What a year!
With the graduation of Darrin Collison, sophomore-to-be Jrue Holiday would get to step over and lead the team from the point guard position. Drew Gordon would be much improved at the C position. Tyler Honeycutt would show his talent from day one. Malcolm Lee was to be a rising star in his sophomore year with pro scouts singing his praises after a summer camp appearance.
Michael Roll was coming into his senior year. Nikola Dragovic was expecting to build off a good-shooting conference season as a junior to have a successful senior season. James Keefe could live up to his heroics in the victory over Western Kentucky in the NCAA tournament.
And behind these players, there was a cast of players with solid prospects, as future starters or at least contributors in practice and off the bench, including point guard Jerime Anderson, center J'mison Morgan, and the other freshmen, Brendan Lane, Mike Moser and Anthony Stover even though Lane obviously needed to get a lot stronger and the latter two didn't figure to be ready to contribute much this first year.
Even though Holiday surprised a number of people by choosing to enter the NBA draft after his freshman year - he's now starting at point guard for Philadelphia - it still looked like a season that ought to be okay.
Not likely to be a great or even a very good team, a rebuilding year no doubt, but solid enough to be a consensus pick for third place in a Pac 10 severely weakened this year by an unprecedented flow of talent - mostly early-outs - to the NBA.
But, as happens in athletic endeavors, injuries and other impedimenta conspired to just tear the season apart.….
After Gordon came Honeycutt - stress injuries, two different places - cost him three months of working out, setting back his basketball readiness by a giant step.
Then it was Anderson's turn to step up - and out. A series of injuries to his groin and then hip took him out a great deal, significantly hampered his lateral quickness, and basically rained all over his expectations of stepping into the point guard position, left behind by first Collison and then Holiday. As a television commentator noted in a recent game - admittedly a bad one for him - he has looked at times like just a shadow of his former self … when he was in high school.
Dragovic's problems were of a legal rather than injury nature. Whether it was worry over his legal issues or something else, Dragovic's shooting touch, so important during conference play a year ago, disappeared almost completely, not a good thing, especially in view of Nicola's defensive liabilities.
Then Gordon again - always somewhat of a mercurial personality, his frustrations with not being able to run up and down the court and have the team play the way he wanted it to, led to confrontations with the head coach, comments to the media, and even though he was well-liked by his teammates, the highly-talented Gordon became a negative factor in the locker room as well. After yet another display of temper in a practice session, Coach Ben Howland suspended Gordon, invited him to take a couple days and think about whether he would prefer to transfer someplace else.
That left 6-7 freshman Reeves Nelson as the team's starting center, backed up by senior Keefe, who is superior to the young Nelson at the defensive end of the court. That didn't last, however, as Keefe dislocated his shoulder, the one he'd had to have operated on previously. He rehabbed it but it went out again requiring season- and college career-ending surgery.
The incredibly tough Nelson, making up with strong and quick inside moves for some deficits on defense, has had something of a predilection to lead with his eye. An eye-closing shiner against Kansas, a concussion against Cal, and then a huge fall from the rim to the hardwood - eye-first of course - not only caused a gash over his right eye that took 15 stitches to close - the usual shiner coming along also as a bonus - but apparently also resulted in a slight tear to the retina in his other eye.
Then, just to continue the pattern, substitute forward Brendan Lane twisted his ankle at the end of practice Tuesday. Lane is a game time decision for Thursday night's contest with Oregon State and if you were a betting person, the odds have to be a bit more negative than positive. Nelson is out for both games. He had successful laser retinopexy on Feb. 22, 2010 to repair a slight retinal tear in his left eye. He will be revaluated early next week for the Bruins' final regular season road trip at the Arizona schools.
Demolition by injury of this magnitude hasn't been seen in Westwood since one of Bob Toledo's late 1990s football teams about ran out of offensive linemen due to injuries - got down to six, if I remember correctly, and that counts walk-ons. I just don't remember anything nearly like it. UCLA figures to suit up one center, Morgan, the 4th stringer earlier this year; one power forward - Dragovic; one three forward, Honeycutt; plus Lee, Roll, Anderson and Mustafa Abdul-Hamid counting the men who have actually played some this year. If Lane can't go, you would expect to see Honeycutt playing some point forward and Roll and/or Lee some shooting forward. Moser will have to go some also, ready or not.
This is a team that had to abandon Ben Howland's signature man defense because these kids just can't play it. Yes, Bob Knight, it really was a lot worse than the lousy zone D they exhibited during the dive they took on national TV against Washington last weekend. And that was before they lost a bunch of players they are missing today.
Still, that zone could be a lot more functional against an Oregon State team that lacks Washington's quickness, athleticism, and play-making abilities. You are left to wonder if the players Howland has left will have enough to beat anyone now. And to hope that somehow, someway, Nelson and Lane might just find a way to help out a little bit.
After all, doesn't fate owe us at least that much?