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BILL PLASCHKE

Shaken to its core, UCLA must now begin to rebuild

A lot is riding on young players next season and beyond.

March 22, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM PHILADELPHIA — The hangover begins.

The UCLA basketball team awoke Saturday from three consecutive Final Fours with a throbbing headache, quaking dizziness and a stomach that wouldn't stop leaping and pounding.

Call it Villa-nausea.

The hangover begins, and, man, it's already a doozy, three years of March greatness morphed into 40 minutes of fetal position.

The Bruins weren't just removed from the NCAA basketball tournament, their IDs were stolen, their resumes were shredded and they were tossed sideways into the alley as if they were UCLA Valley State.

In a landmark defeat for the Ben Howland era, Villanova whipped the Bruins, 89-69, in a second-round game sorely lacking a restraining order or mercy rule.

Darren Collison left with a fat lip. Alfred Aboya left wearing bags of ice. Nikola Dragovic leaned against a hidden locker room wall behind an empty blackboard and closed his eyes.

"They outshot us, they outrebounded us, they out-hustled us," he said softly. "We couldn't stop anything. We couldn't do anything."

A landmark defeat because it was the worst tournament loss in Howland's UCLA history.

A landmark defeat also because now, not coincidentally, the rebuilding begins.

This team contained the last major contributors from those three Final Fours: seniors Collison, Aboya and Josh Shipp.

Although none of the three was dominating, Howland was hoping to squeeze as much as possible out of their presence before going to a full underclassman movement next winter.

A last hurrah.

Ending in raspberries.

I wrote earlier about the unfairness of this being a home game for Villanova, and indeed the packed Wachovia Center shook throughout with Wildcats cheers and Bruins boos.

Turns out, Villanova would have won if it had been played in Howland's driveway with Rick Neuheisel refereeing.

"It was really hard to see your last game end this way," Aboya said. "They were always driving, driving, driving . . . it was just hard."

Basketball driving. NASCAR driving. Pile driving.

Villanova bumped and collided and ultimately drilled the Bruins in a reminder of the differences not only between rosters, but regions.

"This game was Big East basketball in a nutshell," Wildcats forward Dante Cunningham said.

Or in a body cast, as the Bruins quickly learned.

Moments into the game, Collison raced downcourt on a fastbreak, heading in for a . . .

Thwack! He was not only caught by Villanova's Scottie Reynolds, he was clocked.

"That was our first message to UCLA," Cunningham said. "That was us telling them, 'This is how it is going to be.' "

A couple of minutes later, Bruins swingman Shipp was driving to the basket for a dunk attempt and . . .

Conk! He was not only fouled by Cunningham, he was leveled.

"Another message," Cunningham said. "This time it was like, 'Here's who we are, you're getting this all game long.' "

Rattled, the Bruins did not have a field goal in the game's first five minutes, and had only two in the first 10 minutes.

At one point in the first half, they were shooting 14%. At no point were they ever in the game.

It was officially over midway through the second half, with Villanova leading by 20, when Dwayne Anderson dived across the court for a steal, his whole body skidding across the hardwood, the Wildcats crowd erupting in a standing ovation.

Said Anderson: "Villanova basketball."

Said Dragovic: "I saw that and I'm like, 'That's not us today.' "

Although UCLA actually played about as hard as could be expected with a foot on its chest, Villanova exposed what many consider to be the Bruins' two biggest weaknesses: ack of a consistent inside game, and Howland's stubbornness.

With only Aboya as an inside defensive threat -- and he picked up three fouls before halftime -- Wildcats guards controlled the game with constant dribble penetration.

With Howland's refusal to play zone defense, the slower Bruins were rendered helpless.

Howland vowed to find a stronger inside presence by next season. But he also vowed to never abandon his trademark man-to-man philosophy.

Asked whether this game would persuade him to teach a zone, he spoke stronger than his players played.

"No," he said.

That system can result in Final Fours if he gets the type of athletes who can run it. He needed more of those athletes this season. He needs to recruit more of those athletes in the future.

Heralded freshman Jrue Holiday, who had four turnovers and made one basket Saturday, should stay in school, move to his natural position of point guard, and lead next year's team. With Malcom Lee and Jerime Anderson, the Bruins would have a formidable backcourt.

Howland then needs to hope that big men Drew Gordon and J'mison Morgan both mature into the sort of players everyone once coveted.

"Five freshmen coming back, five new freshmen coming in, next year we'll be . . . really young," said Howland, fresh out of promises.

His three consecutive Final Fours should be forever cherished and appreciated as a wonderful memory.

But as Saturday showed, it will quickly become a distant one.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Follow Plaschke on Twitter at twitter.com/latbillplaschke.

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