LOS ANGELES --
Howland's pleasant demeanor, however, belied the seriousness with which he approaches every season. That was apparent when I suggested that it must be refreshing for him to enter a season with such low expectations. "If you're at UCLA, there's always expectations. To think for a minute there's not would be very naive," Howland said. Then he pointed a finger at his chest, right above the Bruins logo on his shirt. "
Fair enough. But after watching Howland conduct UCLA's first practice later that evening, I have a message for Bruin Nation: Expect very little from this team. That way, if it does have a great year, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
It would foolish to expect a lot of a team that lost four starters from a unit that fell in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Losing players before their eligibility expires is a fact of life for the top programs, but few schools have had to deal with as many unexpected defections as the Bruins.
In all, Howland has lost seven underclassmen to the NBA in the last six years, including five in the last three. "It's a Catch-22," he said. "Every kid wants to be a pro. That's understandable. The fact is, when you get the best players, often times you lose them."
The only way to survive is through recruiting. From what I saw during practice, Howland's current five-man freshman class has a lot of potential, but nobody in the quintet is ready to have a major impact this season. The most physically ready is
The freshman with the biggest upside is 6-9 swingman
The core of sophomores who will form the team's nucleus -- guards
The good news for UCLA is that Howland is one of the foremost teachers in America. This could be an enjoyable year for him, because his players will really need coaching. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the first practice was devoted to defensive fundamentals, with Howland focusing on small details. During a drill on perimeter pressure, he told freshman center
"Tomorrow, we're gonna introduce hedging to the rookies," Howland told his guys towards the end of practice. "We'll do a lot of learning tomorrow." That will be the constant refrain for a team with so much to learn. "We're going to teach and re-teach," Howland told me after practice. "We're going to go real slow and I'm going to have to be very patient. We want to learn how to do things right."
After watching this young team complete its first day of class, I herewith offer my breakdown of the 2009-10 UCLA Bruins:
Lee got off to a good start as a freshman, but he turned his ankle and missed two weeks in late December, and he never regained his form. Now he has changed his jersey number (back to his high school number 3), and he decided to lose his headband and undershirt to give himself a fresh start. He is a dynamic scorer but he also takes great pride in his defense. The only question is how Lee will fare as a backup point guard to Anderson, but presented with the opportunity to play major minutes, Lee seems poised to have a breakout season. Of course, if that happens, then chances are he will be the next early defection to the NBA.