Back To Basics for UCLA, USC
HARD TIMES: UCLA sophomore guard Jerime Anderson fights for this rebound against Cal State Fullerton in the Bruinsâ€™ double overtime loss on Monday.Â Both UCLA and USC are expected to struggle as early departures have taken their toll on both programs.Â – AP Photo
Early departures take toll on programs, as they’ll rebuild from scratch (almost).
By Evan Barnes
Sentinel Sports Editor
UCLA and USC fans have been spoiled over the past three seasons. That’s why this year will be a harsh wakeup call they may not be able to handle at first.
It’s the first time in six seasons expectations are low at both programs as the exodus of players perhaps hit them harder than any program in the Pac-10.
UCLA coach Ben Howland can only watch as Russell Westbrook lights up things for Oklahoma City, Jrue Holiday learn his trade in Philadelphia and Kevin Love sit on the bench in Minnesota nursing his injured hand.
He only returns one starter and as the season kicked off with a loss at Cal State Fullerton – their first in a season opener since 2002 to San Diego – he has his hands full with a young team that has glaring weaknesses.
The Bruins have no one who can create off the dribble save for sophomore guard Malcolm Lee, who battled a groin injury in the second half. They have solid shooters in seniors Michael Roll and Nikola Dragovic but if they don’t have screens set up, they are almost ineffective.
Inside, they lack the size to consistently stop teams from scoring. It says a lot when their two tallest players, sophomore J’Mison Morgan and freshman Anthony Stover (both 6-10), won’t be expected to play major roles.
Sophomore Drew Gordon and freshman Reeves Nelson showed why they’ll be a presence but at 6-9 and 6-8 respectively, they’re undersized and inexperienced.
It will be a long season for Howland as he waits for his young players to come of age and be consistent but it could be worse compared to his crosstown counterpart.
USC Coach Kevin O’Neill inherits his second rebuilding program in three years and it’s far worse than suddenly filling in for Lute Olson at Arizona.
A looming scandal, no highly touted recruits – local talents Solomon Hill and Derrick Williams bolted to Arizona – and a program that comes off its best three-year stretch ever only to be back at square one.
Help may be on the way with recruits Bryce Jones (Taft HS) and Dwayne Polee Jr. (Westchester HS) but they won’t arrive until 2010.
The one thing going for O’Neill is that he has a local face to build around in junior Alex Stephenson. Stephenson, formerly of Harvard-Westlake HS, sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina.
Stephenson will add length and rebounding along with returning starters Dwight Lewis and Leonard Washington. But after that, the cupboard is almost bare and full of unproven wares.
Top returning scorer outside Lewis and Washington? Former Westchester HS standout and senior guard Marcus Johnson at 3.1 points per game.
There’s a good chance that O’Neill will be forced to throw different players in the mix. Don’t be surprised if we see more minutes for sophomore guard Percy “Romeo” Miller, the former child rapper.
But it will be a trying year for a program that has spoiled its fans with big name recruits and 20-win seasons. Back to the drawing board.