carousel since John Wooden’s last title in 1975. There was Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham, Larry Brown, Walt Hazzard, Larry Farmer, Jim Harrick and Steve Lavin. Three years ago new UCLA AD Dan Guerrero was able to hire one of the best coaches in the country when Ben Howland decided to leave Pitt for what Howland termed his dream job.

Both programs have some remarkable similarities over the past decade. At UCLA, the fall was precipitous for a team that had won the 1995 national championship. Jim Harrick was gone within two years of winning the title, the victim of his own poor judgment in a recruiting matter, and then-AD Peter Dalis panicked when he didn’t get his first choice…or second or third choice.

UCLA flirted with Coach K, Larry Brown and Jim Valvano. But after being turned down by all three, Dalis hired…Steve Lavin. Now Lavin was and is an amiable guy. He just didn’t know basketball at the level necessary to sustain success in Westwood. True, he made the Elite Eight in his first year and won the Pac-10 title, but it was all downhill from there. You see, Lavin won with Harrick’s recruits. Lavin brought in his own star players, culminating in the outstanding class that included Dan Gadzuric, JaRon Rush, Jerome Moiso and Matt Barnes, among others. But he still didn’t get past the Sweet 16 with a roster full of future NBA players.

Finally, as Lavin’s reputation as a non-disciplinarian made its way around recruiting circles, the top players began to dry up. That’s when the bottom fell out and UCLA finished Lavin’s last season with the worst record of any UCLA team in over 40 years.

At USC, Henry Bibby came in with a great pedigree as a player, but little as a coach. His first few season were mediocre, to say the least, but he stockpiled talent that had slipped through the cracks. Future NBA player Sam Clancy, as well as David Bluthenthal, Jeff Trapagnier, Brandon Granville and Brian Scalabrine helped the 2000-2001 Trojans reach the Elite Eight. But then the bottom dropped out for Bibby, too. If Lavin had a reputation for being too nice, then Bibby had a reputation of being too hard on his kids.

He could still recruit. He brought in Desmon Farmer and Lodrick Stewart as well as current stars Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt. But he had clearly alienated his kids by the time he resigned in the middle of 2004-2005 season. Ironically, it was former Lavin assistant Jim Saia who took over for the remainder of the season.

Enter Howland, quickly followed by Floyd. Howland’s style was to embrace the Wooden legacy, something many of his predecessors, especially Lavin, had a hard time with. By doing that, Howland reintroduced the kids of southern California to the Bruin tradition. Then he went out and recruited kids who would play the hard-nosed style of defense he expected and which he had become famous for at Pitt.

This led to the commitment of Arron Afflalo, who is the cornerstone of the current Bruin squad. That was quickly followed by the commitment of current Laker Jordan Farmar, who was a key ingredient to UCLA’s run to the NCAA title game. Howland’s style is to get kids who will fit the program and then work with them to create a complete roster.

Afflalo was the most heavily recruited Bruin on this year’s roster outside of freshman James Keefe, a McDonald’s All-American who doesn’t get many minutes. Why? Because Howland plays the kids who have been in the system. That doesn’t mean that Howland doesn’t go after the elite kids; Kevin Love, arguably the number one high school player in the nation, is coming to Westwood in the fall.

Floyd, on the other hand, was brought in to create more of a quick fix. He had plenty of scholarships to offer when he came on board and he went out to find diamonds in the rough. He had one last year in point guard Ryan Francis, who was tragically killed in a drive-by shooting in his native Louisiana in the off-season. He has more diamonds this year, like potential Pac-10 freshman of the year Taj Gibson, who has given the Trojans their one and only legitimate inside threat.

Next year Floyd is getting a known quantity in O.J. Mayo who may be the best prep player in the country if Love isn’t. Floyd has had to mix and match scholarships much more than Howland has, and this has caused kids to transfer. Floyd’s strategy is more of a year-to-year thing, but in a way it has to be until he has time to build his program’s foundation—on the kind of ground that Howland was able to rediscover when he came to UCLA.

The rise of both L.A. programs has coincided with mediocre play of the best program in the West over the past two decades.

Just saying the name “Arizona” used to conjure up visions of a basketball powerhouse, one that was a consistent threat to win the national championship. The Arizona Wildcats had spent the better part of the last two decades being the measuring stick for excellence in West Coast college basketball, and to a certain extent on the national stage as well.

That is until last season. During the 2005-2006 season the Wildcats were swept by UCLA, finishing 11-7 in the PAC-10 Conference for the second time this decade. What made last season ominous was the way in which they cobbled together that conference record.

Arizona had talented seniors who were athletic and could shoot. In fact, one could argue that as individuals, Arizona had as much talent as any team in the country. So what happened?

Time, complacency, and competition have combined to put Arizona on the brink of consistent mediocrity. The process has only become accelerated by the rise of the L.A. schools.

So what about the future? UCLA is currently projected to be the #1 overall seed in the coming NCAA Tournament and USC is in the running for a protected seed, too. Both programs are dominated by underclassmen, but UCLA’s Afflalo and USC’s Young will certainly entertain thoughts of leaving after this season. Both programs are bringing in elite recruits for the foreseeable future. Both are hanging their hats, as it were, on defense…and they’re causing the rest of the conference to follow suit. The future looks bright for both, and is better because they have each other.

–Rob Carpentier

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