With physical injuries to Cedric Bozeman and Dijon Thompson, and the continuing psychic rope-burns searing the hapless hands of Mike Fey and Ryan Hollins, Bruin fans will likely see UCLA Basketball - The Next Generation on their viewing screens for the remainder of the season and next year as well.
Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo have already locked themselves into the starting lineup, and Josh Shipp is about to do the same. Mark that down: Once he enters the starting lineup for UCLA, Josh Shipp may not leave it until he graduates. If he does, it won't be because he hasn't earned the job; other factors will be in play.
And I foresee a rapid increase in playing time for Lorenzo Mata from here on out. To put it bluntly, he has the best hands and the best body, and is the best athlete, of all of UCLA's post players. Raw though he may be in some aspects of his game, he already possesses the tools to become a force inside for the Bruins.
The enormity of the task Ben Howland undertook when he took over the coaching reins at UCLA should be apparent to everyone by now if even I can see it. For four years straight, Steve Lavin failed to recruit the caliber of student-athlete necessary to build a winning program at the high major level of college basketball. Tracy Pierson took some heat both last year and this year when he pointed this out several times, but I think Tracy has been wholly vindicated by now. While all of us support Ced, Dijon, Brian, Mike, Ryan, Matt and Josiah as members of the UCLA family, they simply lack the tools/attitude necessary to build a top-ranked program. Players who had the tools, like Trevor Ariza, Evan Burns and Andre Patterson, failed in other respects to measure up to the standards we have at UCLA.
Howland has had to rebuild the program from Ground Zero. Unless Howland signs a freak in the Carmelo Anthony mold, UCLA fans must be patient while the coaching staff undertakes a mammoth task. Even such top-rated freshmen as Charlie Villanueva and Marvin Williams, both of whom were considered locks as first round NBA draft picks if they'd turned pro out of high school, have shown that most freshmen don't make a huge impact at the high major level. We will probably have to wait until Howland's fourth season to see a legitimate Top 25 program once more playing its home games at Pauley Pavilion.
Howland appears to be recruiting to meet that timetable. This season, he brought in three perimeter players who have shown they can be solid, if mistake-prone, starters as freshmen and who will not doubt continue to improve throughout their careers at UCLA. Most likely, Jordan, Arron and Josh will play at UCLA at least through their junior seasons and probably will be here for 4 years. Lorenzo gives the Bruins hope for at least a solid post player, and possibly a very good one, down the road. It's important to remember that he has perhaps the most growth potential of all of this year's frosh, given his lack of experience at the high school level and the physical tools (great hands, quick hops, solid body) he starts out with.
Next season, we will be faced with an unusual situation in Westwood. We will be watching players of a type rarely seen in these parts in recent years. Darren Collison becomes the quickest player to enter UCLA since at least Earl Watson and Baron Davis. Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright represent the kind of player missing from our teams since Trevor Wilson, a pair of very athletic yet physically imposing post players. Luc Mbaha Moute might be at the same athletic level as Ariza and Patterson. Hopefully, Mike Roll can shoot the 3 consistently.
But, of course, all of these guys will still be freshmen, and Jordan, Arron, Josh and Lorenzo will still be sophomores. Unless we get some totally unforeseeable drastic improvement from two of Ced, Mike and/or Ryan next year, it's probably unrealistic to expect next season's team to make the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps Ryan and Alfred will be more polished than it now appears, and perhaps Darren will come in and take over Brian Morrison's 3rd guard role with aplomb, but it's best to temper expectations of 18-20 wins. The Pac-10 should be much improved next season.
If UCLA can add another outstanding guard/wing and another outstanding post prospect to James Keefe in the class of 2006, it will finally seem realistic that UCLA's 2006-2007 team will contend for an NCAA berth. And the year after, a top 25 rating would be a realistic goal. But it appears that this year's team will struggle to finish over .500 overall and the 2005-2006 team is more likely to be pointing towards the NIT than the NCAAs.
In the interim (until 2006-2007), as Bruin fans we will be watching for consistent individual and team improvement both within seasons and from season to season as our younger players gain experience in a crucible of fire. We will have to take our satisfaction where we can find it, in the minutiae and in snapshot moments and the occasional big upset which will indicate a real step forward as Howland gradually builds the program back to respectability. Rick Pitino has followed a similar path at Louisville, another famous program which fell into mediocrity. Even the best coaches can't just remake an entire program in two seasons. Like it or not, we are on a longer road, but the destination will be where we want to wind up.
I still expect to hear from those who will want to micro-critique the team for the next two years and make "final judgments" on Howland's coaching and recruiting abilities. At UCLA, everything and everyone is grist for the mill. But I hope that most fans now recognize that Howland has taken on a gargantuan endeavor and it will simply take time for his efforts to bear fruit.
Me, I'm in it for the long haul. I think that our turnovers and defense will improve incrementally this season and substantially the next. I'll enjoy watching Jordan, Arron, Josh and Lorenzo and next year's frosh class growing up before our eyes, even though growing up always comes with growing pains. I'm a patient man; perhaps too patient for many of the posters on this board. But I believe that Howland's track record at other schools and his first two recruiting classes indicate a definite direction toward a brighter future. I think the wait will be worth it.