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UCLA BASKETBALL

UCLA faces an uncertain future after early exit from NCAA tournament

The Bruins must regroup with a roster that will feature three seniors and a handful of sophomores next season. Jrue Holiday could decide to leave for the NBA.

March 23, 2009|David Wharton

Early next week, the UCLA coaches and players will gather on campus to address the state of their basketball program.

Only two starters returning. A roster that will feature three seniors and a handful of sophomores next season. Not exactly a recipe for March Madness.

As Coach Ben Howland said: "We've got a lot of work to do."

It was only a few months ago that Howland warned everyone within earshot the 2008-09 Bruins were neither as deep nor as experienced as the teams that reached the previous three Final Fours.

A 26-9 record, capped by a blowout loss to Villanova in the second round of the NCAA tournament, proved him right. And the players who remain know that next season could be rougher.

"Everybody's doubting us right now," forward Drew Gordon said. "We're young. We're inexperienced."

With the core of the team -- seniors Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya -- departing, any discussion of UCLA's future begins with freshman Jrue Holiday and a possible quick exit to the NBA.

Holiday averaged 8.5 points and 3.8 rebounds, suffered defensive lapses and looked like a player who could use another year of college.

But he played out of position at off guard and, given a few minutes to run the offense against Virginia Commonwealth last week, showed flashes of quickness and court sense that could make him a high pick in an upcoming draft thin on point guards.

"I will tell his parents and Jrue what I think, but ultimately it comes down to his decision and their decision," Howland said. "They've got to be able to weigh the different factors in where he would be if he came out now versus where he wants to be or where he'd be a year from now."

Holiday said of his impending decision: "I kind of expected to go a little bit further than this [in the tournament], so there really is no timetable."

Other aspects of next season's team are more certain.

Nikola Dragovic, who won a starting spot at forward in January and averaged 9.4 points and 4.3 rebounds, must continue to improve on defense. Forward James Keefe will be back, as will swingman Michael Roll, the team's most accurate three-point shooter at 51%.

With or without Holiday, freshmen Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson -- the backup point guard this season -- will play major roles in the backcourt. Howland is particularly enthusiastic about Lee, the most athletic player on the roster. The coach says Lee could become another Russell Westbrook.

Part of the appeal is his work ethic.

"We want to get to the summertime and work on all our stuff because we're amped for next season," Lee said. "It's going to start with the little stuff, being dedicated and passionate."

As for the frontcourt, Howland muses, "we're going to miss Alfred's defense."

The Bruins, clearly outmuscled by Villanova on Saturday, need to get stronger inside.

Gordon, who averaged nearly 11 minutes a game, has the body but must learn to play under control. J'mison Morgan, the highly touted center from Dallas who arrived in Westwood out-of-shape and slow-footed, must improve. Howland said the 6-10 freshman has looked better in practices.

UCLA also has a highly rated incoming class that includes Tyler Honeycutt and Brendan Lane. But if this season proved anything, the program cannot count on freshmen grasping the system quickly.

"We try to get them organized as best we can," Howland said of the newcomers. "But we can't work with them," the coach added, which suggests the Bruins are a work in progress, who might not make another run at the top 10 and Final Four until 2010-11 at the earliest. In the meantime, the onus is on a group of players who walked away from this NCAA tournament humbled.

"Losing like that, everybody's going to be very hungry for next year," Gordon said. "Off-season workouts are going to begin very quickly."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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