There are college basketball junkies, and then there's Jeff Eisenberg. The Yahoo! Sports blogger covers all of college basketball for The Dagger. The former Riverside Press-Enterprise reporter and UCLA (class of 2005) alum took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about UCLA, the Pac-12 and what he thinks about the Bruins' season.
UCLA: So let's start with the obvious - What are your general thoughts on UCLA this season?
Jeff: Well, I think now that it's February, we have a pretty clear picture of what UCLA is: A middle-of-the-pack team in one of the worst seasons for the Pac-12 in recent memory. I think the expectation that UCLA could contend for the league title entering the season was based on Reeves Nelson having an all-conference season like last year and Joshua Smith continuing to make progress. Since Nelson is no longer on the roster and Smith has been erratic, the pressure has fallen on a backcourt that lost Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee a year earlier than expected. The result is a decent team but not one that can compete at the level where UCLA is accustomed.
UCLA: With two seniors, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson, why isn't the backcourt more effective? Is there just too much pressure on them to perform, especially since Tyler Lamb and Travis and David Wear are all sophomores that didn't play much (or at all in the case of the Wear twins) last season?
Jeff: I actually think those guys have done a nice job this season given their talent limitations. Lazeric has been pressed into the role of go-to backcourt scorer, and he's performed well for the most part, averaging 13.3 points per game and raising his field goal percentage and 3-point percentage from last season. And while Jerime Anderson will never be what many hoped when he was a top recruit out of high school, he's turned into a dependable role player. The problem is UCLA has missed on some recruits in recent years, so the backcourt lacks the talent that Ben Howland has had during his best seasons.
UCLA: UCLA has suffered some real tough losses on the road. Stanford, Oregon and last week's meltdown in Seattle against Washington were all brutal losses. Should Bruin fans have hope they can figure this out and make a run in the Pac-12 Conference tournament -- or do you see these losses as more of an indictment on the team?
Jeff: The Pac-12 as a whole is so watered-down this season that I do think a run in the conference tournament is hardly out of the question. UCLA out-played Washington and Oregon for most of their games on the road before collapsing late, which, while disappointing, also shows that the Bruins are capable of beating anyone in the league. The key for UCLA will be to rally in the final seven games of Pac-12 play in order to finish in the top four in the league and secure a bye in the opening round of the conference tournament. It will make it a heck of a lot less daunting for UCLA if it only has to win three games in three days rather than four in four.
UCLA: Totally agree - the Pac-12 is interesting this year because it really lacks a dominant team, which should make the conference tournament an exciting one for fans of every team. You watch a lot of college basketball so I feel like you would have as good a feel for this as anybody outside the selection committee - how many Pac-12 teams do you expect to make the NCAA Tournament?
Jeff: I've predicted two would make it since the end of non-league play, and I'll stick to that here. The conference collectively has a 7-40 record in non-league games against teams in the top 100 of the RPI, which is just staggeringly bad, to be honest. Nonetheless, both Washington and Cal look like NCAA tournament-caliber teams to me in spite of their lack of non-league achievements. I expect Washington to win at least 14 conference games and Cal to win at least 13, which is probably just enough for both to eke out an NCAA bid regardless of what they do in the Pac-12 tournament.
UCLA: Wow. I've suggested that if UCLA wins seven of its last eight games and gets to 20-11, it could get an at-large bid. Is that an unrealistic expectation?
Jeff: Maybe UCLA has the slimmest of hopes if it wins seven of eight and then loses in the Pac-12 title game, but realistically, I just don't see it happening. The Bruins lost to every decent team they faced in non-league play, and the Pac-12 isn't strong enough this season to give them opportunities to make up for it. They have an RPI of 112 right now, which is nowhere near good enough. Ben Howland himself conceded last month that the Bruins' only path to the NCAA tournament is by winning the Pac-12 tournament. While gathering momentum in February and getting a higher seed is certainly important, I think he's right that UCLA's season will come down to three days in March.
UCLA: Do you see any specific thing the Bruins need - say more big games from Josh Smith - to make this sort of run a reality?
Jeff: The biggest thing UCLA needs is consistent play from Josh Smith. If he can stay out of foul trouble and score in the low post the way he did this past weekend against the Washington schools, that gives UCLA the best low-post threat in the league, it forces opposing teams to send double teams, and it frees up shooters for open looks. Besides that, I'd also like to see UCLA not be so reticent to go to a zone defense. Granted, Ben Howland wants this to be a man-to-man program in the long run, but the personnel on this team is better suited to zone. We saw further evidence of that Saturday when UCLA turned around the game at Washington State by playing zone for the final 15 minutes.
UCLA: And how do you feel about the Wear twins' progress this season?
Jeff: While I don't think the Wear twins will ever become stars in the Pac-12, they've actually progressed better than I expected this season. They both consistently play hard, they seem to be good teammates, and they can score in multiple different ways. Defensively, I think both have a ways to go, which is one of the reasons I think a zone is a better fit for this UCLA team than man-to-man. I also wonder if the fact that they both have such similar games is a disadvantage for UCLA since they're so duplicitous when on the floor together.
UCLA: So covering college basketball on a national level means you not only have to give that sort of analysis on the Bruins but about 300 other teams! How do you keep on top of not just one team or even one conference but the entire country?
Jeff: It's a challenge, but it's a lot of fun. I look for stories by talking to players and coaches across the country, by watching as many games as I can, and by reading stories written by the beat writers who follow the teams they cover closer than I can. What's great about my job is that with 300-plus Division I teams, there's always something fun to write about. That isn't always the case when you're a beat writer limited to covering one team of 12 players year-round.
UCLA: Well, it sounds like a lot of fun - especially if you like reporting and watching basketball! Any final thoughts on this college basketball season so far and what you expect from March Madness this year?
Jeff: I expect another wide-open NCAA tournament with plenty of surprises, which is hardly going out on a limb after seeing George Mason, Butler and VCU all make Final Four runs in the past six years. My pre-bracket Final Four is Kentucky, Ohio State, North Carolina and Florida. I'm sure that will look silly a month from now (or maybe a week from now), but I'll own it either way.
UCLA: Sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun for college basketball fans - as usual. Thanks so much for your time!
Read Jeff's work at The Dagger and let us know what you think about his opinion of UCLA and the Pac-12 in the comments below.