Blogger Spotlight: Bruins Nation on UCLA, NBA and ’11-’12

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It promises to be an interesting season in Westwood. UCLA’s frontcourt is loaded, its backcourt is untested, there’s some pressure on coach Ben Howland and Arizona is threatening to become a Pac-10 powerhouse. To top it off, two Bruins who were expected to be key parts of next year’s team – Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt – were selected Thursday in the NBA draft. Four months ago, few would’ve predicted that.

So I asked Tyler, one of the many manager/editors at Bruins Nation, to help sort out what’s been a busy few months.

As an added bonus, his Blogger Spotlight also has info on a scholarship the site is offering. Best read on for more.

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Q: Given Ben Howland’s track record — three straight Final Fours, Pac-10 titles, etc — does it seem like the last two seasons really happened? Who saw those speed bumps coming?

A: The three straight Final Fours was always going to be a tough feat to continue. There was no illusion that the Bruins were going to follow up with another immediate run like that, particularly with the immediate loss of players like Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, and the remaining core of those teams soon after. We had thought that the success of those years would keep any bumps to a minimum, but no one that I know saw a depth as low as the 14 win season of just over a year ago coming. Those two seasons are all too real in mind, not just in terms of the (too few) wins and losses, but in teaching lessons that we hope will stay in the minds of coaches, players and those of the greater Bruin Nation in the years to come.

Q: That four-game stretch in November — losses to Villanova, VCU, Kansas, Montana — must’ve brought back many memories of last season’s 14-18 record. But there was a turning point for the 2010-11 squad. Can you pinpoint it?

A: At first, the game at Kansas was looking like it was going to be the turning point – while we reject the concept of ‘moral victories’ at BN, the combination of the talent on display as well as the tenacity showed by that young Bruin team in Lawrence was really encouraging for the fortunes of that season. And then Montana happened. Inconsistency was a key storyline in the early and mid-season; while that victory over BYU – and Malcolm Lee’s defense of Jimmer – showed what the team was capable of at its best, you never knew when that team was going to hit the floor.

In terms of a turning point, a couple of points in the season actually come to mind – 4 games in mid-January at the Oregon schools and back in LA against Cal and Stanford helped steer the team in the right direction after some early struggles in conference play. The real turning point, I think came with an early February homestand against USC and St Johns. As I wrote entering that week, it was a critical stretch for the team’s NCAA tournament goal, and for the program as a whole. After being taken to OT by last place Arizona State, those two games were not only significant in their own right, but as a signal for the rest of the season.

Q: When BYU was earning so much acclaim, how often did you find yourself waving your arms furiously, declaring “Hello! We DID beat those guys!” Or would you rather people underestimate the Bruins (if that’s really possible, given the history and all).

A: The four letters on our uniforms and on Pauley Pavilion’s center court are a representation of the storied history of UCLA Basketball. We never want the players wearing them to be underestimated, and don’t think that opposing coaches or players are overlooking the Bruins in part due to that factor. The lack of wider acknowledgment of the team as BYU went on their tear was certainly in mind, but not that much of an aggravation. At that point in the season, the Bruins needed to win games and put forth a consistent effort form game to game. Without that, the memory of and praise for that afternoon in December would be of little comfort. As it happened, once the Bruins played themselves into the tournament discussion, the team did start getting respect for that win.

Q: So what about next season then? There’s the abundance of frontcourt talent, but some backcourt questions. What’s your take on how Howland will adjust? And who will be missed more among early entrants: Malcolm Lee or Tyler Honeycutt?

A: There has already been a lot of discussion – at Bruins Nation as well as on other UCLA-focused outlets – about how Howland is going to adapt, with particular focus on who is going to play the 3. With Tyler Honeycutt’s departure together with those backcourt questions, there is no easy solution to the question. After a year backing up Malcolm Lee at the off-guard position, moving Tyler Lamb over to the 3 would be a possibility, but shallowness in the backcourt will likely lead Howland to keep him at the 2 as much as possible. Earlier in the Spring, the Bruins brought in DeEnd Parker, a JC All-American out of San Francisco who looks to take some of that free playing time, as well as provide a backstop to Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson at the point.

While it might not be the ideal use of the players’ skills, that abundance in the frontcourt – particularly at power forward – is going to force some compromises down the lineup, and may require Howland and his coaches to put their skills in managing the … and egos of a group of confident young athletes to the test. Joshua Smith has the bulk of the minutes locked up, and Anthony Stover showed the the defensive ability and an overall (raw) talent in his redshirt freshman season to claim the reserve spot behind. That leaves four players – (returning starter) Reeves Nelson, Brendan Lane, and UNC transfers David and Travis Wear that are primarily slated at power forward. These guys need somewhere to play, and the in-flux wing spot is the answer. In high school, Nelson showed an ability to nail outside shots that would help him in that transition, but few people that have seen him play at UCLA could swear such a confidence. In a press conference earlier in the Spring, Howland told reporters that David Wear would get some of those vacated minutes at the 3, but a lot can change between April and the start of practices and the coming of the season.

With all that talk about filling the lineup hole left by Tyler Honeycutt, you may be surprised to hear that Malcolm Lee is going to be the more missed of the two, and it isn’t close. While Honeycutt was one of the most talented players in the Pac-10 last year and had the ability to take over a game (as in his 33 point performance at Kansas), he was just as apt to make a mental mistake, a sloppy pass or lay off on a defensive possession or three. As incoming UCLA freshman Norman Powell put it when asked about last spring’s Bruins NCAA exit: “I feel like (Tyler) Honeycutt didn’t perform like he could have. On the defensive end they really needed him on some plays but he seemed lost.” I don’t want to come down too hard on Tyler; his return would have ensured the Bruins as the team to beat in the Pac-12’s debut year, and could certainly have evolved into one of the elite players in the nation. However, we need to look at what they have demonstrated to date, and that is where Malcolm Lee shines, as the heart and soul of last year’s team as well as one of the nation’s premier defensive stoppers.

Q: Speaking of Honeycutt and Lee, Bruins Nation did a recent post on how the NBA views UCLA players. Seems some Bruins often get underrated on draft day, then manage to surprise people in the NBA because of their fundamentals and defense. (Of course, that doesn’t apply to obvious talents like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.) When will teams learn?

A: I would have hoped that they would have learned this week. As much as fans like to focus on the missteps of their favorite team’s GM and scouts, the fact is that there are some very bright men and women setting up the draft boards and making personnel decisions in the NBA, and these decision-makers are coming to understand the value of how Ben Howland and staff have prepared their players for the next level. As that post closed, “NBA scouts have begun to factor in the success of former Howland players in recent years.” There is a growing sample of Howland players whose pro performance is showing scouts that despite the lack of flashy play and gaudy statistics that UCLA players are very, very good.

Q: Then how do you think Honeycutt and Lee will fare in the pros?

A:That’s a tough one to answer. I would not expect them to have an immediate impact in the league, but Honeycutt has the ability to make an impact. Improving upon his focus will be a major part of reaching that goal, but he is young enough so that such an evolution is not too much of a stretch. Lee has work to do on the offensive end – When he declared for the draft and hired an agent, there was significant concern among members of our site in particular about the weakness of his outside shot, and the effect of the NBA’s labor dispute to his ability to continue to develop and even join a team. With that said, even the worst case would see Lee as a defensive stopper with some offensive ability, a skill set that should keep him in demand for several years, if not a household name.

Q: UCLA’s recent hire of assistant coach Korey McCray seems to have already paid off when Jordan Adams committed Monday. Should we expect to see more and more recruits from around the country flock to Westwood or will UCLA still rely primarily on West Coast players?

A: California and the West Coast has been and will always be the core of UCLA’s recruiting, but Bruin coaches dating back to John Wooden have not shied away from going after high school players throughout the country. The reality is that there has been a lull in elite high school talent on the West Coast in the last 3-4 years, and the program has been a little slow to adapt. Other power schools like Duke, UNC and Kansas are used to recruiting nationally as a necessity of maintaining an elite program; with the historic strength of prep basketball in Los Angeles and greater Southern California, there has not been the same need for UCLA to devote resources to extensively scouting outside the region, resulting in a lack of institutional knowledge in how to manage resources in recruiting those east coast/southern players while not overlooking up-and-comers in our backyard (something that we thought occurred in the last – 2010 incoming – recruiting class).

While Korey McCray’s skill in working with and developing the skills of young players like Dwight Howard will have a direct impact on the team, the reputation that he has developed from his years of work provide a level of credibility with recruits – and their coaches – beyond the mystique, or even the Howland/UCLA Factor, in parts of the country where the other powers have long-established footholds (when is the last time that a major Oak Hill product did not commit to Tobacco Road or Kentucky, anyway?).

Q: That all leads to the elephant in the room, right? If the Bruins struggle next year and the coaching staff fails to adjust, how much heat will be on Howland? I’m of the opinion that he’s earned major leeway — three straight Final Fours — but he IS held to a higher standard at UCLA. Rightly so, I’d say.

A: Coach Howland certainly earned a lot of leeway with Bruin fans with the success of the 2006-07-08 Final Four campaigns. With that said, that 14-18 year consumed a great deal of that leeway; that season was the program’s 5th losing season since World War II – 3 of those leading to the head coach being fired, with the remaining year being Howland’s first in Westwood. In past decades, for better or worse, UCLA coaches were terminated after much better team performances. It is true that there is a higher standard for the Men’s Basketball coach at UCLA than at near any other school in the nation. I believe there is also an understanding that bad things happen, and that season was a collection of bad things – recruiting misses, player development and even coaching. The important thing is to see that Howland learned from that down period and can recover, and never repeat a year like that again.

Last season saw a path for Howland and the program to bounce back from the depths of that lost year, as long as the program follows along that path through the next couple of years, in terms of increasing competitiveness on the court and recruiting well (with Jordan Adams being a strong start to this cycle) for the near-future, he will be fine. If he struggles and falls off that path, and serious questions arise about the state and future of the program, we won’t shy away from applying some of that heat. We certainly won’t be the only ones holding a match. I am confident though that Coach Howland will be just fine though; he has the track record of success and the ability to teach young men how to play the game, and has made coaching and recruiting decisions that bode well for the future.

Your raising the topic of adjustments by the UCLA coaching staff goes back to a topic of discussion dating back a couple of years at Bruins Nation. A point raised repeatedly in the ’09 season, but broached as far back as the Final Four years was an apparent inability or unwillingness for Coach Howland to adjust to certain personnel circumstances. In 2009, it was the inability of the team to play Howland’s trademark man-defense. To his credit, he did eventually work in some zone defense which, while not part of his normal bag of tricks was needed to salvage any sort of result from the team down the stretch. Last season, when super-freshman center Joshua Smith was being neutralized by early and often foul calls, Howland made a pair of changes to Smith’s deployment; starting him off the bench, but logging starter’s minutes was a simple, but successful way to keep Smith in games later. The more significant adaptation was to stop Smith from performing the normal Howland big man task of going outside and hedging on D, which had led to many weak fouls called on the big guy. Adaptations like these, as well as some recent changes to his staff are a demonstration of Howland’s ability to adjust – if not quite as quickly as we might like.

Q: Sean Miller’s rebuilt Arizona in a hurry. Lorenzo Romar’s Washington team is consistently strong. Other Pac-10 programs like Oregon, Cal and Stanford are rising fast. This is good for UCLA, right? More attention for the conference means its biggest basketball stars get a chance to garner even more attention than normal, correct?

A: It does not hurt to have more of a national light shining on the Pac-10 (soon to be Pac-12). As much as the improvement in fortunes in our conference-mates helps draw focus out west, having the avenues for people throughout the nation to actually watch our games is as much of a necessity for the stars of the conference, Bruin or otherwise to get the attention they deserve. After a long period where it looked like the powers that be in the Pac-10 simply didn’t get the importance of leveraging mass media, the Pac-12 under Larry Scott’s leadership really gets it. The massive TV and media rights deal that he negotiated with Fox and ESPN is the big feather in his – and our cap, but even smaller but overlooked changes like allowing networks to reverse-mirror regionally televised games worked to get the (then) Pac-10 brand on more TV’s and in front of more eyes.

Q: How many contributors do you have at Bruins Nation? It’s an absurd amount compared to some other SB Nation blogs. I would assume it bodes well for the site’s future.

A: We have a total of 13 editors and writers on the masthead, though a couple of these folks are on long-term hiatus from writing for the site. That, of course does not reflect the countless members of the community that have joined the blog and contributed over the past 6 years, whether in discussion or writing their own posts for the site. In terms of the official contributors, it is a large number, but not out of line in terms of the other high-traffic college blogs on SB Nation. Being that we do all have regular jobs and careers to balance with writing for the site, the large number of contributors really does help with keeping new content flowing on the blog – if one of our writers goes on vacation, and a couple of others have major projects at work, the rest of us can keep things going without much issue. It really does help us in keeping the site going on into the future.

Another project that the Bruins Nation editors have come up with to help the blog keep growing into the future, which we introduced to our community last week is the Bruins Nation Scholarship. For a touch of background, the front page writers – myself included – have never drawn from the ad revenue derived from the site. We have decided to take a chunk of that money and award a pair of scholarships, one for a current UCLA undergraduate student, and a second to a recent alumni, to members of the BN community who we think can contribute to the site. Ideally, we will end up with a group of fresh writers that will lead to an ever-brighter future for Bruins Nation. At least, we can give a couple of young writers a chance to hone their skills and have their voices heard.

Q: I skipped Greek mythology and writing in college. What’s with all the monikers?

A: The Greek names are a tradition among the site editors, and are a homage to the Greeks of Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad that fought the Trojan War. You can probably figure out the significance from there…

Q: How long have you been blogging? And how much longer do you think you’ll continue?

A: I have been blogging on the main page at Bruins Nation for about a year and a half, but have been posting (full posts as well as commenting) at the site for five years now, as a way to keep my passion for UCLA going as well as to serve as a welcome distraction from law school.  Working with a large pool of talented bloggers has to help with this – in that I don’t feel the pressure to always have to write, or to have something to say – but right now, I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.

More of Tyler’s writing can be read here. He’s also on Twitter is @bruinhoo. Follow the whole blog @BruinNation.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.