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There's no time to waste for Bruins

COVER STORY

UCLA goes for a third consecutive trip to the Final Four -- and its first championship -- under Howland, and in today's climate, that's about as close to a dynasty as you can get

March 17, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

In the one-and-done era of college basketball, where a standout freshman such as Kevin Love enters college with a checklist -- win conference titles (check and check), capture an NCAA championship -- before immediately heading off to the NBA, the window to win seems to be getting shorter.

Ohio State missed out last season when it had Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., but Florida had a nice two-year run with Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey.

Now comes UCLA and Coach Ben Howland, which has been to consecutive Final Fours and has been ranked among the top teams in the nation for nearly three years running, yet risks being deemed a failure in some quarters if it doesn't get over the hump and finally take home the title.

"That's what the expectations are for us," UCLA junior Josh Shipp said after UCLA beat Stanford to win the Pacific 10 Conference tournament. "Anything less than an NCAA championship this year would feel like a failure because our goals are so high."

When Howland took UCLA on an unexpected run to the national championship game two years ago, it was with a team led by sophomore point guard Jordan Farmar.

Farmar sparkled in the tournament and then, after the Bruins lost to favored Florida in the championship game, spoke movingly of wanting to come back and win a title.

But Farmar happily left for the NBA afterward -- as a first-round draft pick of the Lakers.

When Howland took UCLA to the Final Four last year -- another unexpected trip, because who knew Darren Collison would so seamlessly replace Farmar? -- it was a team led by junior guard Arron Afflalo.

Afflalo cried in the locker room after the Bruins lost again to Florida, this time in a national semifinal, and said how much it would mean to come back and help UCLA win a title.

But Afflalo was soon announcing his departure for the NBA; he became a first-round pick of the Detroit Pistons.

If Howland takes a third UCLA team to the Final Four, it will be a team where all five starters have been, at some time this season, projected as possible NBA draftees. Not one of them is a senior.

Love and Collison, a junior, are widely considered to be in this June's NBA draft.

Sophomore guard Russell Westbrook, who blossomed into the Pac-10's defensive player of the year while causing NBA scouts to take notice when he dunked over 7-foot centers, 6-8 forwards and 6-5 guards, is now listed in pre-draft projections as a first-round pick if he leaves early. Junior forwards Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Josh Shipp probably will at least declare for the draft and get themselves evaluated.

"That's the way it is," Howland said. "We went to the Final Four once and Jordan Farmar left. We went back and Arron Afflalo left. Of course our goal is to go back again. Then we'll see what happens."

The Bruins, seeded No. 1 in the NCAA West Regional, are aiming at not only a third straight Final Four appearance but also a 12th NCAA championship -- and are doing it with a team that has only one senior, Lorenzo Mata-Real, in its eight-man rotation.

And UCLA is considered a veteran team.

But don't feel sorry for Howland.

Many experts ranked his incoming recruiting class as No. 1 in the country. The star of the group, Campbell Hall High guard Jrue Holiday, probably won't earn national high school player-of-the-year awards as Love did, but he'll get votes. And UCLA fans are already asking, "Do you think Jrue will stay two years?"

USC Coach Tim Floyd, who has his own probable one-and-done star in guard O.J. Mayo, said that a rules change two years ago when it was decided that the NBA wouldn't draft a player until he is a year out of high school, makes the pressure to win NCAA titles quickly more intense.

"Getting to the Final Four in back-to-back years, now that's an extraordinary achievement," Floyd said. "You're going to see more rapid ups and downs, more downward and upward cycles. You won't see dynasties anymore."

Howland managed this season with controlled urgency, understanding that he would have Love for only a brief time.

Last December, Howland announced a decision to redshirt forward James Keefe while the sophomore recovered from off-season shoulder surgery. But during the announcement, Howland said he would return Keefe to playing status as late as mid-January if it seemed necessary.

Which is exactly what he did when swingman Michael Roll suffered a foot injury. Roll will be eligible for a redshirt season if he doesn't play again, yet Howland has been unwilling to say for sure that Roll won't play again this season.

Former UCLA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said he suspects coaches at premier programs such as UCLA feel immediate urgency to win titles with short-term stars such as Love.

"If I was in [Howland's] position and trying to be wise about it, I would understand the nature of the game and accept it," Abdul-Jabbar said.

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