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UCLA BASKETBALL

Drew Gordon leaves UCLA's program

The starting center, a sophomore, had his differences with Coach Ben Howland and his departure is by mutual agreement.

December 02, 2009|By DAVID WHARTON | On Ucla Basketball

Make a list of everything that has gone wrong for UCLA just four weeks into the basketball season.

Injuries and upset losses. A team leader -- senior Nikola Dragovic -- charged with felony assault.

Now comes another jolt with the abrupt departure of starting center Drew Gordon, who left the team Tuesday by mutual agreement after butting heads with Coach Ben Howland.

It all adds up to a Bruins program that, at least from the outside, looks to be sinking fast.

"We've had a lot of adversity this season already," point guard Jerime Anderson said. "So it's nothing new to us right now."

Three straight defeats have UCLA at 2-4. With top-ranked Kansas coming to Pauley Pavilion on Sunday, followed by Mississippi State at the Wooden Classic, Howland offers a rueful smile and concedes there is no easy turnaround in sight.

"We're playing two of the best teams in the country over the next two games," he said. "This is probably the toughest schedule we've played since I've been the coach at UCLA."

In the latest setback, Gordon walked away after a series of meetings over several months that culminated with Howland quietly suspending him for two days of practice this week.

The 6-foot-9 sophomore had become a valuable player, averaging 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds, but he has always been opinionated and emotional. He has often flashed his temper during games.

Some teammates were not sorry to see him go, a source close to the program said. Certainly his relationship with Howland, who values discipline, had grown increasingly tense.

"We have expectations of how our players represent the university on and off the court," the coach said. "When those standards aren't met, there are consequences."

While Gordon could not be reached for comment, his parents said that losses to the likes of Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State frustrated him.

"With the talent that's on the UCLA team," Gordon's father, Ed, said, "there's absolutely no reason for that to happen."

Even more important, the younger Gordon felt like a bad fit in UCLA's measured style of play. "His athleticism always has shined more in an up-and-down tempo," his father said. "That's not exactly what the UCLA system is about."

Tuesday's news took players by surprise.

"There were times when, I don't know, I guess they butted heads," Anderson said of Gordon and Howland. "But a lot of players don't agree with their coaches all the time."

Gordon will finish classes this quarter, then return home to Northern California to begin the process of selecting a new school. His mother said he would look outside the Pacific 10 Conference in hopes of becoming eligible by midway through next season.

"We've heard from I can't tell you how many programs," Shelly Davis said. "My phone's been ringing off the hook."

The Bruins, meanwhile, must replace a big part of their starting lineup, much of the workload shifting to Reeves Nelson.

The 6-8 freshman with the faux-hawk hairdo has been a bright spot, averaging 7.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in 14.8 minutes.

"He's a really strong kid," senior Michael Roll said. "Just comes in and tries to bully people, get rebounds, play physical, just do the dirty work that we need."

That attitude might be UCLA's only way out of a hole.

Howland planned to spend the next few practices focusing on basics and players vowed to put their faith in hard work. There was also the promise of something new.

Allowing too much penetration off the dribble, the Bruins will look beyond man-to-man defense -- Howland's mainstay -- and start learning the zone.

"Yeah," the coach said, "we could see it Sunday."

Desperate times call for desperate measures and, with all that has befallen them, this could be sink or swim for the Bruins.

"Our morale might be down and the season's not looking good," Anderson said. "But we're at UCLA. We have to fight back."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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