State of the program: UCLA
After a disastrous 18-loss season, the three straight Final Fours seem like a lifetime ago
LOS ANGELES -- Ben Howland has long referred to himself as merely the caretaker of a UCLA program that belonged to the man who spent his retirement years sitting quietly behind the Bruins bench.
Indeed, when John Wooden passed away in June, the school honored his memory by announcing that no one would ever again occupy Section 103B, Row 2, Seat 1 at Pauley Pavilion. For UCLA coaches on the bench in the post-Wooden era, they were left with the responsibility of upholding the Wizard of Westwood's national championship legacy.
Amidst Wooden's long shadow, Howland has performed with distinction. He's the only coach other than Wooden to lead UCLA to three straight Final Four appearances, but how's this for a historical measurement? After last season, Howland also happens to be the first coach since Wooden's predecessor in the 1940s to suffer through more than one losing season at the school.
Those two years make for ugly-looking bookends to the Final Fours from 2006-08. An 11-17 record in Howland's first season at UCLA could easily be explained by the presence of players he did not recruit to fit his bruising style of play. Last season's 14-18 campaign during a down year in the Pac-10 was a more complicated mess he'd rather leave in the past.
"We had a real nice run there, and to have a losing season like we did last year was very difficult," Howland said. "It was hard for the players. It was difficult for the coaches. It was very difficult for our fans.
"But that's in the rearview mirror now. We're moving forward."
If the aftermath of the 2003-04 season -- when UCLA finished seventh in the Pac-10 -- is any indication of how Howland will respond to a losing season this time around, then former assistant coach Kerry Keating sees his old boss preaching this mantra:
"Work harder," Keating said, with that going especially for the coaches out on the recruiting trail. "Ben would remind you every day that you need players."
It was the successful recruitment of future first-round NBA draft picks Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Darren Collison that led to the run of Final Fours.
It was also the early departures of Love, Westbrook and Jrue Holiday, combined with some recruiting missteps, that led to last season's downturn.
Holiday turned pro perhaps a year earlier than Howland might have preferred, which had a dramatic domino effect. As the centerpiece of a top-ranked recruiting class of 2008 that has disappointed thus far, he was in line to become the next starting point guard as a sophomore. Instead, he left for the draft and was selected in the first round.
Jerime Anderson proved to be inconsistent playing the position, forcing Howland to slide wing Malcolm Lee over with mixed results. When talented post player Drew Gordon, a double-digit scorer, clashed with Howland and left the team in December, it forced the coach to uncharacteristically begin using a zone defense due to a lack of overall athleticism.
By then, UCLA had lost to Cal State Fullerton in the season opener, been routed by Portland, and played so poorly against Mississippi State in the Wooden Classic that Howland openly worried about the loss upsetting the legendary coach in attendance.
"I feel if any player isn't embarrassed by a losing record, that they're not a competitor," Lee said. "It's definitely really embarrassing."
But there are some signs that UCLA could bounce back soon.
The Bruins had two players make the Pac-10 all-freshmen team last season. Tyler Honeycutt showed off an array of skills in leading the team in rebounding, steals and blocked shots. Another forward, Reeves Nelson, threw his body around and displayed the type of toughness that had been a hallmark of Howland's previous teams.
Howland also signed McDonald's All-American center Joshua Smith and wing Tyler Lamb, and they're among the two Bruins in preseason practices who have impressed him the most. Naturally, it's been because of their commitment to defense.
Smith in particular, at 6-foot-10 and 305 pounds, could prove to be a force on the block if his dedication to an offseason workout and weight-loss plan results in his gaining enough stamina to stay on the court.
"I see us headed in the right direction," Smith said. "In the summer, a lot of the guys on our team put in a lot of work. A lot of us worked on getting stronger, bigger and faster. I'm really excited about this team."
To address the point guard issue, Howland brought in a rare junior college transfer, Lazeric Jones, to compete with Anderson for the starting job. That allows Lee, the team's leading returning scorer, to concentrate more on scoring and pushing the ball in transition. Without a senior, Lee and Anderson are the two veterans of the program.
Further down the line, more help is on the way. Howland has been effusive in praising North Carolina twin transfers David and Travis Wear, feeling fortunate to have gotten two former McDonald's All-American post players he had originally gone hard after when they were at powerhouse Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif.
They won't be eligible until next season but have already made practices more competitive.
"It's tough to have them everyday and see how good they are, but they can't play right away," Howland said.
Exhibiting patience for UCLA to transform into a consistent winner won't be easy for its fans, let alone Howland, given the perpetually high expectations of a program with a glorious past. But brick by brick, the caretaker has begun laying down a new foundation.
"That was earned," Keating said of Howland's run of Final Fours. "That took time to get that mindset. It's hard for those young kids to sustain what it took all that time to build.
"They'll be back. Ben's too good a coach."
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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