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Present Company Accepted

Howland plans a bright future for UCLA, but this season will be a learning experience for him and the returning players.

November 28, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Anyone wanting a peek at the future of UCLA basketball under Coach Ben Howland need only attend upcoming games ...

... at Compton Centennial, Fairfax, Woodland Hills Taft and South Gate high schools.

The first four players hand-picked by Howland must finish their high school careers before enrolling at UCLA for the 2004-05 season, when the new coach's accountability for the team's fortunes begins in earnest.

Until then, he is like a heralded chef trying to whip up something appetizing from leftovers.

Steve Lavin didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare when he was fired as Bruin coach after seven seasons and four Sweet 16 appearances. Eleven players at varying stages of development return, including starters Dijon Thompson, Cedric Bozeman and Ryan Hollins.

It's just that Howland has a different recipe in mind.

He expects relentless defense, tough rebounding and unselfishness. None of those qualities were readily apparent watching the Bruins go 10-19 last season, their worst record since 1940-41.

Howland declines to rate the players he inherited on his personal toughness meter, perhaps for fear of embarrassing them.

"I don't want to do that," he said. "We can be a lot tougher than we are, that I can tell you."

Instilling his philosophy and installing his system have been practice priorities to the point that Howland blamed the Bruins' five-for-23 free-throw shooting in their first exhibition on the fact that shooting from the line had not been a focal point.

Instead, the focus is on replacing old habits with new ones. The players seem willing.

Said Bozeman: "The hardest thing is having the mind-set to maintain that high level throughout the whole practice."

Added Thompson: "We've just got to get used to it and go play a lot harder every play."

Once sustained effort is evident, Howland will turn his attention to more subtle challenges:

* Such as inspiring Thompson to expend as much effort preventing points as scoring them. The 6-foot-7 junior is the Bruins' No. 1 scoring option and top NBA prospect, but Howland is blunt when he says, "If he wants to have any chance to ever play on a successful UCLA team ... and any level beyond UCLA, he's going to have [play defense] on a consistent basis, or he has no shot."

* Such as helping the rangy, 6-6 Bozeman improve his suspect long-range and free-throw shooting, a weakness a winning team cannot afford at point guard. "I think Cedric with his athleticism has a chance to be an outstanding defender, defensive rebounder and a good passer," Howland said. "He's got to continue to work on his shot."

* Such as prodding the skinny, 7-foot Hollins into bulking up and becoming a menacing force at center. Until then, the heftier, less-experienced 7-foot Michael Fey could play more minutes. "They're fighting for playing time, and they're both good players," Howland said.

The preseason is a time of optimism, and Bruin players say the team can contend for the Pacific 10 Conference title and make the NCAA tournament -- despite projections that have them sixth in the conference and struggling to finish .500.

"We know what we are capable of doing and what kind of season we can have," Thompson said. "We aren't worried about what other people say."

Fans at Pauley Pavilion are expected to be reasonably patient, understanding that not only is the team under construction, the foundation hasn't even been laid.

Joining Thompson, Bozeman and either Fey or Hollins in the starting lineup will be freshman forward Trevor Ariza and junior guard Brian Morrison, a transfer. The lineup could change if senior T.J. Cummings regains his eligibility after three games. Cummings would start at power forward, allowing the 6-7 Ariza to move to small forward and Thompson to play shooting guard.

Depth is a concern even with Cummings back. Ryan Walcott is a dependable backup at point guard, and the athletic Morrison would provide energy and outside shooting off the bench. Howland will test Janou Rubin and Jon Crispin at guard as well, riding them when they have a hot shooting hand.

Forward is the thinnest position. Josiah Johnson is the lone reserve with experience, and he averaged only 10.2 minutes in 19 games last season. The result could be Ariza's getting more playing time than any freshman since Jason Kapono in 1999-2000.

As it turns out, Ariza is the last Bruin recruited by Lavin. Unselfish and hard working, he is a player Howland would have gone after too.

Next year, Ariza will be joined by the four Southern California products who signed letters of intent: guards Jordan Farmar of Taft and Arron Afflalo of Centennial, and forwards Lorenzo Mata of South Gate and Josh Shipp of Fairfax. Thompson and Bozeman will be seniors. Hollins and Fey, the twin 7-footers, could be dominant by then.

Now that's a lineup to get excited about.

Howland shared his plan with Lavin when the two had dinner together recently.

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