Things are making sense again at UCLA, though the rebuilding of a high-profile program can't happen fast enough these days.
Having done heavy lifting on previous projects, second-year Coach Ben Howland knows how it works, and Notre Dame this week provided a sobering reminder for others under the microscope.
Howland has the Bruins headed in the right direction. UCLA is 4-0 as it prepares to play Boston College on Sunday at the Arrowhead Pond in the Wooden Classic, and Howland is upbeat about what could be around the corner.
"Patience is not something that you can expect from people very often in sport anymore," he said. "That's just the way it is, because everybody wants and expects results now. It's just part of our culture.
"But I definitely feel confident we're headed in the right direction. I feel good about the players in the program. We've got good kids who are doing the right things off the floor, and doing their best to get better on the floor."
Making strides in the classroom and other areas apparently isn't as important as it used to be, as evidenced by Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White's praising Tyrone Willingham for having "exceeded all expectations, in every way" except on the field, firing the football coach with two years remaining on his contract.
Howland understands the big picture and is determined to rebuild the program with character, but winning remains the bottom line at a school with 11 national championships, only one title in the last 29 years and restless alumni.
"The year before I took over the program, they won 10 games," Howland said. "Last year, unfortunately, we didn't have the year we wanted with only 11 wins, but we're building it back."
Last season's 11-17 record -- after a 9-3 start -- wasn't surprising to those who knew the extent of the disrepair in the program Howland inherited. The word in coaching circles, for years, was that UCLA was not maximizing its talent. Then a drop-off in recruiting led to consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the 1940-41 and 1941-42 seasons.
Anyone who has known Howland since his days as an assistant at UC Santa Barbara knows UCLA won't underachieve under him. His ability to recruit and teach led to major turnarounds at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, where Howland was selected the consensus national coach of the year in 2001-02 after guiding the Panthers to a school-record 29 victories and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992-93.
Howland and his UCLA staff have already assembled two strong recruiting classes. Freshman guards Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo are as good as advertised and senior forward Dijon Thompson is providing more of what Howland wants this year, helping the Bruins overcome the loss of senior guard Cedric Bozeman to a season-ending knee injury.
Still, despite being undefeated, UCLA has struggled against weak nonconference opponents. The Bruins probably won't return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002 unless 7-foot junior Michael Fey and 6-11 junior Ryan Hollins improve quickly.
Of course, working quickly is something Howland understands.
"There are great expectations on this program, which there should be," Howland said. "There's a lot of focus on this program and a lot of exposure, and you understand that.
"I'm very confident we'll get the thing turned to where we want it to be, which is fighting for a top spot in the league each year. But it just does take a little time."
This Is Better?
Although conference coaches insist the
Pacific 10 is improved, it appears that only three teams will be good enough to make the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season.
Most figured Arizona, which plays Mississippi State in the other Wooden Classic game, would be a top-10 team, but the preseason pick to win the conference title has already been blown out by Virginia, 78-60.
In fairness to California, losing star forward Leon Powe -- last season's Pac-10 freshman of the year -- would be a major blow to any team, but losses to St. Mary's and Nevada Las Vegas at Haas Pavilion don't look good.
And then there's USC.
The experienced Trojans are supposed to be a conference force this season, which could be the worst news of all for the Pac-10, as USC appeared to be in disarray on a 0-2 trip.
Losing to North Carolina at the Smith Center isn't anything to be embarrassed about, but USC appeared lost in a 97-65 rout. Then the Trojans lost to La Salle, 71-62, which won its first game since last season's rape scandal, stirring more questions about the state of the program under Henry Bibby.
The Atlantic Coast Conference finished with the most victories in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge for the sixth time in the six seasons of the made-for-TV event.
The ACC won seven of nine games, though the Big Ten's Illinois had the most impressive victory, dismantling No. 1 Wake Forest, 91-73.
It's way too early to determine whether Illinois is headed for a top seeding in the NCAA tournament, but the Big Ten's best team has the look of a Final Four participant.
Wake Forest, one of seven ranked ACC teams, should not be written off as a national title contender despite the shaky performance. Chris Paul and Justin Gray form the nation's best backcourt, so the Demon Deacons still hope to book a trip to the national semifinals in St. Louis.
Pepperdine's 75-61 upset of then-No. 20 Wisconsin last Saturday wasn't a shocker.
Some coaches believe the Waves, winners of five in a row, have more talent than Gonzaga, which could face a big challenge from Pepperdine for the West Coast Conference title.
Senior forward Glen McGowan leads a group that should give Coach Paul Westphal a lot to smile about.