Bo Knows: Loss to Kentucky signals need for change in UCLA’s recruiting strategy
By Kevin Bowman
Dec. 20, 2014 6:30 p.m.
This post was updated on Dec. 20 at 9:30 p.m.
CHICAGO — I’ll start with the obvious part: UCLA is about as far away from being near Kentucky’s level as possible.
The Bruins served as the Wildcats’ punching bag for 40 minutes, trailing 24-0 to start the game, 41-7 at halftime and 83-44 by the time the final buzzer mercifully sounded.
It was never really a fair fight.
This was the Monstars vs. the Looney Toons if Michael Jordan had just kept playing golf and never fell into the cartoon world of “Space Jam.”
This was LeBron James going one on one against a fourth-grader, “Hoosiers” if the fictional Hickory High School was bad and lost all season but played against NBA teams instead of other high schoolers.
This was an embarrassing showing on national television that the Bruins won’t forget soon enough.
There’s no need for me to keep piling it on, though – the Wildcats already did that.
I don’t need to tell you that this was a historically dismal performance by UCLA – its seven first-half points were the lowest in school history for a half. That part is pretty clear from glancing at the box score or watching any 30-second clip from the game, let alone the whole 40 minutes.
Instead, it may be more productive to look at how the Bruins hit this new rock bottom and where they go from here.
Finding two teams in more opposite situations than UCLA and Kentucky is a challenging task. The Wildcats feature one of the deepest squads in recent memory, with 10 players averaging 13 or more minutes per game.
The Bruins, meanwhile, have just seven players fitting that criteria and really rely almost exclusively on their starters for all their statistical production.
While fatigue played a role for UCLA, it was essentially a non-factor for Kentucky, which could sub in a whole new group of fresh players just as potent as the starters.
That wealth of depth and talent has made Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari, the epitome of success in modern college basketball. The Wildcats seem to be a staple in the Final Four every year, secure many of the nation’s top recruits and litter the NBA Draft with their players each June, making the most out of their one-and-done players.
UCLA has tried to mimic Kentucky in that respect.
The Bruins have gone after many of the same five-star recruits that Kentucky gets, and UCLA has actually signed a few of them recently in Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and freshman forward Kevon Looney.
That’s where the Bruins have gone wrong.
It takes a certain type of team to succeed with an elite recruit strategy in this age of the one and done. It takes a team like Kentucky, who has enough solid pieces in place to afford to lose its best player each year and who can be certain it will add a new five-star talent for the following season.
UCLA doesn’t have that, but it’s gone that route anyway.
Sure, having a player as good as Kevon Looney definitely helps the team tremendously this year, but given that he’s ranked in the top 10 of most of this year’s mock drafts, he’s a pretty sure bet to turn pro following the season.
If UCLA can’t build the depth around him to be a successful team, it’s almost a waste for Looney to have even come to Westwood.
The Bruins had success last year with one-and-done guard Zach LaVine, but he came off the bench for UCLA along with then-freshman guard Bryce Alford and then-sophomore forward/center Tony Parker.
This year, LaVine is gone, Alford and Parker are forced into starting spots, and the Bruins don’t have players to replace their production off the bench this season. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances affecting this, with freshman forward Jonah Bolden ruled ineligible for this season and senior guard Jon Octeus, a would-be transfer, not admitted.
Before UCLA can get to the level of the Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the nation and find success by bringing in a five-star player each year, it needs to recruit more of the good-but-not-NBA-level players. Guys that stay with the program for multiple years will give the Bruins a solid backbone to support the rotating crop of players who stop by for just one year.
It’s good to recruit the nation’s best players each year, but in order for them to truly make a difference in helping UCLA become a top-tier team, the Bruins need to build a team around them first.