Hoops Season Review: Miraculous

It was a miraculous season, one that, after some considerable adversity, provided a number of surreal moments that will go down in UCLA basketball lore. The 2005-2006 season, though, will probably best be remembered as the one that brought UCLA back to among the elite basketball programs in the country...

It's almost not right to try to capture the season in words.

It's something that stands by itself, in such a beautiful way.

But then again, not enough can also be said or written about it.

It's difficult to transport yourself back to October, when practice for the 2005-2006 UCLA basketball season was just starting. UCLA was picked to finish third in the Pac-10, behind Arizona and Stanford by the Pac-10 writers. The Bruins started the season ranked #18 in both the first AP and USA Today/ESPN Poll.

Many, at the time, were skeptical of these lofty projections. In our own season predictions, we thought the Bruins would go 21-9 in the regular season, finish fourth in the Pac-10, possibly win two games in the Pac-10 Tournament, and have a chance at a #4 seed and making the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.

While, of course, most of these predictions were a bit conservative compared to what the team actually accomplished, the team's capabilities were clouded at the time by injury.

Perhaps the early-season injury that clouded the picture the most was Alfred Aboya's knee surgery. Aboya was the most likely candidate to plug into the vacant power forward position. At the time, most observers thought UCLA would see a drop-off at the position, at least in point production, having lost Dijon Thompson to graduation. The position was easily the biggest unknown on the team, and with Aboya seemingly out for at least a few weeks to begin the season, and then not knowing really when he'd return and how effective he'd be, UCLA had some question marks.

The second question was at center. Ryan Hollins had shown progress in the spring workouts and over the summer, but UCLA people were still skeptical. He had, as of that time, not shown the composure to be able to get through a game without either traveling, setting an illegal pick or committing a foolish goaltend. He wasn't a great natural rebounder, averaging just about 4 per game, and didn't have much of a low-post scoring game.

Mike Fey was a possibility, but he had been slowed by some injuries. Lorenzo Mata was starting his sophomore season, and had showed some improvement in the off-season, but when practice started in October, he wasn't wowing anyone. Freshman Ryan Wright had athleticism but the staff discovered him to be far more raw than they anticipated.

After a few practices in October, the frontcourt was a definite worry. It was perhaps the primary impetus for UCLA to pursue and get a signed NLI from 6-9 Serbian post, Marko Spica, in fact. They had missed on local prospects Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson, and reviewing UCLA's future in the frontcourt, given what the staff had seen in the season's early practice, it's not hard to surmise that they believed they needed some more assurances – at least another body – in the frontcourt.

So, the frontcourt was a mystery. After Aboya was injured, out of necessity, UCLA moved freshman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to the four position. First off, Mbah a Moute had been injured to start practice, straining his shoulder, and wasn't quite himself either. He recovered fairly quickly, but his early injury clouded the picture even more.

But the move of Mbah a Moute to power forward was one of those incredibly serendipitous events. You'd like to give a great deal of credit to the coaching staff and, of course, much credit is due. But it was also, well, lucky. Sometimes, no matter how good you do your job, how well-prepared and how smart you are, something works out in a way you didn't anticipate, and far better than you could have imagined. No matter if you were the best basketball talent scout on the planet, you probably couldn't have projected Mbah a Moute to have the kind of freshman season he did this year. He went from not even sniffing a place in any top 100 national recruiting lists, to Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and on many national Freshman All-American First teams.

Who would have thunk it?

Really, almost no one. UCLA coaches knew Mbah a Moute was better than what many scouts and other college coaches thought of him. But even the UCLA coaches, if they had you alone and off the record, would readily admit that they couldn't even foresee how good Mbah a Moute would be.

How did this happen? Well, first, Mbah a Moute was fairly unknown, coming from Cameroon to a fairly unknown prep school in Florida, Montverde Academy. He wasn't 6-11, so he didn't get a great deal of hype. He had only played organized basketball for a couple of years, and the coach at Montverde, Kevin Sutton, didn't even know himself much of what he had in Mbah a Moute. In fact, Sutton had enough college level talent, and Mbah a Moute showed such good athleticism for his size that it seemed natural to play him on the perimeter. It was natural to think that Mbah a Moute's future would be at the small forward position, with great feet, quickness and passing ability. In fact, at Montverde, without a true point guard, Mbah a Moute, with his natural vision and passing, played point guard quite a bit.

But, like in many things in life, something develops out of necessity. In this case, Mbah a Moute was really the only available body to play the power forward position at UCLA this season. It didn't come about from a great brilliant idea from the coaching staff, and as a result of Mbah a Moute beating out everyone at the position in practice. It came about because, simply, UCLA didn't have anyone else really to play the position. The move was more a reflection of UCLA's problems than strength.

So, without any experience playing in the froutcourt, and being moved to play power forward at UCLA just a few weeks into his career at UCLA, it was one of those things that no one could have anticipated. No one on the planet (again) knew how good of a natural rebounder Mbah a Moute was. Sutton and the UCLA coaches might have had a clue, but again, if you had them off the record, there is no way they'd say they knew he could get 8 rebounds per game as a freshman.

Mbah a Moute's emergence was truly one of the most compelling of this vastly compelling season. Watching Luc sky over the crowd to pull down rebounds, early on in the season, had UCLA fans turning to each other, saying, "Who was that?" One of the most impressive sequences for UCLA in the NCAA tournament wasn't Mbah a Moute's obvious one in the Gonzaga game, but those two two consecutive rebounds in the LSU game. On the offensive end, a shot went up and caromed off along one baseline and Luc, in his now common fashion, out-anticipated and out-jumped the rest of the floor for the board. UCLA then quickly put up another shot, that then bounced off the rim in the exact opposite direction. Mbah a Moute somehow made it across the floor and flew past and over everyone to get that rebound also. It was as if Mbah a Moute were cloned, that there were two of him on the court, because one individual couldn't have possibly gotten both of those rebounds in succession. It was the same type of rebounding that Mbah a Moute had done all season, and the unexpectedness of it, the shock of Mbah a Moute's talent, aggressiveness, and toughness was one of the purely best aspects of the season.

Without him, UCLA surely doesn't make it to the NCAA Championship Game.

In terms of the team's wings, about a month before the season began, things looked rosy. You had two standout freshmen who started a year ago, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp, returning. It was natural to assume that each had gotten better and, as we said at the time, Afflalo's shot had improved, as well as many aspects of his game. Shipp, however, over the off-season, had vastly improved – improved his body and athleticism, particularly. Watching him during the summer, in the Say No League, he was elevating far better than he had his freshman year, and looked quicker and better skilled. He looked like he could be the team's best player heading into the start of practice.

When it was announced that Shipp would undergo hip surgery and miss a good portion of the season, the hopes for UCLA's season really took a big hit. Cedric Bozeman was returning from a season-ending knee injury in 2004-2005, and it was still questionable if he'd be able to return all the way or, even if he did physically, how rusty he'd be.

There was the addition of freshman Mike Roll who, it was pretty certain, would be able to make an impact with his deft outside shooting, but you couldn't expect him to pick up the slack of losing Shipp.

At the point guard spot, UCLA was returning one of the best young players at the position in the country in Jordan Farmar, who you had to think had also improved.

So, heading into the season, there were some definite questions. Most of the prognosticators were basing that #18-ranking and #3 in the Pac-10 almost entirely on the improvement of the three starting freshmen from a year ago – so that became very questionable when Josh Shipp went down.

With Aboya, the projected starting four, out, and no signs that any of the other big men in the program had taken any considerable leaps and bounds in development, there was ample enough foundation for considerable doubt in this team for the season.

It's amazing how far they came from that early point.

And the really amazing thing here is, it didn't look particularly better even a month or so into the season. UCLA started out its season 10-1 in its non-conference schedule, but it wasn't as pretty as it sounds. UCLA struggled against teams like Drexel (57-56) and Albany (73-56) at home. They played good defense, but struggled offensively.

And the biggest issue was the injuries. UCLA's locker room looked like a hospital ward. UCLA had more players sit out games than perhaps anyone in the country – and just not the bench warmers but the starters. Jordan Farmar suffered five sprained ankles, four to the same ankle, during the season, while also straining a groin, missing two games. Cedric Bozeman missed a month (eight games) due to a torn labrum in his shoulder, which he played with for the last two months of the season. Josh Shipp, as we all know, came back for just four games before hanging it up for the season. Lorenzo Mata, who had won the starting center spot during Pac-10 conference play, broke his leg in a collision with Farmar and sat out the last 14 games of the Pac-10 season. He also broke his nose twice during the season. Ryan Hollins missed six games, after straining a groin in the lay-up line. Aboya – six games. Fey – ten games.

During one stretch you looked down the UCLA bench and there were four guys who had been starters for the team at some time – Shipp, Mata, Hollins and Bozeman – all sitting on the bench in street clothes.

It definitely felt like the team was cursed by the injury bug far worse than any team you had ever heard of. Head Coach Ben Howland said repeatedly he had never had a team – or heard of a team – that had suffered so many injuries during a season, in 25 years in the coaching business.

At many times during the season, the injuries did take their toll, and limited the team's achievement, and there were times you thought that the injury problem could be too much for this year's squad to overcome.

Not only was it miraculous that this team went to the NCAA Championship Game on that accomplishment alone. But to have done it with the injuries was really beyond what you could describe as miraculous.

A key game in the season was at home against Cal, in the first weekend of Pac-10 play. For many observers, that loss signified just what level of team we had here. UCLA had beaten Nevada, which many thought was an over-rated top-25 team, and had won on the road at Michigan. They looked out-matched against Memphis in Madison Square Garden in late November. But that loss against a just-decent Cal team, at home, in Pauley, was the sign for many that this team probably would be a third place Pac-10 team.

There were many positives to recognize at that time though. Jordan Farmar, despite being limited by the injuries, had improved his defense, and was able to stay on the floor. He had strung together probably the best stretch of his young career in the five or six non-conference games before the Pac-10 opener against Stanford at home, where he ably defended the Cardinal's Chris Hernandez, who had completely out-muscled him the year before. Farmar was showing improved leadership, not getting on his teammates as much after mistakes (sometimes his own), improved decision-making, and looked like he was buying into Howland's preachings – obvious in Farmar's newfound penchant for jump-stopping, which is a Howland staple.

Afflalo was emerging as a clutch player, hitting big shots in critical times, and playing the best, lock-down, on-the-ball defense around. He had shown it as a freshman, but Afflalo was really displaying the warrior mentality, having to defend the opponent's best perimeter scorer every game, while having to take on the burden of being the team's leading scorer.

After starting the Pac-10 1-1, UCLA then went on the road to the Arizona schools, and the Bruins started the road trip by beating Arizona in Tucson for the first time in nine years, 85-79. Admittedly, this wasn't one of Lute Olson's best teams, but it was still an accomplishment, and it showed, more than anything, that this Bruin team was made of different stuff than many past UCLA teams – made more of the warrior mentality. It had bounced back from that loss against Cal in Pauley and many of the players throughout the season, particularly Afflalo, said that loss resonated with him, and he knew he had to make up for it the rest of the Pac-10 season. Afflalo scored 22 points against Arizona, including the clutch 12-foot runner with a couple of minutes to go to put the Bruins ahead for good.

After that Arizona win, UCLA showed its mettle by eeking out victories over Arizona State and Washington State, by a combined total of three points. In the ASU game, it was Jordan Farmar's turn to be Mr. Clutch, scoring on a lay-up with three seconds in the game to win it. Afflalo was the hero against Washington State, scoring three points in the waning seconds to win it, after also chasing around WSU's great-shooting Josh Akognon.

UCLA then released the news that Josh Shipp, who had returned for four Pac-10 games, wouldn't play the rest of the season. Howland's face was ashen at the press conference when the Shipp news was announced.

The Bruins then suffered another loss at home, against Washington, in a game in which they led most of the way. Washington looked like they ultimately had more talent than the Bruins that day and out-lasted them.

At that point in the season, UCLA was 14-3 overall and 4-2 in conference. Despite the injury setbacks, they were playing above expectation, looking like they'd still compete in the upper echelon of the conference. They then lost to West Virginia, after blowing out USC.

From there, they went on a run that gave you a bit of a clue that this team could be better than what many were expecting. They then beat both Oregon schools on the road, pretty handily, to finish the first half of the Pac-10 season 7-2 and in first place in the conference. They then beat ASU at Pauley, to go 18-4 overall, and were facing Arizona in a Saturday game. Much had been said about Arizona, that they had picked up their game since the earlier loss to UCLA. It was probably a major turning point in the season when UCLA swept Arizona for the first time since 1997. The win catapulted UCLA to #12 in the USA Today Poll, and put them in first place in the conference by two games.

The game also was a showcase, a contrast in two different teams. UCLA looked like the highly-disciplined, precise team while Arizona looked sloppy, ill-prepared and fundamentally unsound.

UCLA's defense also was starting to be its calling card. During that five-game span, between the loss to West Virginia and then the next loss to Washington in Seattle, UCLA gave up only 53 points per game, capped by a defensive gem at Washington State where it allowed the Cougars to score just 30 points.

UCLA was now 20-4 and 10-2, and defying all predictions and reasonable expectations, especially given the injuries.

The Bruins then played two games that probably set them up for their miraculous late-season run.

UCLA lost at Washington, 70-67, to allow California, and Washington in fact, back in the Pac-10 race. But if they held serve the rest of the way, beating the teams they should, it looked like UCLA would pull out its first Pac-10 crown in 9 years.

A few days later, UCLA lost to struggling USC, 71-68.

Not only did it give Cal the opportunity to then be tied with UCLA for the Pac-10 lead, but it truly knocked UCLA off the perch it had been climbing for the last several weeks.

And it was perhaps the best thing that happened to the team all season.

The players and the coaches, over the next month and a half, would point to that USC loss as the game that truly set them up for the fantastic late-season run. They admitted they didn't come to play in that game, didn't play well defensively. It made them realize, they admitted, that they couldn't cruise in any game, on any night.

Now, sometimes that kind of talk is sport speak. It's said in media interviews, but it's not necessarily true. It just sounds good. But in this case, it seemed like it really was true – that the loss against USC really resonated with the players and gave them the mentality they needed heading into the last third of the season.

As some of the players have said – Thank you, USC.

The Bruins won the next 12 games.

After blowing out Oregon and Oregon State at home, they went on the road, for the game that would determine the Pac-10 championship, against Cal in Berkeley.

Like with the USC game, many of the players cited the loss against Cal at Pauley earlier in the season as big motivation. The fact they were playing for an outright conference championship was easily enough motivation on its own.

UCLA trailed in the first half, and looked similar to how it did in its loss against USC.

But UCLA, which had earned a rep as being a second-half team, came out tough in the last 20 minutes and in overtime to beat the Bears, and win the Pac-10 conference championship.

UCLA smoked Stanford in the final regular-season game, and then continued its momentum through the Pac-10 tournament, beating Oregon State, Arizona and Cal all without really being challenged.

For many UCLA fans who had been through the dark times of the program, it was a surreal moment to be at the Staples Center and watch this team cut down the nets after winning the conference tournament.

But it wasn't the last surreal moment of the season. With the way it finished off its season, winning its last seven games, winning the conference and the conference tournament, UCLA was awarded a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, leap-frogging #3-seeded Gonzaga, who had been ranked higher than UCLA all season.

With the NCAA tournament so fresh in all of our minds, we don't really have to go over it blow by blow. But there are so moments – those surreal moments – that simply have to be acknowledged.

-- Alabama's very quick Ronald Steele with the ball in his hands, at the top of the key with just a few seconds left in the second-round NCAA game and UCLA up by two points, and Arron Afflalo locked on him, not giving him any space before Steele missed a 22-footer.

-- The Gonzaga game. One of the biggest moments of a phenomenal NCAA tournament overall. UCLA is down 17 and claws its way back. It scores the last 11 points to win it. With no timeouts, everything happens so fast as Gonzage inbounds the ball to Adam Morrison, who gets trapped and passes it crosscourt to Juan Batista. Bozeman and Farmar trap Batista, Bozeman slaps the ball loose, Farmar grabs it and lofts a pass, that seemed like it took about 20 minutes in the air, to Mbah a Moute under the basket, who makes a great catch and lays it in softly. The UCLA bench and crowd erupts, while many in Oakland Arena are stunned. The Zags' Derek Raivio then brings the ball up court looking for a game-winning shot and Mbah a Moute dives on the ball as it's exposed in Raivio's dribble, ties it up, and UCLA gets possession and preserves its win. There is the image of Adam Morrison on center court, crying after the game, and the ever-classy Arron Afflalo picking him up to console him.

When UCLA had won its second-round game against Alabama and made the Sweet 16 everything was gravy from there on out. Many UCLA fans would probably assert that that's settling, and that their expectations were raised after that. But given what this team had to work with this season, and the injuries, winning the Pac-10 season, the Pac-10 tournament and going to the Sweet 16 was one helluva accomplishment.

When it then beat Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, and advanced to the Elite Eight, it was a great deal of gravy. To then beat Memphis, a team that had superior athletes to UCLA and had beaten the Bruins fairly handily back in November, was far, far beyond expectation. It was a definite indication of how good UCLA's program was, that it could beat a team that, it's safe to say, had more talent on its roster, and it could show so much improvement that it looked clearly like the better team when it faced it four months later.

UCLA advanced to its first Final Four since winning the national championship in 1995. Watching the players and coaches cut down the nets in Oakland after beating Memphis in the Elite Eight is another surreal moment.

From then on, if you were a UCLA fan, going to Indianapolis for the Final Four was a perpetually surreal experience. Having suffered through the dark period of UCLA basketball, it was stunning to see "UCLA" on the billboards, signs, and sweatshirts in Indianapolis. It was surreal to hear the national media, on TV, radio and in newspapers, doing stories about UCLA (even if many were short-sighted and downright ignorant).

Our cup runneth over in gravy.

UCLA then played very well against LSU in the semi-final game in Indianapolis, going ahead by 20 before coasting to a 59-45 win. LSU had been hyped as a much more athletic team than UCLA, and that very well could have been true. But UCLA was so much better prepared for the game and better coached.

In the final against an emergingly elite Florida team, UCLA, it was clear, was up against it in the first five minutes. Florida clearly had superior talent, and were better coached than LSU, and better prepared. The predominantly young Bruins, who had overcome the nerves and deer-in-the-headlights syndrome common to inexperience, looked like it had finally caught up with them, lacking intensity, particularly in their signature defense, in the first half.

UCLA, after a miraculous run, fell to Florida in the NCAA Championship Game, 73-57.

UCLA was ranked #18 pre-season, and finished the season ranked #2 in the AP Poll. Another surreal experience – seeing UCLA ranked #2.

Individually, the UCLA players were each great stories this season.

Ryan Hollins – a hyper athletic seven-footer who just didn't appear to have a good enough feel or aggressiveness to play at this level for his first three years at UCLA, ended up being named the Oakland Regional MVP. He had bought into Howland's coaching, had slowed down his game and stopped hurrying, which had made him mistake prone. To see a kid – a good-hearted kid – who had gone through quite a bit of hardship and criticism get this kind of retribution was heart-warming.

Cedric Bozeman's story is similar, but perhaps even more pronounced. In his fifth year at UCLA due to a season-ending injury in the 2004-2005 season, it was storybook that he'd be able to go out on such a great note. Bozeman had said that, at times in the last few years, it was difficult for him to go to class because he didn't want to be seen around campus when the program was in its dark times. He was a McDonald's All-American who was selfless and intelligent enough to recognize that he could accomplish more by being a role player, "the glue guy." Howland has said publicly and even more privately that he'd do anything for Ced Bozeman for the rest of his life, just because of the heart and character Bozeman has shown the coach over the last three years.

Alfred Aboya, a month behind in development due to the time he missed as the beginning of the season, became integral off the bench. It's not coincidental that UCLA's defense really started stepping up in the second half of the season as Aboya was used more regularly. Being behind, though, hurt him; he had a great deal to learn in his basketball development anyway and was playing catch-up most of the season. But Howland loves this kid because of his toughness, character, values and work ethic.

Lorenzo Mata, the sophomore center, had been disregarded in his two years at UCLA so often, and has as many times disproved the critics. He emerged as the starting center in mid-season, beating out Ryan Hollins, because of his rebounding ability and the possible low-post scoring he could provide. He then broke his leg in the collision with Farmar, and it looked like he wouldn't return, only to do so as late as the Pac-10 tournament and then provide much-needed contributions in post-season play.

There isn't much more to say about Luc Richard Mbah a Moute than we said earlier in this piece. Howland praises Mbah a Moute's heart, toughness and work ethic, which isn't just lip service since it was very evident throughout the season. Fans kept waiting for Mbah a Moute to come down from what you might have assumed was over-achievement, but he never did. In fact, he kept improving. His free-throw shooting was abysmal at the beginning of the season, but he quickly worked on it and became a 75% free-throw shooter in the second half of the season. He quickly bought into Howland's preaching of jump stopping and shot faking, and he was rewarded by becoming a better low-post scorer. He has some of the best potential of anyone on the team, being 6-7 and 225, with great lateral quickness, and with the potential for his skills to continue to improve. He seemed to get better game by game this season, without hitting the freshman wall, and it's exciting to think about what he'll do once he's an outside shooting threat and the defense has to come out and guard him.

Mike Roll is limited athletically, but he brought to the team a few things that were vital parts to the season's success. One, he's the best outside shooter on the team, and he'd get hot at times, like when he hit five threes and scored 17 points against Washington. He's also the best natural passer on the team, and was the best at feeding the post, particularly. He had a better mid-range game in high school, and it's evident that he got a bit intimidated by the higher degree of athleticism in college, but you can probably expect him to improve next season in being able to put the ball on the floor and in his mid-range game.

Darren Collison showed some freshman lapses at times – early on in the season, and then a couple of times in high-pressure situations, like in the Championship Game. But he was really uncanny as a skinny freshman point guard, really being the only player on the roster who was quick enough to penetrate off the dribble and also defend small, quick point guards. The improvement he showed over the course of the season, making less mistakes, was critical to the team's success. He'll need to think more like a point guard, try to pass the ball and set up his teammates more often than looking for his shot, especially in transition. His defensive quickness is something that really bolstered UCLA's overall defense and was a critical component to it by the end of the season.

It's a shame Michael Fey couldn't have had more of an impact during his UCLA career.

Freshman post Ryan Wright contributed during the season, being used when UCLA was thin on the frontline due to injury. The coaches love his work ethic and character and are expecting him to show much improvement and provide a bigger contribution as a sophomore.

Jordan Farmar, the sophomore point guard, showed continued growth during the season. He and Arron Afflalo traded off on who would carry the team from game to game for most of the season (it's scary to think what would happen if both of them were on for any one game, which hasn't seemed to happen yet). As we stated above, he showed improved leadership this year, and was better defensively. There are sources that indicating he's very serious about going pro after this season, but NBA sources, as of now, are indicating that it wouldn't be a prudent idea.

The face of Arron Afflalo in the locker room after the loss in the championship game is an image that defines this team. Afflalo is an uncommon warrior, one with endless desire to achieve, but with a purity of heart and character that sets him apart from other over-acheivers who are likely out for just personal gain. When Afflalo says he gets the most out of the team winning, and it's all about the W, it's not an athlete spouting a cliche'. The reason UCLA made it to the Championship Game was predominantly because of the defense it played. Defense is, as most coaches will tell you, based mostly on desire. UCLA adopted it, and bought into Howland's defensive emphasis. But while it bought into Howland's defensive strategy, it adopted as a whole Afflalo's defensive intensity. Afflalo set the tone on defense, and the rest of the team was infected. Arron Afflalo was truly the heart and soul of a team with a great deal of heart and soul.

While fans of other programs, and some media, can claim that other college coaches deserve national coach of the year honors, UCLA has an argument in Ben Howland. Overcoming adversity was his middle name this season, particularly in the form of injuries. But it just wasn't his resiliency; it was clear that this team was better coached than just about every team it faced this season. UCLA looked disciplined and smart in a sea of college basketball over-run with a lack of discipline and poor, sloppy play. The Bruins were described as "military precise," "tough," and "well-coached" so many times that it was another surreal experience – that UCLA was being hailed with these types of accolades.

Washington State Coach Dick Bennet said of UCLA: "They took our heart away early. They played the game the way it should be played, with toughness and skill and smarts. We were dominated by a great team and a great coach. There was no letup by them. They had the same intensity from start to finish."

Howland has the most successful theory on success in college basketball today – and really, it's just a return to hard work, dedication, toughness and discipline. He emphasizes rebounding and defense above all, and you have to admit that UCLA's superior defense is what carried them to this season's Championship Game. It will be interesting to see if more programs try to emulate Howland, not just with an emphasis on defense, but with a departure from the run-and-gun, jack-up-shots brand of basketball we've seen infect college basketball in recent years.

Are there things you can criticize about Howland? Certainly. His style of calling time-outs can easily be questioned, even though he'd defend it as a way of keeping control of the tempo and momentum of the game. Does his gruff personality sometimes rub people the wrong way? Definitely. Can he be tough on the kids, his coaches and on people in the athletic department? It's pretty well-accepted, yes.

But Howland's surliness at times mostly stems from his immense competitiveness. This guy has an exhausting work ethic, all because he wants to win so badly. The story of him waking the team up in the middle of the night to go through sets in a hotel's ballroom is typical. He's a basketball junkie, calling a long list of basketball people at all hours of the night to talk hoops. He bought his Bel-Air home because it had a theater, where he could watch tape. He's a tape-aholic. He and his staff work long hours, getting very little sleep during the season, providing scouting reports of opponents that made Arron Afflalo say that he could confidently operate an opponent's offense. By the end of the season, the team had 40 sets and plays in its offense (which is just as much a testament to the intelligence of UCLA players as it is to Howland's attention to coaching detail).

But Howland also proved this season that he wants to win with class and dignity. He demands it of his players and within his program and he does have a set of ethics and responsibility he wants his program to live up to. On the recruiting trail college coaches can very easily get dirty, in many ways. But Howland has earned a reputation in recruiting circles as being very clean and, in fact, not kiss-ass enough. To many of the L.A.-based AAU programs he has been very cordial and professional, but they've been a bit shocked by Howland's refusal to, well, kiss their ass.

While UCLA sometimes this season didn't have the talent of its opponents, it overcame them many times by wearing them down with relentless defense and a well-executed offense. That embodies Howland – maybe not the most talented, but he'll wear you down with his work ethic, toughness and relentlessness.

So, overall, the 2005-2006 UCLA basketball season can't be characterized as anything less than immensely successful. You can nitpick here and there, point out that UCLA's offense struggled at times, that there were a few letdowns in intensity here and there. But you can't find much too complain about.

And the future of the program looks incredibly bright. UCLA should be better next season, and in recruiting, UCLA is arguably leading for three of the top 10 juniors in the country.

It was the season that re-established those four letters among college basketball's national elite, something that all Bruin fans have been painfully hoping for for sometime. With recruiting obviously going well for Ben Howland, and his excellent coaching being the foundation, the restoration looks like it will be a firm reality for the conceivable future.

We, as Bruin fans, know all too well how precious, precarious and fleeting success in college basketball can be, so Bruins everywhere should do their part to savor this, and...

...remember the 2005-2006 season, the one that, after what seemed like a long dark time, finally restored UCLA basketball.

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