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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Now that didn't take long, did it?
When it comes to turning around programs inside three years, it's hard to find a better coach than Ben Howland.
After winning a combined 16 games at Northern Arizona his first two seasons as a head coach, Howland led the Lumberjacks to the Big Sky regular-season championship and 21 victories in 1996-97. The following year, NAU earned its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.
In 1999, Howland went to Pitt. The team wasn't good, winning just 13 games his first season, but after 19 victories and an NIT bid in 2000-01, Pitt went 29-6 and advanced to the Sweet 16.
Howland then landed at UCLA in 2003.
The Bruins were coming off their first losing season in 55 years and after raising expectations with an impressive 9-3 start, including victories against Michigan State and Washington, UCLA lost 14-of-16 games. The Bruins finished 11-17 and the program had reached an all-time low.
Last year, Howland recruited what many believed to be one of the top five classes in the country.
It didn't take long to prove the pundits correct either, as three freshmen were starting by late November. Point guard Jordan Farmar went on to earn Pac-10 Freshman-of-the-Year honors, while his rookie backcourt mate Arron Afflalo joined him on the All-Pac-10 Freshman team.
"I thought we had the most productive freshman class in the country," Howland said.
And like that, the dog days of rebuilding were over.
UCLA finished tied for third in the Pac-10 and earned that coveted NCAA berth. Sure, the Bruins lost to Bobby Knight and Texas Tech in the first round, but that's a long way from back-to-back losing seasons.
This season, though, 18 victories and a first-round tournament loss would be considered disappointing. Only at UCLA can you turn around a program so quick that there are lofty expectations by season three.
But this isn't about unrealistic expectations. The Bruins are loaded and have a legitimate chance to make a national statement and return UCLA to its rightful place among college basketball's elite.
As for Howland, he's quietly confident.
"I hope those expectations are right," he said.
"We have four starters back, some good depth and competition for minutes and two 7-footers. Our focal point on offense is more balance and a better perimeter attack. We want to push the ball even harder than last year. We want to hurt teams by just pushing the ball as much as possible.
"We couldn't do that as much last year because of depth. Our lack of depth really hurt us. We couldn't defend like we wanted; we couldn't extend the defensive pressure. We want to pressure every pass, every play."
Howland appears to have the depth and talent to play 40 minutes of full speed basketball, and if that's the case, it's bad news for UCLA's opponents.
And while the Pac-10 appears more balanced this year than in some time, and not that top heavy, Howland foresees some tough competition.
"It's going to be a b----," he said.
"Arizona, Stanford, Washington and some tough teams that made the NIT last year, like Arizona State, and there's not going to be any free lunches. The Pac-10 is always one of the nation's top conferences."
In all, UCLA faces eight teams that played in the postseason a year ago.
The Bruins will have to face that task without forward Dijon Thompson.
All he did was contribute averages of 18.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. A first-team All-Pac-10 selection last winter, Thompson departed UCLA with the 19th most points (1,458) in program history. A second-round selection (54th overall) of the Knicks at the 2005 NBA draft, Thompson ranked third in the Pac-10 in rebounding and fourth in scoring last season.
On some nights, he was hard to contain. Against Arizona State on Feb. 10, Thompson scored a career-high 39 points. Thompson became just the ninth player in UCLA lore to score 39 or more points. He also grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds twice last season.
A rare inside/outside threat, Thompson registered eight double-doubles in 2004-05 and scored at least 20 points 11 times. He also drained 43 three-pointers and ranked eighth in the conference in steals. His one glaring weakness: He committed 91 turnovers.
"Dijon had a great final year for our squad," Howland said. "He was our senior leader and his scoring, rebounding and defense helped our team to an upper division finish. We're going to miss him, no doubt."
The Bruins also will miss guard Brian Morrison, who averaged 7.4 points per game. The team's unofficial sixth man last season, Morrison appeared in all 29 games and finished sixth on the team in scoring. His 43 three-pointers were also third on the Bruins.
Morrison, who transferred from North Carolina in 2002, scored in double figures on 12 occasions last winter and was among UCLA's best free-throw shooters, too. His best game came against Washington on Jan. 8 and included 19 points and six rebounds.
Forward Josiah Johnson, the son of former UCLA great Marques Johnson, was a four-year letterman who appeared in just nine games last season. He was chosen to the athletic director's honor roll five times at UCLA.
In some experts' eyes, point guard Farmar (13.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 5.3 apg, 1.4 spg,) was nothing short of the best freshman in the country last season.
He actually was selected Freshman of the Year by Rivals.com and was an easy choice for Pac-10 Freshman-of-the-Year honors. Beyond awards, though, Farmar is that rarest of rare, a point guard who actually passes the basketball. Yes, he's a point guard who looks to make his teammates better.
"Typically, the biggest jump you see in a collegiate player in from their freshmen to sophomore season," Howland said.
"As good as Jordan was last year, he has improved immensely. He has improved his body in the weight room and with that experience of running team as a freshman, he should be our leader this season. There shouldn't be as many ups and downs, either. He's ready to be a consistent player."
Farmar started all 29 games in 2004-05 and his minutes per game averaged showed how much the Bruins needed him. That won't change this season.
Farmar's scoring averaged was the highest ever by a freshman guard at UCLA, while his assists and steals were second.
He led all Pac-10 rookies in scoring, assists, free-throw percentage and minutes played and was second in steals. He paced the Bruins in assists in 26-of-29 games and led in scoring seven times.
One area of minor concern is Farmar's 113 turnovers. Again, for the number of minutes he played, that really isn't that bad for a freshman point guard in the Pac-10.
However, Farmar isn't expected to be like other point guards. He's expected to be one of the three or four best in the country, and he needs to drastically reduce his turnovers. You get the impression he can do that.
No further proof is needed of Farmar's importance to this team than his performance in UCLA's first-round NCAA Tournament lost to Texas Tech. He scored a season-low three points in 36 minutes.
Shooting guard Arron Affalo (10.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.2 apg) would have been considered far and away his team's best freshman. However, with his backcourt mate in tow, Afflalo was more than happy to play second fiddle.
Actually, with Thompson departed, Afflalo should be the team's second-leading scorer this season behind Farmar. It wouldn't be stunning, either, if Afflalo led the Bruins in points.
An All-Pac-10 Freshman team pick, Afflalo started every game. He was the team's best three-point shooter, connecting on almost 39 percent of his 101 attempts beyond the arc.
And while most first-year collegiate players hit that proverbial wall around the 20th game of the season, Afflalo did the exact opposite and led the team in scoring two of the final six games. He had double digits in five of the last six contests, too.
His best attribute, however, is his defense, an aspect of the game sometimes considered as confusing as calculus to freshman. Afflalo excelled on the defensive end and was considered among the best man-to-man defenders in the Pac-10.
There'sno reason Afflalo couldn't be one of the best all-around guards in the conference this winter.
Last season was just the second time since 1980 the Bruins started two freshman guards. The other time was 1997-98 (Baron Davis/Earl Watson).
Small forward Josh Shipp (9.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.2 spg) appeared in all 29 games last season and started 23 of the final 24.
He amounts to a third returning sophomore starter. He played 28 minutes a game and contributed a strong combination of scoring and rebounding. However, with the departure of Thompson, he'll have to increase his post presence and rebounding.
Shipp paced Pac-10 freshmen in rebounding, including a season-high 12 against Pepperdine on Dec. 11, 2004.
Like his two freshman teammates, Shipp didn't nose dive come season's end, either. Over his last 11 games, Shipp averaged 10.8 points and shot .524 from the field. He figures to meet or exceed that kind of contribution this season.
Howland, like many, heaps high praise upon his three sophomores.
"I think our three freshmen starters from last season were the most productive freshman class in the country," he said. "They gained invaluable experience, too."
Small forward Cedric Bozeman (7.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 5.5 apg) should get a chance to re-enter the starting lineup. Howland says the Bruins' fifth starting job is "open for debate."
A three-year starter at point guard, Bozeman missed last season as a medical red-shirt after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee last November.
He was expected to be 100 percent for the first practice on Oct. 15.
As a junior, Bozeman led the Pac-10 in assists and while he might not seem like a point guard, he's actually taller than Shipp and several other Pac-10 forwards.
And there's not going to be any backup minutes at point guard, so moving him to small forward seems more than plausible.
"Before his knee injury last November, Cedric was playing the best basketball of his career," Howland said.
"He's worked very hard since the operation to get back into great shape and to get ready for his final season as a Bruin. Cedric can help in so many ways --senior experience and leadership and he can play both guard and forward. Before the injury, he was our best defensive player, too. We're very excited about his return."
Center Michael Fey (8.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg) could be the central figure in how UCLA's 2005-06 is remembered. He must bring his game to another level for the Bruins to reach their ceiling of potential.
Howland is counting on Fey to increase his rebounding and blocked shot totals. That said, Fey made great leaps in his overall game last season, and posted the first two double-doubles of his career (15/11 versus Oregon and 17/11 versus Stanford). And against Oregon on March 5, Fey blocked four shots.
So the potential is there. It's just a matter of consistency.
"Michael Fey progressed as last year went along and I think he played his best basketball at the end of the season," Howland said.
"He's worked very hard on his game and his conditioning the last two summers and we expect his senior season to be the best of his career."
Off the bench, center Ryan Hollins falls into that same category as Fey in that he needs to markedly increase his contributions.
And don't think Howland will hesitate to insert Hollins into the starting lineup if Fey fails to produce.
During the summer, Howland was even pondering starting both 7-footers. They started some games together in 2003-04, when Hollins, as a sophomore, was more productive than last season. Arthroscopic right knee surgery in the summer of 2004 might have slowed Hollins' progress a bit.
One of just three seniors on the roster, Hollins led the Bruins in blocked shots, but there was a negative result of his defensive play: Hollins was whistled for 61 personal fouls, or one every six minutes or so. His footwork and balance needs improvement.
Forward Lorenzo Mata (2.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 0.5 bpg, 9.7 mpg, .567 FG, .606 FT.) was a contributor off the bench before a non-displaced sternum fracture all but ended his season six games early.
He led the team in field goal percentage, at nearly 57 percent, and was grabbing 11.6 rebounds per 40 minutes. Mata rehabbed his injury over the summer and will be back to full strength.
His rebounding skills could mean some increased playing time against certain opponents.
Forward-center Alfred Aboya is one of five incoming freshmen. He was the last of Howland's commitments. However, he could see the most time of the group, at both power forward and possibly even center.
Aboya, who has a huge ceiling, excelled at Tilton Prep Academy in New Hampshire but also has played for the Cameroon National team.
As he learns the nuances of the game, he could be a name to watch in two or three years as a real force in the Pac-10. He was rated by Rivals.com as the 20th power forward in the nation.
Forward Ryan Wright from Ontario, Canada, should be in the rotation from the first practice. A superior athlete, Wright was rated by Rivals.com as the country's 15th power forward. He was also a consensus top 55 recruit.
"Ryan has outstanding athletic talents," Howland said.
"His ability to run and jump is as good as any player of his size in the country. He has good hands and can block shots. I like his upside and as he develops, he has a chance to be a special player.
"A key for us this season is the incoming freshman. We need Wright and Aboya to play right away."
Other newcomers to keep an eye on include:
• Forward-guard Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who is sure to make everyone's All-Name team. Mbah a Moute (bah-a-moo-teh), the second of two UCLA freshmen from Cameroon, has been playing organized basketball for only five years. However, he has exceptional quickness and developing defensive skills.
"Luc has a long wing span and is very athletic," Howland said. "He can guard three positions, the point, off-guard and wing. He's extremely versatile."
• Guard Darren Collison probably signed with UCLA with the assumption that Farmar would be testing the NBA waters either this spring or next. There's not going to be many minutes for the talented point guard until that happens. Collison led Etiwanda High (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) to a 13-0 start and a No. 2 national ranking last winter.
• Guard-forward Michael Roll was the top-rated shooting guard in the West at Aliso Niguel High (Aliso Viejo, Calif.).Roll led Aliso Niguel to the CIF Southern Section Division 1-A championship last winter. In the semifinals, he scored 34 points, including 15 in the third quarter, against Temescal Canyon.
He isn't likely to see playing time this year, but definitely fits into Howland's plans next season and beyond.
The Bruins face questions about their post play.
Hollins, Fey, Mata, Aboya and Wright do not need to create their own scoring opportunities or carry this team in the least. However, UCLA's success will be determined by them. This group must provide solid interior defense, not allow many offensive rebounds and more or less, stay out of the way on offense.
Who's the leader this year, the senior Bozeman or the potential All-Pac-10 point guard Farmar?
But the Bruins have assets.
The return of Bozeman gives UCLA an abundance of options in the backcourt.
While Texas sophomore Daniel Gibson is slightly more touted this season, Farmar should at least vie for second-or third-team All-American honors at point guard.
Among the most underrated major conference coaches in the nation, Howland went 57-11 over his last two seasons at Pitt and in 2001-02, was the consensus national coach of the year. That was his third season at Pitt.
Now in his third season at UCLA, the pieces are in place for the program's most memorable season since its last national title in 1995. The mini-rebuilding project is officially over.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
No team teams enters a season without question marks and weaknesses and UCLA is no different. Make no mistake, though, unlike about 320 of those teams, the Bruins have a chance to be special.
Howland won't come out and say so, but he knows. He's got a team with all the ingredients, including no less than two players, the youngster Farmar and the veteran Bozeman, who can run the show and provide leadership.
And while the post play appears a concern, it's really not that bad. With this kind of offense, the big men just need to control the defensive glass and start the break with crisp outlet passes. Any offense is just a bonus. The two 7-footers, Fey and Hollins, are both presences in the post and while their shot blocking could use improving, it's not imperative.
Watch out for Mata, too. He can run the floor and finish at the four spot and it wouldn't be stunning if he eventually corralled the fifth starter's spot.
And while Howland is highly regarded as a recruiter, the man can coach, too. His greatest strength is understanding what he can get from each player on a given night and while that sounds simplistic, it's a rarity at any level of basketball. He has the spare parts this winter to use that to his advantage, too.
The biggest challenge for any coach is getting their players to buy into and accept their designated role and that could definitely prove instrumental to this squad.
Farmar and Bozeman have to co-exist and the big men have to understand to just stay out of the way on offense. Howland is capable of making that sort of cooperation happen.
We like UCLA this season.
The Bruins should challenge Arizona for the Pac-10 title and advance to at least the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
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