Team preview: UCLA

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 20, 2004, 5:35 PM ET
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After leading Pittsburgh to national prominence, Ben Howland changed pace last year, taking the job at a school he had admired (from near and afar) for years.

Howland left Pittsburgh after leading the Panthers to their second consecutive NCAA Sweet 16 appearance to take over a UCLA program coming off its first losing season in 55 years.

Coaching the most successful college basketball program in history, amid all the expectations, in the eye of Los Angeles media, didn't bother Howland.

"The first year is a transition year from one year to the next," said Howland, who built NCAA Tournament teams at Northern Arizona (1994-99) and more recently Pittsburgh (2001-03).

Last year, the Bruins were hurt by injuries to North Carolina transfer Brian Morrison and inconsistent play.

"We had some adversities," Howland said. "We started out great but didn't respond well when we lost."

UCLA began the Pac-10 season with five straight wins before stumbling against Arizona 97-72 on Jan. 17. The loss sent the Bruins spinning to a six-game losing streak, and they never were the same.

The Bruins had their share of big wins -- a 64-58 victory over Michigan State on Dec. 20 and wins over Oregon, Oregon State and a Washington in overtime -- but also suffered damaging losses. Washington State defeated UCLA for the first time ever in Los Angeles on Feb. 5, 55-48, and the Bruins fell in another overtime loss to Arizona State one week later. UCLA lost its last six games, including yet another game in overtime to Notre Dame on Feb. 28.

But that was last year, Howland insists.

"I'm not even concerned about last year," he said. "That's over. It's a new team and a new year."

UCLA returns three starters and seven reserves from its 11-17 team that tied for seventh in the Pac-10 in 2003-04 with a conference record of 7-11. And Howland has added a top-five recruiting class.

UCLA returns senior starters Dijon Thompson (14.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Cedric Bozeman (7.5 ppg, 5.54 apg) and junior Ryan Hollins (6.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg). Six seniors, including five scholarship players and walk-on Janou Rubin (4.4 ppg, 40.5 3PT) give the Bruins needed experience and leadership this season.

"We expect to be improved this year," Howland said. "We liked our first year recruiting. Recruiting is the life blood of all programs."

The Bruins added the nation's No. 5 recruiting class according to The class is highlighted with prep All-Americans Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo. They join Parade All-American Josh Shipp and CalHi Sports all-state selection Lorenzo Mata.

Farmar, a Parade and McDonald's All-American, is a 6-2 guard from Taft High School in Woodland Hills, Calif. Last year as a senior, Farmar averaged 27.5 points and 6.5 assists to lead his school to a 28-3 record and the Los Angeles City title. After the season, he was selected The Los Angeles Times Player of the Year and selected to the southern California Prep Player of the Year at the Wooden Awards dinner banquet. Farmar also was chosen for the USA Junior National team and the Jordan Brand Capital Classic in Washington, D.C.

Farmar was called "the best true point guard in the nation" by recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons.

The 6-5 Afflalo, also a Parade and McDonald's All-American, led his Compton Centennial High School team to its first California Division III state title after averaging 23.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game in 2003-04. He was a starter in the McDonald's All-American game and selected to the EA Sports Roundball Classic and named to the CalHi Sports all-state team.

As a senior at Fairfax (Calif.) High school last year, Shipp, still another Parade All-American, led the Lions to their first ever California Division I state championship, averaging 30.4 points on the season. The 6-5 guard was selected CalHi Sports All-State. Shipp is the younger brother of former California standout and 2003 Pac-10 scoring leader, Joe Shipp.

The 6-9 Mata averaged 25 points and 18 rebound a game in 2003-04 for South Gate High School, before falling to Shipp's Fairfax team in the Los Angeles City quarterfinals.

Mata was rated as the No. 2 power forward on the West Coast by and was selected to CalHi Sports all-state and to The Los Angeles Times All-Star team.

UCLA also gains the services of 6-5 freshman walk-on DeAndre Robinson, a guard from Riverside (Calif.) High School. Last year, Robinson was ranked by as the No. 8 shooting guard in the West.

Howland is very pleased with his first recruiting class at UCLA.

"As a staff, we feel we've recruited the nation's No. 1 class," Howland said. "We think Jordan is an outstanding pure point guard, that Aaron and Josh are two of the top shooting wings in the nation and that Lorenzo will give us immediate help in rebounding and blocking shots. These four recruits will really help our team this coming season."

With a mixture of experience and talented young players, Howland believes the Bruins will be much improved this season.

"You're team only as good as your seniors," Howland said.


Seniors Thompson and Bozeman return after standout seasons in 2003-04.

The 6-7 Thompson returns as UCLA's leading scorer and rebounder. He played in last summer's pre-NBA draft camp in Chicago, but did not sign with an agent and decided to return for his senior season. Last year, Thompson was voted Pac-10 honorable mention. He needs just 68 points to reach 1,000 for his career.

"Our staff is very pleased that Dijon has decided to stay in school and complete his degree," Howland said. "He's improved his overall game and I'm excited about the work ethic he's displayed. I'm confident he's going to have a solid senior campaign."

Bozeman, 6-6, is expected to start at point guard for a fourth straight season. Last year, he started all 28 games, a first after suffering injuries in his first two seasons in Los Angeles. His presence on the court paid dividends for the Bruins as Bozeman led the league in assists with 5.54 and lead the team with 33.7 minutes per game.

This season, Bozeman returns 12 pounds heavier and more experienced to lead the Bruins offense.

"I'm excited about his improvement and I'm expecting him to have a good senior year," Howland said.

Hollins returns as the Bruins' starting center for a third consecutive season after undergoing successful knee surgery in the off-season. One year ago, the 7-footer proved to be one of the best big men in the Pac-10. He converted 54.7 percent of his shots, and on the defensive end, led the team in blocked shots.

This season, Howland said, Hollins will be used at power forward as well.

"Ryan came on strong during the latter half of last season," Howland said. "I'm looking for big things from Ryan in his junior year."

Hollins underwent off-season arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. The injury prevented him from attending trials for a roster spot on the 2004 USA Basketball World Championship for Young Men qualifying team last July.

Also the team will have senior guard Brian Morrison (8.5 ppg, .429 3PT) healthy after losing the sharpshooter with a left hamstring strain on Dec. 20, only to lose him later in the year with a right ankle sprain.

"He got hurt when we beat Michigan State, and he never really got healthy," Howland said. "That was unfortunate, he was playing well when he went down. He was our best jump shooter."

Morrison returned and played in the Bruins' loss to Washington in the Pac-10 Tournament.

Also returning this season is 7-0 junior center Michael Fey (6.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg); 6-8 senior forward Josiah Johnson (1.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg); 6-1 senior guard Ryan Walcott (1.1 ppg, 25 gms); 6-3 junior Quinn Hawking, who played just one minute in one game; and 6-1 sophomore guard Ike Williams, who played in just two games.

A year ago, Fey played in all 28 games and started the first 13 at center. He wound up shooting a team-high 56.1 percent (64-114) from the field and 74.1 percent (40-54) from the free-throw line. In UCLA's season-opening victory over Vermont, Fey scored a career-high 20 points with a career-best eight rebounds.

"Michael started last season very strong," Howland said. "We need that same early presence from him, but we need Michael to maintain that consistency throughout the season. This spring, he has worked hard in the weight room, gotten bigger and stronger and showed solid improvement."

Rubin earned Pac-10 Player of the Week honors for his play off the bench against the Oregon schools in Los Angeles. In UCLA's 77-66 victory over Oregon State, Rubin scored a career-high 13 points (all in the second half), including three-for-three from three-point range. He also had three assists. Two days later in the Bruins' 81-74 win over Oregon, Rubin again scored 13 (including two-for-three from behind the arc) and added three rebounds, two assists, blocked shot and a steal in 24 minutes. For the season, Rubin averaged 14.8 minutes and shot 40.5 percent (15-for-37) from three-point range.

Johnson, son of former NBA and Bruin star Marques Johnson, appeared in 20 games last season and started once. His average of 10.7 rebounds per 40 minutes was best on the team. He recorded career-highs last season in minutes (26 vs. Kentucky) and rebounds (9 vs. Loyola Marymount). He missed the last seven games with a sprained left knee.

Last year, Howland said he was disappointed with the Bruins' overall team record, but not the progress the team made throughout the season.

This year's team will have to deal with the loss of two of its best players, T.J. Cummings and Trevor Ariza. Cummings graduated, and Ariza opted to forgo his college eligibility after just one season at UCLA.

Howland said the loss of Ariza was an unexpected twist.

"I was surprised that he didn't come back for another year," Howland said.



Howland is hoping players from his prized recruiting class can step right in and add to an experienced core of players returning this season.

Before the Bruins can even think of returning to the postseason, they'll first have to resort to basic fundamentals of the game.

Last season, UCLA was ninth in the Pac-10 in scoring offense and 10th in scoring margin. They were also eighth in the league in rebounding, last in steals and turnover margin and ninth in assist/turnover ratio.

Howland would like to see those numbers drastically improve this year.

"We have to just emphasize on defending the basket and be a better rebounding team," he said. "It's just basic fundamental basketball."

The return of Thompson and Morrison should add to the perimeter play, and the addition of talented recruits will give UCLA a much deeper team than last year.

However, with the Pac-10 expected to be much improved this season, it could be another trying year for Howland coaching his dream job.

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