In the 60's and 70's the college basketball world revolved around Los Angeles. From 1962-1976 UCLA made 13 appearances in the Final Four and won 11 Titles, a feat that will never be matched. And since that time the LA area has been no slouch. UCLA's cross-town rival USC has made 12 NCAA Tournament appearances since the last UCLA Title. UCLA itself has been 27 times including five Finals Fours (three in a row from 2006-08) and another Title. Loyola Marymount had the high-flying teams of Paul Westhead, and the 1990 version still holds the record for offensive production with a ridiculous 122.4 scoring average. And this is just the college level. Everyone knows how successful the LA Lakers have been, plus there's rich high school tradition which pumps out 5-star recruits, and even the pick up games at Venice Beach are legendary.
But what about this year? What has the city done lately? Three Sweet-16s have passed in a row without a single representative from greater Los Angeles (no team from LA even played in the 2010 Tournament). Will that change in the 2012?
UCLA: The Bruins are a mess. At 2-5 they have one win over an NAIA team and one win over Pepperdine. Just a few weeks into the season it's hard to remember that this team was ranked in November. Josh Smith – after promising to work like he's never worked – came in heavier than last season. Only three times in the last six games has been able to go more than 10 possessions without being substituted for. And his team needs him. Not only is he match-up nightmare on the interior but his poor defense is vastly overstated. During the 210 possessions that he's been on the floor UCLA is giving up 1.03 per possession. In the 193 that he's been on the bench, they're giving up 1.34.
And now Reeves Nelson has been kicked off the team.
Two years ago UCLA had a losing record. Last year they were a 7-seed. And this year they're going nowhere. Oh, and the nation's #1 recruit Shabazz Muhammad – once considered close to a lock for UCLA - has likely moved on.
USC: The Trojans got off to a bad start last season but somehow climbed their way back into the Tournament. This year, they either have to run the table in their out of conference schedule or win the Pac 12. They're 4-5, with their signature win coming over the likely SEC last place team. They lost to Nebraska, who might finish last in the Big Ten. They lost to Cal Poly and scored 36 points. Their offense is currently ranked 240th. They shoot less than 30% from beyond the arc, and less than 60% from the line.
USC lost Jio Fontan on their trip to Brazil, and haven't been able to recover. Only one player (Aaron Fuller) has an offensive rating north of 100. And now coach Kevin O'Neil – who always slowed the game down – is currently running his team at the 340th rated tempo in the nation. So Trojan fans are left with slow, bad basketball.
LOYOLA MARYMOUNT: LMU began the season win a win over (ranked) UCLA. At that point, things were looking pretty good. Then they lost to Middle Tennessee and Harvard. At that point, things were looking questionable. Then came an overtime escape against a terrible Idaho State team (uh oh), followed by a blowout of an equally bad Northern Arizona team (alright) and then a solid win over a ranked Saint Louis team (hell yeah). How did they respond? With losses to Columbia (ouch) and North Texas (**************************).
So who is Loyola Marymount? At this point we have no idea. They were supposed to be improved – primarily due to health, especially once Drew Viney returned - but their inconsistent start has been maddening. They're not only horrible getting offensive rebounds (267th), but they're equally horrible getting defensive rebounds (250th). The good news is that they don't turn the ball over (66th) which is key considering they've still got Florida State on their out of conference schedule. On the plus side, junior Ashley Hamilton has been solid. After playing in the shadow of Viney and Vernon Teel he's now leading the team at 15.3 per game. He rarely generates other stats, but at least he can score.
CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE: The Big West Conference Matadors have pulled an ole! on their schedule, with zero wins against Division I teams. Their highlight is a 7-point loss to USC. Portland State is the only school in the nation that is worse from beyond the arc, and they commit more fouls than everyone. Freshman Stephan Hicks shows promise. He's a bit of a black hole, but he's averaging 17.4 ppg and 9.1 rpg. Coach Bobby Braswell has been there for 15 years, and had them in the Tournament twice overall and as recently as 2009. They definitely won't be going this year – and that's not a knock on their talent, rather it's just a fact. The Matadors have been banned from postseason play in 2012 due to repeated failings in their Academic Progress Rates.
LA Area Schools:
PEPPERDINE: In his first Division I game as a head coach Marty Wilson knocked off Arizona State. Since then it's been a roller coater. The Waves lost to Cal State Bakersfield and Central Michigan before bouncing back with wins over Texas San Antonio, a loss to UCLA, and wins over Hawaii and Northern Arizona. The problem is that they're a great 3-pt shooting team (40.0%) with absolutely no inside game (37.5% - 5th worst in the nation).
But no one expected otherwise. Pepperdine lost their top-3 scorers from 2011. Keion Bell, the best of them, was kicked off the team and transferred to Missouri. Now, senior Taylor Darby is the only player in double figures at 12.0 per game.
LONG BEACH STATE: Everyone knew about Long Beach State after they beat Pitt on November 16th. They could have solidified their resume three days later but lost to San Diego State. Then the wheels came off a week later in a loss to Montana. Now they're 3-4 against D1 opponents, but three of those losses were to really good teams. They still might be the best team in the LA area.
Next up are UNC and Xavier. And you have to like head coach Dan Monson's strategy. The Big West Conference hasn't gotten an at large bid since 2005, so he's loading up on heavyweights in order to prepare his team for the Big West. Their hopes for the NCAA Tourney all rest on the conference tourney in March.
They have a great five man senior combo in Larry Anderson, Casper Ware, TJ Robinson and Eugene Phelps. Ware – a 5'10 PG – is the returning Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. He leads the team in scoring at 17.0 per game, but his 3pt shot hasn't returned from last season. Anderson and Robinson joined Ware on 1st Team All Conference and Phelps was an honorable mention. TJ Robinson might end up in the NBA, and is currently averaging a double-double.
CAL STATE FULLERTON: Cal State Fullerton last made the Tournament in 2008. They probably won't get there this season, but they'll definitely be an improvement over last year's 11-20 squad. Three transfers spent last season dominating practice, and now get to start for the Titans. Those transfers (DJ Seeley (Cal), Omondi Amoke (Cal) and Kwame Vaughn (San Francisco) are currently 1,2 and 4 in scoring. Amoke leads the team in rebounding and Vaughn leads in assists. Fullerton is 4-3 against Division I opponents.
UC IRVINE: It took the Anteaters seven games, but they finally got a win. Unfortunately, the loss just prior to the win was to Division II Alaska Anchorage. Russell Turner's team is an enigma. They solid at taking care of the ball (111th) and horrible at forcing turnovers (245th). They can't make 2s (319th) but don't give them up (28th). They make 3s (78th) but so do their opponents (227th). The end result is 1-6. But hey, at least they're entertaining. In tempo, they're the 6th fastest team in the country.
UC RIVERSIDE: The Highlanders are 1-5 against Division I opponents, but it could be better. They lost in overtime to Youngstown State, and they lost in overtime to Boston College. The problem is they can't score. They've yet to score more than a point per possession, and were held to 49 in 73 possessions against Youngstown State, and 35 in 53 possessions against USC. They are 340th in 2pt%, 335th in eFG%, 337th at getting to the line, and 302nd at offensive boards.