Commentary

Strange days, indeed, for Howland

Updated: December 21, 2009, 2:56 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPN Los Angeles

He has been here before: the losing, the booing, the whispers as soon as he leaves the room.

[+] EnlargeJerime Anderson
Jason Redmond/Associated PressUCLA guard Jerime Anderson, who fouled out, reacts on the bench as his team gets beaten by Portland, 74-47, at the 76 Classic in Anaheim on Nov. 26.

But this place is usually the beginning. The bottom rung of a new ladder he has been hired to climb, not seven years in and not after one of the most successful three-season runs in modern college basketball.

So this place is weird for UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland. This 3-7 start, this recently ended five-game losing streak, this getting booed off the court with John Wooden sitting along the sidelines -- this is weird.

Frustrating and uncomfortable and strange. And yet on this mid-December afternoon, he seemed more relaxed than I've seen him in years.

"It's frustrating to lose. It's hard. It's against what our expectations are at UCLA," Howland said, leaning back on the leather couch inside his office overlooking Pauley Pavilion.

"But at the same time I'm trying to be positive with our players and keep working hard to improve," he said. "It's tough on the players to lose. They hear about it from everybody, from their friends. They don't need me to beat them up. We just need to get better and to work harder.

"My big thing is to know that every day we're doing our best when we're in there on the floor, focusing on preparation for the game."

Howland, of course, is always prepared. By the Monday of a week during Pacific-10 play, he can quote off the top of his head the statistics and scouting reports for every opposing player UCLA will face that weekend.

Within hours of every game he has already watched it on the flat-screen television in his office and made notes to give the team in the morning.

Most nights after games he gets home late, several hours after his wife, Kim, has gone to bed. Every once in a while, she'll wait up and make him something to eat.

The other night, after UCLA routed New Mexico State 100-68 to snap an awful five-game losing streak, Howland called home after watching the first half of the game and told his wife he'd be there in 10 minutes. She was still up, so she cooked him some eggs.

"She normally goes to sleep early," he said. "She doesn't always wait up."

This is not a normal season, though. And a win over a team the likes of New Mexico State isn't normally such a big deal.

After winning three straight Pac-10 titles and advancing to three straight Final Fours, the toll of having future first-round NBA draft picks Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday leave school early has caught up to the Bruins.

The early-season transfer of sophomore center Drew Gordon, the arrest of senior guard Nikola Dragovic, a rash of injuries in the preseason and some underperforming upperclassmen made what was already going to be a rebuilding year into a salvage project.

Which Howland has done before. At Northern Arizona, his first head coaching stop, he took the Lumberjacks from 16-35 in his first two seasons to three straight 20-plus-win seasons and an NCAA tournament appearance. At Pittsburgh, he took the Panthers from 13-15 in his first season (1999-2000) to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in 2002 and 2003. Those successes, and his Southern California roots, got him the job at UCLA in 2003. Howland went 11-17 in his first season, then took off. By his third season, UCLA was back in the Final Four. By his fourth season, people were talking about a new Bruins dynasty. By his fifth season, everyone was spoiled.

In today's one-and-done era of college hoops, that kind of run seemed next to impossible. But for three straight years Howland got the Bruins to the Final Four by playing the kind of hard-nosed, rugged brand of ball normally associated with the Big East. Each season the stars changed; each season UCLA kept winning. Which made you think it could keep happening as long as the stars kept coming to Westwood, no matter how many of them left early.

It's hard to say exactly how that system broke down this season. Whether it's as simple as too many players leaving too early, or the stars recruited to replace them not actually turning out to be stars.

UCLA's 2008 recruiting class of Holiday, Gordon, Jerime Anderson, Malcolm Lee and J'Mison Morgan was ranked No. 1 in the country by most recruiting services. This season's freshmen -- Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson, Brendan Lane, Anthony Stover and Mike Moser -- have generally been regarded as a top-five class.

But outside of Holiday -- who left after one season and was drafted 17th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers -- none of those players has distinguished himself yet.

"It definitely surprised us," said Honeycutt, a rangy 6-foot-7 forward who missed the entire preseason and the first six games with a stress reaction in his shin and a sore back. "We knew we were going to come into this season being young, but also very athletic and long. We definitely didn't think we were going to go on a five-game losing streak. That was disappointing. We thought we were better than this, because in practice we have great practices. It just wasn't clicking."

Though it's early in the season, the losing has not set well with UCLA's rabid fan base. During losses to Portland, Butler and Long Beach State at the 76 Classic in Anaheim, things got bad quickly.

"I couldn't believe it," Honeycutt said. "I look up in the stands and see this guy with a UCLA jersey on and he had a trash bag on his head. I was like, 'Wow & a trash bag? That was quick.'"

It got even worse at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim two weeks later. With the legendary UCLA coach, now 99 years old, making a rare public appearance, the Bruins were booed off the court after a 72-54 loss to Mississippi State.

Howland grimaced but kept his composure. Deep down, he knows his players are still young, that he must have patience, that if he can just persuade them to stay positive and "do their very best" every time they take the floor, things will eventually turn around.

"I understand it," he said. "People love UCLA, they love UCLA basketball, the highest expectations are here and when they're not being met, it's hard.

"It's not fun to be booed by your own fans. But it is what it is. The way we played in the first half against Mississippi State, we probably deserved to be booed because we played poorly. That's kinda how I look at it."

Howland said he never really sleeps that well. Six or seven hours most nights, and never very soundly. Falling asleep is the hardest part, so he reads the paper or watches TV for a while before trying to relax enough to let the day go.

Winning usually helps that process, but not always, and not this season -- yet.

Even after a win, even after his wife has stayed up to make him eggs at midnight, even after his team -- for one night at least -- showed the potential to turn this season around, sleep came reluctantly for Howland on Tuesday.

"You never leave it as a coach," he said. "Everything is going on in your head.

"We have a lot of young kids, so you have to be patient. It's hard, but sometimes you have to go through this. I've done it before, usually at the beginning of a job, not in the seventh year. There's a multitude of reasons why we are where we are, but at the end of the day we've got to be better than we've been playing."

Eventually, Howland drifts off to sleep. The solutions are not yet ready to reveal themselves.

Another night, perhaps.

Patience has always been one of his underrated virtues.

Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPN Los Angeles.

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