- Ed Graney
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This isn't just about the 2003-04 season for UCLA basketball. Or the 2004-05 season. Or the 2005-06 one. It's about developing a long-term identity, a toughness, an aura for the next decade or so.
Ben Howland knows exactly where his team will commence.
"Step one of the very basics," Howland says.
The Howland Era officially begins Saturday night, when UCLA opens the season at home against Vermont. UCLA hired Howland away from Pittsburgh in
hopes that he can once again rebuild a struggling program, one that went 10-19 in Steve Lavin's final season as coach, that years ago lost its swagger despite annual trips to the Sweet 16.
But there is an obvious difference between here and Northern Arizona or Pitt: Think four letters.
"UCLA," Howland says. "I have a system that has worked turning around other programs, but none with the tradition of this one. Maybe two or three
other schools can even claim to have as much tradition. So I feel confident we can build this back and sustain it."
His stated goals for this season have more to do with creating good habits (see man-defense and rebounding at both ends first, second, always) than
winning championships. Reason being, if the Bruins do enough of the former
now, the latter should eventually follow suit.
He has a team that lacks depth and is not nearly as strong as he prefers. Trevor Ariza is a skilled freshman who will play the power forward spot
early at 6-foot-7, 196 pounds. Michael Fey is a sophomore center listed at 7-foot, 257. Ryan Hollins is a sophomore forward/center who goes 6-foot-11
Few if any teach bump-and-grind inside better than Howland. Last season at Pittsburgh, he offered four front-line players who averaged 260 pounds.
The Bruins will also compete short-handed at least for the first quarter of school as senior forward T.J. Cummings attempts to regain his academic
eligibility. If he does, it would allow Ariza to play a more natural small forward spot.
Also, redshirt freshman forward Matt McKinney is out at least several more weeks with a fractured foot.
What it all means: The fewer the bodies, the more imperative it is UCLA players gain more muscle. The stronger you are, the less likely you will
sustain injury, which is the last thing a thin bench needs.
Howland tells the story of junior wing Dijon Thompson playing against NBA types over the summer. Thompson was consistently matched against Corey
Maggette of the Clippers.
"Dijon comes back and tells me he was right there most of the time, but he couldn't do much against him because Maggette was so strong," Howland said.
"Big guys love to play against skinny guys, so we need to keep being consistent with our weight training."
Waiting in the wings are four signed recruits expected to arrive and make an immediate impact next season. But before the likes of prep guards Jordan
Farmer and Arron Affalo and Josh Shipp step foot on campus, UCLA will continue to be directed by point guard Cedric Bozeman.
And, according to Howland, that's not a bad thing.
The junior Bozeman, who has endured an injury-plagued career to this point, averaged 7.3 points last year and underwent off-season shoulder surgery. But
he has impressed the new coach with his work ethic, particularly in the weight room.
"I'm excited about Cedric," Howland said. "He has a chance to be a very good defender, a good defensive rebounder. He sees the floor. He's a good
passer. He's coachable.
"The bottom line is, all these kids came from high school programs where they won all the time. Winning just 10 games last year was a shock to them.
They're not used to that. I'm confident they will do everything it takes to prepare to win. We're not looking to last year.
"From this point on, this program moves forward."
Promising end of Rainbow?
Riley Wallace knows much more about his team today than he did last week. The Hawaii coach watched his Warriors finish second at the EA Sports Maui Invitational, defeating Santa Clara and Chaminade before falling to Dayton in Wednesday's final.
You can't help but wonder how good Hawaii -- picked by most to finish third in the WAC behind Nevada and Fresno State -- could potentially be had guard
Carl English not opted to leave school early.
"I think we're a team that's going to play really hard," Wallace said. "We have some depth, which might allow us to wear people down some. We'll
be better as some guys continue to develop self-confidence.
"I don't yell at this team too much. They would take it too personally, so I pick my spots. That way, they'll respond better."
Around the West
San Diego State also managed a strong showing in Maui, finishing 2-1 and in third place. The Aztecs, who looked far better than the sixth-place
spot many have pegged for them in the Mountain West Conference, opened with a 22-point win against Ohio State. SDSU's 3-1 record matches the program's
best start since 1984-85.
"Our team showed (in Maui) it will be as good as Wesley Stokes allows it to be," said Aztecs coach Steve Fisher. "It all starts with him."
Don't believe him? Consider: In SDSU's two Maui wins, the junior point guard averaged 20.5 points and made 12-of-36 shots. In the lone loss (a
five-pointer to tournament champion Dayton) he scored 10 and shot 3-of-16.
You saw the final score and wondered is it had been mistakenly reversed: Cal Poly 63, Cal 62. But the young Bears of coach Ben Braun (considered a potential contender in
the Pac-10) did lose their opener to the Big West school. Cal then came back to edge BYU 47-46 on Wednesday night.
"There will always be games that we will be expected to win or lose, but you are just as good as what you bring to the table," Braun said. "The
freshmen took the loss (to Cal Poly) pretty hard, especially Leon (Powe). But the guys didn't go into the game with a lax attitude."
Third-ranked Arizona -- fresh from a 107-73 blowout of Northern Arizona -- steps up the competition when it meets Florida in the MassMutual Classic
on Friday night in Springfield, Mass.
"Florida is athletic and has really good shooters," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "They have a deeper bench than we do, but if we stay healthy
and don't get into foul trouble, I think that we can go deep enough on the bench to do a good job."
Quote to Note
"I have this boat on the islands that has a big hole in the bottom of it. I've saved it for 17 years. And if we had lost this game, I probably would
have been shipped out. I probably wouldn't have made it to Molokai."
-- Hawaii coach Riley Wallace after his team beat Division II and fellow Hawaiian school Chaminade in the Maui Invitational.
Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
As the Ben Howland era begins, success will not be measured in national titles (yet), but rather UCLA's attitude.