The 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball semi-finals begins in Phoenix this weekend and, unfortunately for local sports fans, neither UCLA nor USC will be participating. Actually fans from 64 colleges, now on the outside looking in, may feel despondent. That leaves only the final four whose faithful can still dream of glory.
The last time USC was in a Final Four Eisenhower was president (1954). But SC won twice in this year’s Big Dance, and, depending on which Trojans enter the NBA draft, looks forward to a bright 2018. Coach Andy Enfield has been at SC four seasons, each has been better than the last.
UCLA, on the other hand, has been to the Final Four 18 times! Most recently, 2006-2008, they were in 3 times in a row. But to Bruin loyalists it feels like an eternity since then. Not surprisingly, Uclans expect National Championships, of which they’ve celebrated a record 11. The problem is, the last was 22 years ago.
March Madness is one of sport’s most celebrated and watched events primarily because, given the tension-filled sudden death format, it’s extremely difficult to win a title. This year, three of the four coaches are in the Final Four for the first time. As for UCLA this season, they appeared to have all the makings for a deep run.
The 2017 Bruins were talented and unselfish. Showing great character, of their five losses, three were avenged in return battles. Sadly, their last loss, one to Kentucky, ended their dreams. (Not to mention mine.)
You’d think as the years go by, the disappointments wouldn’t sting as much. But, partially because of “one-and-done,” where athletes can compete for only one season before entering the NBA, the axiom “wait until next year” doesn’t provide much comfort.
Until not all that long ago, when a team with great underclassman fell short, a fan could hope next season would be better given the experience factor. These days, all one can expect for sure is that next year’s team will be “different.”
Whereas in football, a college player has to wait three years before entering the NFL, in basketball, the restriction is only one year, or technically 7 months. After that a player can declare for the NBA and why not? If he comes back to school and gets injured his entire professional career can vanish. So it is with Lonzo Ball, the Bruins generational point guard, or should I say “former” point guard. Lonzo is predicted to go among the first three draft picks.
I’m not alone in my distaste for “one-and-done.” The NCAA hates it, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver calls it “a disaster” and even Kentucky Coach John Calipari denounces it. That said, Lonzo is just being smart.
To encourage players to return, colleges can buy insurance so that if he gets injured he could collect millions.(Though that might be a fraction of what he would have earned in the pros.) But the insurance is extremely expensive and limited and rarely bought.
T.J. Leaf, the Bruins power forward, has yet to decide to turn pro but, even if he does, the Bruin cupboard isn’t exactly bare. Coach Steve Alford likely has returning centers Thomas Welsh, Ike Anigbogu, point guard Aaron Holiday, power forward Gyorgy Goloman and a recruiting class ranked #2 in the country.
In that class will be one of Lonzo’s younger brothers, LiAngelo, but that also includes in the picture LaVar Ball, the controversial father. If the 6’6,” 320 pound braggadocios LaVar was a “handful” when Lonzo ran the show, I fear the havoc he could create if UCLA, in 2018, is so deep LiAngelo has to fight for playing time.
A coach who doesn’t seem to recruit “one and dones” is Mark Few of Gonzaga, in Washington state. (Respect to N. and S. Carolina, I’m rooting for Gonzaga and Oregon “all-west coast” Finals.) Seemingly most of the Zags play four years for Few, who reportedly was offered the UCLA job at one time and turned it down suggesting “Who needs the pressure?”
That reminds me of what legendary coach John Wooden said to his assistant Jerry Norman. It was Norman who recruited Walt Hazzard the Bruins All-American guard and devised the zone press that was instrumental in their winning the 1964 NCAA title. “This could be the worst thing that ever happened to us” Wooden said to a puzzled Norman who responded, “But coach, we have a good team coming back, we might win again.”
And in ’65 they did win again. Yet, in a way, it only confirmed Wooden’s prophetic warning to Norman, “And then they’ll want us to win every year.” To that, I plead guilty. So, for now, go Zags and Ducks. For next year, go Bruins. Disappointed the last 22 years, a guy needs to dream.
Jack also writes “Laughing Matters,” which appears every Friday. He can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.