UCLA should be improved this year

Originally Published: November 10, 2004
By Ed Graney | Special to ESPN.com

Think of it as opening night.

The orchestra begins to play and the lights dim and the curtain rises and all you want to see is the new ensemble all the reviews are raving about.

It's easy to forget about the stagehands and stand-ins.

That would be a mistake for those who follow UCLA basketball this season. Fresh faces might forecast a bright future, but familiar ones could still decide how far the team lives into March.

"I think it's really hard to be a freshman and come in and just be ready to go," said second-year coach Ben Howland. "There is going to be a learning curve. There is going to be an experience curve. I'm very excited about this freshmen class and think they all will have an opportunity to contribute and be counted on. But it's very, very difficult to have a big impact as a freshman. It's just not an easy thing to do."

Ben Howland
Getty ImagesWill the weight of UCLA's history bog down Howland's rebuilding project?

And yet it's what UCLA faithful pray for.

UCLA is closer to recovery today than it has been in some time. These are still not your father's Bruins, but there is hope much of the mystique lost can be discovered again through young talent. UCLA went 11-17 in Howland's first season, but a Top 5 recruiting class has expectations soaring.

This much is certain: No matter how big a difference newcomers like point guard Jordan Farmar and wings Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp and center Lorenzo Mata make, it's essential those returning prove last year's losing ways taught valuable lessons -- that players like forwards Dijon Thompson and Ryan Hollins and center Michael Fey are better for fighting through the adversity of dropping eight of their last nine games.

"It wasn't a fun finish, that's for sure," Howland said. "But just like when you can't let coming off a good year be a feeling of never-ending euphoria, you can't let coming off a bad year stop you from looking forward. That's what we've done."

Yet already, a hurdle has been placed in their path. Senior point guard Cedric Bozeman, whom Howland was going to play alongside Farmar in stretches this season, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last week. Bozeman is out for the season, meaning Farmar will be thrown into the fire instead of walking around its edge to start.

In an exhibition victory against Simon Fraser on Friday, he scored a team-best 19 on 8-of-11 shooting.

"It's unfortunate (about Bozeman), but this is the opportunity I wanted," Farmar said. "I'm going to step right in."

Said Howland: "Cedric worked as hard as any player over the summer. This is a tough blow for our team."

Still, you figure he will find a way. At Northern Arizona, Howland won with shooters from small towns because those were the types of kids that adjusted well to life in Flagstaff. At Pittsburgh, not sure he could immediately beat others on Big East recruits, he developed tough kids and an extremely physical program.

He didn't count on losing athletic wing Trevor Ariza to the NBA after just one season, but still has better skill and depth with this, his second UCLA team. Thompson, who also flirted with the idea of going pro before returning to school, can now strictly play small forward. Brian Morrison, lost for 15 games last season with hamstring and ankle woes, is a senior whose shot can stretch defenses. Hollins appears healthy after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in July and Fey is much stronger, at around 270 pounds.

Translation: The stagehands and stand-ins are still extremely valuable.

"We have a team this season that can shoot it and drive it," Hollins said. "We didn't have a lot of both last year. Teams knew what we could and couldn't do. It's going to open up our offense and help us be a tougher team to defend."

Howland spoke last season more about creating good habits than winning any championships, thinking if the Bruins did enough of the former, the latter will eventually follow. At NAU, his first two teams went 9-17 and 7-19. The third was 21-7. At Pitt, he was 13-15, 19-14, 29-6 and 28-5. But now he is trying to revive a program whose previous coach was fired when making five Sweet 16s wasn't nearly enough to save him.

This is no ordinary Cadillac he's trying to restore.

"I do think it's important we show improvement this season, no question," Howland said. "But I don't want it so much for (future) recruiting classes as for we need to do it for this team, for ourselves. Our chemistry will be much better. I realize expectations are higher at UCLA, but we are in a rebuilding mode. It's a different (recruiting) landscape, a different era.

"It's still about getting better each day."

Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.