Saturday, October 15, 2011

Men’s basketball reaches for familiar heights

Men’s basketball reaches for familiar heights

The Daily Bruin
Published October 13, 2011, 1:21 am in Men's Basketball, Sports

Junior Reeves Nelson is seen at Pac-12 media day. With four players at 6-foot-10, the 6-8 Nelson may find himself playing point forward this season.

Ben Howland was pretty excited about a particular wall adornment.

“What’s really cool is that chalkboard,” the UCLA basketball coach said, gesturing to a wall off to his right.

“That’s the chalkboard that Coach (Wooden) used to line the team up at and write on. That’s that chalkboard.”

Wednesday was media day for men’s basketball, the crown jewel of the UCLA athletic department. The ongoing construction of Pauley Pavilion means that the session is held in the Student Activities Center – formerly known as the Men’s Gym and longtime practice home of John Wooden’s Bruin teams.

The afternoon as a whole had a very Wooden feel to it; after all, the legendary coach’s great-grandson Tyler Trapani is still in uniform as a walk-on. When the chatter with Howland inevitably shifts to the topic of the Los Angeles Sports Arena – the Bruins’ primary home facility this season – the coach is quick to note that Wooden’s teams played there before Pauley was built.

Oh, and Friday would have been the former coach’s 101st birthday. Still, a coach has to have players, and Wooden’s two most prized proteges were Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, a pair of towering behemoths who carried their respective teams on elevated shoulders.

It’s hard, then, not to envision this UCLA squad as a bit of a throwback, and not just because it’s practicing in SAC or playing at the Sports Arena. As the team gathered for its team picture, one thing certainly stood out: These guys are TALL.

Adding the Wear twins to the returning frontline of Joshua Smith, Reeves Nelson, Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover makes UCLA one of the biggest teams this side of the Monstars from “Space Jam.”

The 6-foot-8 Nelson has gone from seeing time at center as a freshman to, well, not ruling out playing at the other end of the spectrum.

I had the misfortune of being an opponent of Nelson’s in a high school game, when he would often bring the ball up and either pull up for a 3-pointer or drive down the lane for a dunk. Given the size on this year’s squad, could the junior potentially see some time at point forward?

“Me and Coach have talked about that a little bit,” Nelson said with a grin. “But hopefully it never comes down to where that’s a necessity. “

Admittedly, one of the common mantras come March Madness is “guards win championships.” Behind the play of Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison, the Bruins NEARLY proved that to be true.

But this is still a program that has only won one championship since Wooden retired, and that came in 1995 when 6-foot-8 Ed O’Bannon was the team’s best player. The banners that UCLA have raised have come on the shoulders of big men such as Alcindor and Walton, even O’Bannon. Maybe a return to its roots is what UCLA needs. Deep-seated roots yield the tallest trees.

The two newest saplings are David and Travis Wear, who bring extensive skill sets, high basketball IQs and a year of exposure to the hoops hotbed that is the University of North Carolina. Eligible to play after sitting out last season because of transfer rules, the Wears give Howland a two-pack of 6-10 Swiss Army knives to use as he pleases.

“My brother and I are really versatile players. We can play different positions on the court,” Travis Wear said. “Our frontline will be a strength. With our depth, we’ll be really hard to match up with.”

By no means is this a conventional team. A pair of twins that transferred from UNC. A backcourt featuring two junior-college transfers in its five-man rotations.

It’s only October, which means five months until the Big Dance. It’s just media day, so everybody smiles and will say the right thing. Still, there was something Wooden in the air, and it should have the Bruins dreaming big.

If you happen to be a 6-foot-10-inch guy who isn’t on the basketball team, email Eshoff at

No comments: