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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. "We have 'em. That's the main thing. I have them. We expect to be good every year."
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. Jrue Holiday averaged just 8.5 points as a freshman last season, yet he still turned pro and was selected 17th in the NBA draft. Russell Westbrook played nine minutes a game as a freshman, but by the end of his sophomore year was the fourth pick in the draft. Even a guy like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was not thought of as a great pro prospect, yet he left school following his junior season and is now a possible starter with the Milwaukee Bucks.
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 Reeves Nelson, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward from Modesto, Calif. During one 5-on-5 sequence last Friday, Nelson chased down an offensive rebound in the lane, spun around and dunked over two defenders. It was a big-time play, but even he will play a reserve role at best.
The freshman with the biggest upside is 6-9 swingman Tyler Honeycutt, but he was inactive all summer as he recovered from a fractured vertebrae. Honeycutt, who reminds me a little of Tayshaun Prince, shot the ball very well for the first 30 minutes of practice. As the session wore on, however, he got tired and missed more often. About halfway through the practice, he left the court for the training room. He returned wearing flip flops, with ice bags strapped to his back and both knees and walked like an old man.
The core of sophomores who will form the team's nucleus -- guards Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee, and 6-8 forward Drew Gordon -- averaged 30.2 minutes combined last season. Until the underclassmen get up to speed, UCLA will need its senior trio of Nikola Dragovic, James Keefe and Michael Roll to hold down the fort -- and Keefe is out another three weeks because of a dislocated shoulder. When Howland asked me after practice what I thought of his team, I told him, "Your problem is that your most talented players are not your best players."
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 Anthony Stover, "Don't extend your arm. When we extend our arm, what happens? We lose balance! Keep your arm bent." A little later: "You guys are gonna hear a thousand times this year: Don't jump in the air to pass!"
"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:
Heart and soul: Lee. The 6-5 sophomore is one of the hardest-working guys Howland has ever coached, and he knows full well this is his team. Lee spent much of the summer running the huge, steep Santa Monica Stairs. He put himself through twice-daily shooting workouts beginning at 7 a.m. and again at 11 p.m. "I don't like working out in the middle of the day. It's too convenient," Lee said. Lee worked so hard on his game that he developed tendinitis in his knees, and he actually tried to defy Howland's order to quit working out. When he went home for a few days, Howland called Lee's father to tell him to make sure Malcolm didn't play ball while he was at home.
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.
Most improved: Mike Moser. I will take Howland's word on this choice, because I never saw Moser, a 6-8 small forward from Portland, play in high school. Moser is beginning the season 14 pounds heavier than he was as a high school senior. He is also the player who most frequently accompanied Lee on his early-morning and late-night workouts.
X-factor: Gordon. Gordon's talent has never been in question. He's not a freak athlete, but he has a solid build, good quickness, and his jump shot extends beyond the three-point line. The major thing that held Gordon back last season was a lack of mental toughness. He is an emotional player who too easily gets frustrated if something doesn't go his way. Maybe that was just typical freshman immaturity, but the Bruins need Gordon to grow up fast, play 30 minutes a game and be their leading rebounder. If can do that, it will make a huge difference.
Glue Guy: Dragovic. UCLA's offense was anemic at the start of last season, but it picked up dramatically when Howland inserted Dragovic into the starting lineup in mid-December. At 6-9, 215 pounds, Dragovic is one of the biggest and strongest players on the team, but he also stretches defenses with his Euro-style versatility. Most of all, he's the best of the three seniors. This team will need his experience and leadership.
Lost in the shuffle: J'mison Morgan. Based on what I saw during last Friday's workout, I have a hard time envisioning Morgan being a high-level Pac 10 player. He arrived last season in poor condition, and though he has done well to drop his body fat under 10 percent, Morgan does not move with the natural grace you like to see in a player his size. If Gordon improves as much as I expect, and if Nelson emerges as a dependable reserve, then Morgan may have a hard time finding quality minutes late in the year.
Bottom line: This is a good year to be rebuilding in the Pac-10, so even in this down cycle I don't expect UCLA to finish lower than third or fourth. That means getting back to the NCAA tournament but not making it to the second weekend. If Howland is able to keep this group together, and if a couple of recruiting breaks go his way, then the Bruins will be right back on top of the league next season. The folks in Westwood don't like to hear "wait til next year," but at the moment they have no choice.