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COLLEGE BASKETBALL

UCLA's 2008 recruiting class hasn't lived up to hype

Jrue Holiday left after one year, and those left behind have done little to help in a bad season in Westwood.

February 27, 2010|By Chris Foster

J'mison Morgan trudged on, without going anywhere.

This was game day, hours before UCLA was to play Washington. Morgan, a sophomore center and part of the nation's best recruiting class two years ago, according to Scout.com, was in a hotel fitness center, grinding away on the treadmill.

"I need this," Morgan said, as he pushed his 6-foot-10, 240-pound body.


FOR THE RECORD:
UCLA basketball: An article in Saturday's Sports section about the UCLA men's basketball team's disappointing season said Ben Howland is in his sixth year as coach. He is in his seventh season. —

The moment seemed symbolic for a UCLA season where the wheels have been spinning, yet with little progress. On that day the Bruins suffered a 29-point loss to the Huskies.

After five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, three Final Fours and three Pacific 10 Conference championships, the Bruins have hit the skids. UCLA, 13-14 overall, is tied for third in the Pacific 10 Conference heading into Saturday's game against Oregon, and something is amiss around Pauley Pavilion.

UCLA Coach Ben Howland said he's had tough seasons before and that this one "is typical of the first year of the three jobs I have had. That's what this feels like." Yet this his sixth year in Westwood and the Bruins are struggling to avoid having their third losing season since 1947-48.

No one saw this season coming at UCLA. Their 2008 recruiting class was expected to prevent such things. Jrue Holiday, Drew Gordon, Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson and Morgan were pre-approved for greatness before they hit campus.

Holiday left for the NBA after one season. Gordon transferred to New Mexico in December when he and Howland had irreconcilable differences. Lee is playing out of position at point guard. Anderson has been slowed by injuries. Morgan showed up out of shape and remains an enigma.

"I think they are a victim of their own success," said former St. John's coach Fran Fraschilla, now an ESPN analyst. "They had a great run of players. They went four for four on guards, three of them left early. . . . They have guys in the rotation now that are at best role players on a great team, with [Kevin] Love, [Russell] Westbrook and Holiday. Throw in a little bad luck, some injuries, and this is a skeleton team compared to what they have been."

The difference is noticeable.

"Ben's teams were always physical," California Coach Mike Montgomery said. "On ball screens, you had to prepare for a mugging."

Now, the Bruins play zone and too often are the ones getting rolled. Howland has suffered the worst losses of his UCLA coaching career this season, a 27-point rout by Portland in December and the debacle in Seattle last week.

But whether that responsibility falls on his sophomores, Howland would say only, "I'm not going to disparage players here publicly." Still, a few weeks earlier, he teetered on an admonishment, saying, "We hoped we would be further ahead than we are right now."

Those in the sophomore class certainly expected more.

"When the five of us were here, we were pretty close," Morgan said. "We always figured, 'OK, we got to stick together.' " Morgan was the cherry on top of that recruiting class. But he showed up in Westwood hardly ready to play. "Just running up and down the court was an issue for him," Howland said.

As to whether Morgan will develop into a dominant player, Howland said last month that, "based on what he has done right now, that would be hard to say."

It is not Howland's only problem.

Holiday, the No. 1 point guard coming out of North Hollywood Campbell Hall, had a short shelf life at UCLA and is playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. Anderson, ranked the No. 7 point guard nationally by Scout.com, was brought in from Anaheim Canyon as the safety net. But groin injuries have hampered Anderson's development. He played only nine minutes during a three-week stretch in January.

Lee, the fifth-ranked shooting guard nationally while at Riverside North according to Scout.com, was moved to point guard. He is averaging 12 points and three assists while learning on the job.

"I get a chance to work with these kids at camps during the summer [and Anderson and Lee] were not on the same level as the [UCLA] guys who left," Fraschilla said. "Just being a McDonald's All American doesn't make you an impact basketball player."

Howland appears to have acknowledged that, at least at point guard. The Bruins are bringing in Lazeric Jones, a point guard from Logan Community College in Illinois. UCLA hasn't had a community college transfer play significant minutes since Jack Haley in 1986-87.

Jones, is part of the new recruiting class, along with high school players, center Josh Smith and shooting guard Tyler Lamb, who Howland hopes will help put the Bruins back in the game next season.

"There is no doubt that Ben is one of the best coaches in college basketball, but even [North Carolina's] Roy Williams and [Connecticut's] Jim Calhoun can get caught in these situations," Fraschilla said.

"Those programs can still recruit elite players. They just need to evaluate the type of players to get them back quickly."

Howland, it appears, has already evaluated what he has. "Usually you have a feel for what a kid's abilities are by the end of their sophomore year," he said.

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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