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OC Register: The Audible: Ron Washington, USC’s hoops prodigies and if Chip Kelly’s on the hot seat

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Jim Alexander: With Ron Washington’s hiring as Angels manager Wednesday, lots of us – myself included – were reminded of the scene in the movie “Moneyball,” where the Billy Beane character (played by Brad Pitt) and Washington (played by Brent Jennings) were in the living room of free-agent catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), trying to convince him that he should sign with the A’s and convert to playing first base. Hatteberg was dubious, as the script goes, and Beane prodded Washington, sitting next to him on the couch, saying, “Tell him it’s not hard.”

Washington’s response: “It’s incredibly hard.”

Lots of social media memes were repeating that line Wednesday afternoon, and while it’s been noted that the conversation didn’t exactly happen that way, that line is probably an accurate description of what Washington’s going to be getting into in Anaheim.

Everybody in baseball seems thrilled for him and optimistic that his infectious spirit and ability to teach will benefit the Angels, and particularly some of their young middle infielders. He’s 71, and while that will raise some eyebrows, I’m the last person who’s going to rag on someone’s age.

But … it’s still the Angels, still Arte Moreno’s organization, still a chaotic mess in so many ways. I think it’s a Sisyphean task. Brad Ausmus, Joe Maddon and Phil Nevin all tried to push that boulder up the hill only to have it crush them on the way back down. (Plus, not only does GM Perry Minasian not have a president of baseball operations above him to help/guide him, but his assistant GM Alex Tamin left the club earlier this fall. Who knows when, if or how that position will be filled.)

Yeah, incredibly hard is a good description.

Mirjam Swanson: Well said.

Washington has a reputation as a teacher and someone who can really cultivate and develop young talent – which is exciting if you’re into that kind of thing, and likely a sign of what the Angels intend to prioritize going forward, post-Shohei Ohtani. I think it could be good, actually. (What that might mean for Mike Trout, though, I’m not sure…)

It’s heartening to see baseball people all celebrating the hire; from fans to former players, everyone loves Washington. Adding someone like him to the organization ought to give the Angels a lift – but, as you point out, it’s the Angels. And the weight of all their failures tends inevitably to be crushing, as you noted, even for someone with a personality as buoyant as Washington’s. So I don’t have great expectations.

But the guy loves baseball, he’s a lifer, and the Angels’ young players will be better for having played for him – whether that adds up to wins in the short term, well, we’ll see. (I also like that he’s bringing aboard Chili Davis as a hitting coach, because Chili was my favorite player as a kid.)

Jim: If he can bottle and bring with him any of what has made the Braves excellent, who knows what might happen?

Next topic: Should we be thinking of USC as a basketball school? I know, that’s extreme, but the Trojans’ two highly regarded freshmen made their debuts this week in Las Vegas, and both demonstrated they’re ready for the bright lights. Our Luca Evans wrote about Isiah Collier’s debut the other night against Kansas State, when in Luca’s description he “attacked his first game in cardinal-and-gold without a shred of passivity” en route to an 18-point, six-assist night.

Meanwhile, JuJu Watkins lit up future conference foe Ohio State for 32 points and five assists in her debut, and while I must confess I wasn’t riveted to that game since it was an afternoon game, and I was busy multitasking (writing some, watching some), every time I looked up JuJu was doing something guaranteed to get your attention. USC’s women’s program has had some legends pass through – my all-time list remains Cheryl Miller, Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson, in that order – and it may seem kind of early to say it, but JuJu will be somewhere on that list before she’s through.

And it’s worth noting: USC, under Lindsay Gottlieb, and UCLA, under Cori Close, could be battling for the final women’s basketball championship of the Pac-12 as we know it. The Bruins are awfully good, too, No. 4 in the country coming in, and Lauren Betts – a 6-7 transfer from Stanford, who scored 20 points with seven rebounds and two blocks against Purdue on Monday night – might just be their missing piece. Worth noting: The Bruins and Trojans play each other Jan. 27 at Galen Center and Feb. 24 at Pauley Pavilion.

Mirjam: We might have to play a game of H.O.R.S.E. to see who covers that one!

Because it’s absolutely not premature to say that Watkins is going to wind up among the pantheon of USC women’s basketball greats.

Tarek Fattal encouraged me to get out and watch her play last season at Sierra Canyon, and I’m so glad I did. What a pleasure that was, because she’s one of those great athletes whose presence is just felt in the gym.

I mean, yeah, she was Gatorade National Player of the Year, she’s been hooping with the age group national teams, all that. But you know someone is special when you see the family of a referee, a woman who’s reffed for decades, trying to snap a photo when she and Watkins would be near enough to each other they’d be in the same frame. That’s the kind of potentially generational talent we’re talking about – and at a time when women’s basketball is gaining steam, judging by the historic ratings for last season’s NCAA tournament (including a peak of 12.6 million for the title game).

What makes Watkins’ story more compelling is that she elected to stay home, in L.A., to build something here. That’s especially significant considering NIL implications, that she might have made more playing in a place that’s an established women’s basketball hotbed – a Connecticut or a South Carolina, say. One of those programs that’s on TV more at this point, that’s got a higher profile. I’m really curious to see if Southern California basketball fans catch on to the JuJu Watkins show. I hope they do.

Jim: This may be a sign of the growth of the women’s game: An AP story a couple of days ago reported that the NCAA acknowledged that the officiating in last April’s championship game between Iowa and LSU was “below expectations.” And that was an understatement in the eyes of most of those who were paying attention. This tells me the bar has been raised, and also that the NCAA is finally taking the women’s game seriously.

Maybe the next thing they’ll do is negotiate a TV contract that accurately reflects its interest and popularity, rather than lumping women’s hoops in with all of the Olympic sports when approaching the networks.

Now … Chip Kelly on the hot seat? I really wasn’t expecting this, given the ennui of his first five seasons at the helm of UCLA football. If declining attendance totals and the sort of listlessness of the program didn’t discourage the school from extending his contract, what would? Similarly, I got the impression most Bruin alumni by this point of a season have been resigned to waiting for basketball season to begin.

The curse of raised expectations, perhaps?

Consider this, too: The Bruins, now 6-3 overall and 3-3 in conference, could find themselves assigned to the L.A. Bowl – the Rob Gronkowski Bowl? – as the No. 7 team in what may be the most competitive conference in America, and if so they may set a record. What other team has ever gone to a bowl game that’s closer to campus than their home stadium? It’s 13 miles from Westwood to SoFi Stadium down the 405 – OK, it’s the 405 parking lot, so what’s your point? – and 36.4 miles (according to Google) from campus to the Rose Bowl.

Would they get per diem for that bowl trip?

Mirjam: I don’t think Chip Kelly is going anywhere anytime too soon. Going into the season, they signed him to an extension through the 2027 season – including upping his salary to $6.1 million this year and next. So, ya know…

I get fans having higher expectations following the Bruins’ success last season with Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Zach Charbonnet and Jake Bobo (all now in the NFL) leading the team, but if we’re being real, it was hard to know what to expect this season without that experience and that talent – largely because no one knew how good freshman QB Dante Moore would be, or how good Ethan Garbers could be.

And it turns out, they’ve not been good.

But while UCLA’s offense has sputtered all season – their 28.6 points per game rank ninth in the Pac-12, their 240.9 passing yards per game are eighth in the Pac-12 and the offense’s 17 turnovers are 11th in the Pac-12 – its defense is playing historically well under new defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn.

The Bruins are on pace to set program records in rush defense (70.4 yards per game, second-best in FBS) and sacks per game (3.8, also No. 2 in FBS).

Ironically, across town, it’s the opposite story. Caleb Williams and the Trojans have remained absolute juggernauts, averaging 45.5 points per game – second best in FBS. But USC’s defense, we all know, has hemorrhaged points – including 52 in last week’s loss to Washington at The Coliseum, the most since Lincoln Riley arrived.

If only the teams could take their best pieces and put it together – who’d beat them?!

Jim: Well, If UCLA’s defense and USC’s offense went against the UCLA offense and USC defense, I’d set the point spread at 51.

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