USC and UCLA Men's Basketball Programs Hurting

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USC and UCLA Men's Basketball Programs Hurting
(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Only a few days away from the NBA Draft, Pac-10 Division I men's basketball stalwarts USC and UCLA are staggering. Both are about to have their starting lineups damaged for the second season in a row. Combined, USC and UCLA were the sources of three lottery picks in 2008 and are going to lose three more lottery pick players in 2009. 

Last year, UCLA lost All-American freshman center Kevin Love and starting NBA guard Russell Westbrook to the draft, along with defensive specialist forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The NBA draft cost USC freshman guard sensation O.J. Mayo and freshman forward Davon Jefferson in 2008.  

As if that was not bad enough, UCLA senior All-American guard Darren Collison, Pac-10 All-Freshman Team guard Jrue Holiday, and USC's Pac-10 All-Freshman Team forward DeMar DeRozan have hired agents, which locks them into the 2009 NBA Draft. 

 

Aren't These Losses Bad Enough? Apparently Not

Adding insult to injury, USC's men's basketball coach Tim Floyd resigned under a cloud this past week. Floyd had been the only USC men's basketball coach to take his team to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament three consecutive years. The coach responsible for bringing O.J. Mayo to campus has been accused of paying off Mayo's AAU coach, Rodney Guillory

An NCAA investigation into the USC sports program regarding Mayo and NFL running back and USC alumnus Reggie Bush is ongoing. It appears that this investigation will result in some sort of disciplinary action for the USC basketball program.

Without its tournament-familiar head coach and with the potential for a ban, recruits are reversing Letters of Intent, and players are declaring for the 2009 NBA Draft.

Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and Second Team All-Pac-10 junior forward Taj Gibson, who has not signed an agent, is leaving early for the draft. Likewise, Second Team All-Pac-10 junior guard Daniel Hackett has entered the draft.

Forward Marcus Johnson, who averaged 3.1 ppg and 1.9 rpg over 12.3 mpg, also informed USC two weeks ago that he would be turning pro. Johnson, who missed games in 2008 because he changed schools, is turning pro despite receiving an extra year of eligibility late in May. 

6'7" forward recruit Derrick Williams from La Mirada has been released from his Letter of Intent, along with guard recruits Noel Johnson and Lamont Jones. For the 2009 recruiting class, only 6'6" Oaks Christian High School forward Evan Smith remains. Mater Dei's 2010 three-star point guard recruit Gary Franklin is also reportedly considering whether he may de-commit.

 

What About Those Graduating Seniors? 

UCLA is likewise preparing to suffer attrition among its starting five. Senior forward Josh Shipp and senior center Alfred Aboya have graduated, leaving some big shoes to fill. 

Shipp, the Pac-10's No. 12 career leading scorer, led the team in scoring with 14.5 ppg and a 50.4 percent field goal percentage.

Aboya, the bruising center from Cameroon and future self-proclaimed Presidential Candidate, blossomed as a senior. Figuring out how not to collect fouls, he was able to average 9.9 ppg and 6.3 rpg, shooting 54.2 percent from the field.

USC will also be losing senior forward Keith Wilkinson, who averaged 2.7 ppg and 2.5 rpg over 18.5 mpg over the 2008 season.

 

USC in Worse Shape

At this point, the fate of the USC men's basketball program is unknown. Assuming that the NCAA investigators come to a conclusion that gives USC the latitude to field a basketball team in 2009, the results will not be pretty.

Of the starting five, only junior point guard Dwight Lewis will be returning. His 2009 statistics were 14.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, and 2.3 apg, but also 2.5 turnovers per game. 

6'7" freshman forward Leonard Washington, who averaged 6.1 ppg and 4.2 rpg over 17.9 mpg, will also be called upon to fill the void. Alex Stepheson, the 6'9" forward transfer from UNC, who must now be questioning his decision, will also be able to plug a hole in the frontcourt. He averaged 4.3 ppg and 4.5 rpg in 14.5 mpg at UNC in 2006-07.  

USC's faithful can also pray that Marcus Johnson decides to return, but that is unlikely at this point. No one else on the roster can be considered to have put in meaningful minutes in 2008.

With no coach, no five-star recruits along the likes of Mayo or DeRozan matriculating, and the recruiting class decimated, it is quite possible that USC will join the Oregon schools in the Pac-10 cellar.

 

But UCLA Not Sanguine

UCLA's prospects are less bleak, beginning with the head coach. Not only do they have one, head coach Ben Howland is also proving to be the best coach in the Pac-10, and among the elite of Division I men's basketball. 

He has taken the Bruins to the Final Four for three of the past four years. His defense-minded style of play emphasizes super-athletic guards locking down the ball handler, wings and guards who jump passing lanes, and denial of access to the post. Offsetting the speed of the fast break points generated from UCLA's defense is Howland's trademark methodical half-court offense. 

As such, Howland has proven he can coach and recruit both elite high school talent and identify terrific recruits who are sleepers. At UCLA, he has also been able to make the most out of the role players who stayed for four years.

But none of that masks the fact that UCLA is losing four of its starting five, including its two NBA Draft lottery picks. The core of the rebuilding effort will have to be upperclassmen forwards Nikola Dragovic and James Keefe, along with guard Michael Roll. 

Dragovic, who stands at 6'9", averaged 9.4 ppg and 4.3 rpg over 24.1 mpg in 2009, fourth in Bruins scoring and second in rebounding. The 6'8" Keefe brought 3.0 ppg and 3.4 rpg over 14 mpg in 2009, unable to repeat his strong performance from the 2007 Regional Finals. 

In 2009, Roll finally emerged from perennially debilitating foot injuries. The sharpshooter put up 6.7 points with a 49.1 field goal percentage over 17.1 mpg.

Returning freshmen will also provide some base of support in the interior but will really be tested at the guard positions. 6'7" freshman forward Drew Gordon, who was invited to Team USA U19 trials, saw meaningful minutes in 2009. He was able to put up 3.6 ppg and 3.4 rpg over 10.8 mpg. 6'10" freshman center J'mison "Bobo" Morgan has yet to prove himself, with only 5.4 mpg in 2009.

2009 five-star SF and No. 12-ranked recruit Tyler Honeycutt, from Sylmar Senior High School, will likely see some playing time.

Ball-handling will be a tremendous area of risk for UCLA in 2009. Freshman guard Malcolm Lee will likely take over the point position for Darren Collison. In 2009 he averaged 3.2 ppg and 0.6 apg over 10.7 mpg. Freshman Jerime Anderson will also contribute, but he only saw 8.6 mpg in 2009, getting 2.3 ppg and 1.2 apg.

Overall, UCLA will be relying on upperclassman role players in the post, without a truly dominant big man to grab rebounds and box out larger and stronger forwards and centers. Inexperience will pervade the guard positions, where setting up the offense and turnovers may become troublesome.  

Ben Howland has his work cut out to repeat the performance of 2009, which included a 26-9 record overall and 13-5 record in the Pac-10, second to Washington.

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