ANAHEIM, Calif. “”mdash; The best college basketball program in California showed up on Saturday, making it clear how far UCLA has fallen.
San Diego State lays claim to that title with little competition. Over the past three seasons, the Aztecs have taken on all comers and turned a fledgling team with little tradition into a national power.
They reinforced that loudly in UCLA’s 78-69 loss in the Wooden Classic at the Honda Center, a neutral site that felt anything but as the Bruins played a hostile environment just 44 miles away from home with little blue in attendance.
After the game, UCLA coach Ben Howland was asked if the SDSU program was the best in the state. He deflected the question, saying “There are a lot of teams in California.”
Howland couldn’t admit it, but it is a fact.
This isn’t supposed to be a column about how good San Diego State is. Rather, it’s about the fact that the Aztecs are the gold standard in California, the model the Bruins could have followed before they lost their way.
During the game, it was hard to see why UCLA couldn’t have the same success as SDSU right now.
For starters, the Aztecs played stifling man defense the entire game, using their athletic lineup. Howland loves man-to-man but now has his team playing a zone because of, as he put it, a lack of athleticism.
The Aztecs won the game with a roster full of veterans. Out of UCLA’s eight remaining scholarship players, only three are upperclassmen, all of them transfers since no one from the 2009 freshman class remains.
Speaking of transfers, SDSU welcomes them and blends them in seamlessly. Its starting lineup featured three from other Division I schools and another from a junior college.
UCLA may have flashy names on the roster but the Aztecs’ superstar is a swingman named Jamaal Franklin, who defies all rules of basketball style with his long-sleeved shirts. Shabazz Muhammad may already be a household name, but Franklin locked him down for most of the game while scoring a game-high 28.
After the game, Franklin did what Howland would not, emphatically declaring the Aztecs the best in the state.
“I feel like we did a lot to earn respect from a lot of California teams,” Franklin said.
Now that includes beating the Bruins, a matchup that the Aztecs desperately craved but could never set up.
It’s no secret that longtime SDSU coach Steve Fisher tried for years to get this game on the schedule, only for UCLA to basically respond with a “Staaaaate School” chant.
UCLA plays only home games against mid-major opposition, without a road game in return. It’s why the Bruins look like they’re hosting the Big West tournament every season.
Conversely, SDSU schedules opponents only on a home-and-home basis. The Aztecs may be a mid-major in name but not in game, and they rightly refuse to schedule like one.
UCLA and SDSU last played in 1991. Since then, the Bruins have had their run of dominance. As of late, the Aztecs have surpassed them.
Couldn’t UCLA have been like SDSU, with the uber-athletic lineup locking down on defense and hitting a bunch of threes over a slower zone?
Couldn’t UCLA pack the Honda Center with rabid fans, led by a full student section that made the short drive?
That’s the main reason this game even happened. UCLA didn’t create the matchup. The Honda Center, owner of the Wooden Classic, did, knowing that fans would pack the arena in Anaheim.
“If I’m a promoter, and I look at what we’ve done in our building, it makes pretty good sense for folks at the Honda Center to say, “˜What about San Diego State?’” Fisher said.
What about San Diego State? That’s a question UCLA can ask itself. There should be little preventing the Bruins from replicating SDSU’s success, which includes three straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
UCLA used to set the bar in California. Now, the Bruins are looking up at SDSU.