Watching the performance and progression of the UCLA men's basketball team during the 2010-11 season, I was reminded of the time when I was in my high school's marching band and the band director would often say:
"It's better! It's not good yet, but it's better!"
That described Ben Howland's squad perfectly, as their overall record improved from 14-18 in 2009-10 to 23-11 in 2010-11, with the last loss coming in the third round of the NCAA tournament this year.
That 2010-11 record included a 13-5 mark in the Pacific-10 Conference (soon to be the Pacific-12 Conference with the additions of Colorado and Utah), good for second place behind Arizona, which was also an improvement.
Inconsistencies still abounded in Westwood, however, as the Bruins had trouble with turnovers, free throws and rebounding in several games; UCLA particularly played badly in losses to Montana, USC (at the Galen Center) and Oregon (in the Pac-10 tournament).
The main concern for the Bruins was their inability to consistently put together a strong 40 minutes, as during most games they would either play poorly in the first half and strong in the second half or vice versa, which frustrated fans.
Conversely, the Bruins played like world-beaters against BYU in the Wooden Classic, and also against St. John's and Arizona in their last home game in Pauley Pavilion before the place closes for renovation, reopening in the fall of 2012.
Overall, UCLA was a better team this season than last; that was due to the improvement of several key players.
Reeves Nelson was an absolute beast on the court, as he led the Bruins with 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds a game, while Tyler Honeycutt was a very good frontcourt partner in averaging 12.8 points a contest and consistently hitting clutch shots.
In the backcourt, Lazeric "Zeke" Jones did well in solidifying the point guard position, which had been a trouble spot in Westwood, while Malcolm Lee was a lockdown defender and averaged 13.1 points a game, ranking second on the team in offensive production while providing a steadying force all season.
Nelson, Honeycutt and Lee all earned spots on the All-Pac-10 Team for their efforts.
Jerime Anderson likewise showed improvement, as he provided good minutes off the bench, and Joshua Smith deserved his selection on the Pac-10's All-Freshman Team, as the 6'10", 305-pound big man grew and made good progress as a player and as a force down low, averaging 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
There were no seniors on this year's squad, so next year could well be an outstanding one for UCLA.
Provided that no one declares for the 2011 NBA draft—there's speculation that Honeycutt might—the Bruins are projected as a Top Five team next season, when they will play their home games in Anaheim's Honda Center and other places in Southern California during Pauley Pavilion's renovation.
UCLA's depth will improve with the addition of transfers and a good freshman class, and the Bruins will be primed for a Final Four run in 2011-12.
After their subpar season in 2009-10, one can definitely say that this team is on the upswing.
For these Bruins, the challenge will be to continue that upswing as they move forward.