Ben Howland was dead and buried. After a three consecutive Final Four appearances and 30-win campaigns from 2005-06 through 2007-08, UCLA had become mediocre in what had quickly become a downtrodden Pac-12.
Speculation regarding his job security was in ample supply. Then, a national story surfaced about how he’d apparently lost control of his program and one of his star players. Former players took shots at his style of play and skeptics even poked fun at him for hiring an AAU coach from across the country on his staff.
“It was tough,” Howland says. “Probably as difficult a year as I’ve ever had in coaching.”
With all the off-court issues, though, one glaring issue in Westwood stood out above everything else over the last few years — the talent level. It just wasn’t up to UCLA standards.
The dropoff began with the Class of 2008, one that was lauded by just about every recruiting guru. Jrue Holiday, J’Mison Morgan, Drew Gordon, Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee. All were considered top-50 players nationally and, as a group, were supposed to help Howland and the program sustain its recent excellence.
Holiday averaged 8.5 points per game before leaving for the NBA after his freshman season. Morgan transferred to Baylor and has been a bust. Gordon bolted six games into his sophomore season after clashing with Howland. Anderson graduated this past season after a disappointing four-year college career. Lee left following his junior campaign and was a second-round pick in the NBA Draft.
The next group was nearly as heralded, with five more players holding a ranking in the top 100. The class was as disappointing as its predecessor.
Tyler Honeycutt underachieved for the majority of two seasons before, like Lee, leaving to become a second-round pick in the NBA Draft. Mike Moser left after logging just 4.7 minutes per contest as a freshman and has turned into a bona fide star and potential first-round pick at UNLV. Brendan Lane started eight games in three seasons before transferring to Pepperdine. Anthony Stover was a complete non-factor before being kicked off the team for academics this past offseason.
And then there’s Reeves Nelson.
Nelson was different. The tough, hard-playing forward was plenty talented enough, but he was a disaster off the court who killed team chemistry. After multiple chances from Howland — probably a few too many — Nelson was finally jettisoned from the program early in the 2011-12. But it didn’t come quick enough as Nelson’s issues became a public embarrassment to Howland and his once-tight grip on this program.
There have been other misses since the vaunted 2008 and 2009 classes. The four-man 2010 group included Matt Carlino, who left and is thriving at BYU. De’End Parker and Norman Powell arrived in 2011, and Parker is already history, leaving for San Francisco. The list seemingly goes on and on with players who didn’t plan out for one reason or another.
But now everything appears to have changed.
The 14–18 record in 2009-10 has become a distant memory. So is last season’s disaster, one in which UCLA failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the past three seasons. Moreover, UCLA’s struggles have coincided with a conference-wide slump during the last three seasons. There’s a new chapter in UCLA basketball, at least that’s what Howland and Bruins fans hope. Optimism is high the Bruins can return to their glory days, not the ones when they were hanging banners in the John Wooden Era, but the ones when they were competing for national titles shortly after Howland arrived from Pittsburgh.
Howland has added arguably the nation’s top recruiting class, one that stacks up with John Calipari’s haul in Lexington and Sean Miller’s group at Arizona. Simply, that’s what has changed the expectations in Westwood.
Now Josh Smith’s weight will no longer be the primary focus at UCLA. The Wear twins — David and Travis — won’t have to be anything more than they truly are, which is perform as solid players. North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II can be a role player, maybe even a bench guy. That’s because UCLA has added arguably the two best freshmen in the country.
Shabazz Muhammad comes in as the consensus top-ranked player in the nation. He’s a big, strong and athletic wing from Las Vegas who brings a much-needed toughness mentality to the program. Muhammad had long been considered a favorite to land at UCLA — with the aid of adidas — but Kentucky and other top programs made strong pushes for his services. Muhammad could well wind up being the top pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and should be Howland’s go-to guy from the moment he first takes the court at Pauley Pavilion whenever that may be. The NCAA’s eligibility review of Muhammad was ongoing into late August.
“He’s a great player,” Howland says. “He can do a lot of different things for us and will do a lot of different things for us that we haven’t had recently.”
Then there’s Kyle Anderson, a 6-9 point forward who passes the ball in a similar manner former North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall exhibited in his two years in Chapel Hill. Anderson, no matter what position he plays in Howland’s offense, will have the ball in his hands often because his best asset is his ability to make those around him better.
“He facilitates,” Howland says. “That’s what he does best, but his perimeter shot has improved over the past year.”
These two guys, Muhammad and Anderson, changed the complexion of the entire program. They will give Howland new life, a second chance to get this storied program back on track.
Howland still has pressure on him now, though, maybe even more so with the influx of talent. He can’t swing and miss at the NCAA Tournament again, especially with the addition of Muhammad, Anderson and another top-25 player, Georgia big man Tony Parker.
“It’s all about expectation level here,” Howland says. “That’s what happens when you have the history of UCLA and when you go to three Final Fours in a row.”
Muhammad will be the centerpiece of the team. Anderson should make teammates like the Wear twins and Smith more effective with crisp passes that will be converted into easy layups. And Parker has the natural ability to push Smith for playing time in the middle. There’s a second talented freshman out of Georgia, 6-5 wing Jordan Adams, as well as junior guard Tyler Lamb and sophomore Norman Powell.
There are reasons for the lack of success over the past three seasons. Sure, the talent on the West Coast — and specifically California — has been down. But UCLA is also guilty of misevaluating some key players. The Bruins also have had chemistry issues and untimely defections to the NBA Draft.
“We’ve had so many guys leave early,” Howland says. “It’s not easy to reload every year.”
Holiday, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo all left early. But more recently, the departures of Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee, who bolted despite being sure-fire second round picks, hampered the Bruins a year ago.
But premature defections, even to the NBA, haven’t been worthy of a free pass for Howland & Co. Not for the elite program out West.
The preseason polls are likely have UCLA in the top 25, perhaps in the top five. Howland is full of smiles these days, knowing he’ll have enough to compete with anyone in the league and nearly anyone in the entire country.
“I’m excited about this season,” he says. “But we need to go out and prove it. Rankings don’t mean anything. People can project all they want, but it’s about performance. I think we have a chance to be a really good team, but we need to go out and win games.”
Howland loses his starting backcourt of Lazeric Jones, who was the team’s leading scorer a year ago at 13.5 points per game, and Jerime Anderson, who never came close to fulfilling the potential he brought with him to UCLA. While Jones did have a solid season last year, the duo of Muhammad and Kyle Anderson will be instant upgrades — even with their youth and inexperience.
The Wear twins combined to average 21.7 points and more than a dozen boards per game last season. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be college stars, as many pegged throughout their high school careers before they landed at North Carolina. But they can be solid frontcourt players now that they are surrounded with top-tier talent.
Then there’s the rotund, ultra-talented big man, Smith, who can’t seem to get his weight issues under control — something that could end up costing him a career at the next level. Smith averaged a mediocre 9.9 points and 4.9 rebounds last season and enters his junior season as a forgotten man of sorts due to his uninspiring play and lack of consistent production.
The 6-5 Lamb had a solid sophomore campaign, averaging 9.0 points per game. He certainly fill a role, whether it be starting on the wing or coming off the bench.
The Wears aren’t the only ex-North Carolina players in L.A. Drew II is another local kid who left Chapel Hill and wound up back close to home. But his role is uncertain now with the arrival of Anderson.
“They’ll definitely be playing together at times,” Howland says of a potential Anderson-Drew backcourt. “Larry can facilitate pretty well himself.”
But the Drew Experiment down in the ACC didn’t work well. Then-freshman Kendall Marshall supplanted him midway through the 2010-11 season, prompting Drew to abruptly leave Chapel Hill instead of accepting his role as a backup. Plenty of observers say Drew and his talent level are better-suited as a reserve, but Howland could wind up going with him as a starter, especially early in the season.
Roles will be important for Howland to establish — as will leadership and a defensive philosophy.
The holdovers will need to allow Muhammad and Anderson to come in and not only be the focal points on the court, but also leaders. These guys bring in a much-needed attitude, as well as a physical (Muhammad) and mental (Anderson) toughness that has sorely been lacking in the last few years.
Howland, over the years, has been known as a guy who won’t alter his system. Tough, hard-nosed man-to-man defense has been a staple throughout most of his career as well as an offensive system with limited freedom — something that caused several of his former players to complain.
Howland admits that he’ll likely stick with man-to-man defense, although he understands that his guards, who aren’t overly athletic, won’t be able to pressure the ball as he was able to do in the past.
With the recent struggles, it’s easy to forget what Howland has done over the past nine seasons at UCLA. There have been three Final Four appearances, more than 200 victories and no shortage of pros who have come though the program. He’s brought in heralded guys like Love and Holiday and also developed under-the-radar ones such as Westbrook and Darren Collison.
The program has had stellar seasons in 2006, ’07 and ’08. Then disappointing ones in 2010 and ’12.
“It’s all about expectations,” Howland says. “And I’m OK with that.”
Now we’ll see if this recruiting class, unlike the ones a few years ago, can help the Bruins live up to the hype.
-By Jeff Goodman, CBSSports.com