Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. — It's never too early to start looking ahead — unless, of course, you're Ben Howland.
UCLA's regular-season basketball finale is today at Arizona State, and concerns about whether the Bruins have the depth to pull off three victories in three days to win the Pacific 10 Conference tournament next week — their only way into the NCAA tournament — are surely on the mind of UCLA's coach.
But he's not saying.
"I'm not going to answer the what-ifs," Howland said after Thursday's 78-73 loss to Arizona.
The Bruins (13-16 overall, 8-9 in Pac-10 play), with a roster that is thinning almost daily, appear to have little chance of winning the conference tournament.
UCLA is without forwards James Keefe, who recently had shoulder surgery, and Reeves Nelson, who is sitting out this week's games after laser surgery to repair a torn retina in his left eye. Forward Nikola Dragovic is playing with ankle and shoulder injuries. Center J'mison Morgan, who has played sparingly anyway, is coming off a one-game suspension.
About the only good break UCLA has experienced lately came Thursday night when Washington State lost, assuring the Bruins that they won't have to play in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament Wednesday.
Howland hopes to have better depth next season with newcomers Josh Smith (Covington, Wash., Kentwood High), Tyler Lamb (Santa Ana Mater Dei) and Lazeric Jones (Logan College, Ill.).
"We're going to be dependent upon them to come in and have good years right away," Howland said.
Smith, who is 6 feet 9, 270 pounds, is the cornerstone of the group, though his conditioning is a concern. Smith and Lamb are expected to take summer classes at UCLA, and Smith is ticketed to work out with former Bruin Kevin Love, who Howland said will return to school this summer.
"That's one reason, along with getting started academically, that it will be good to have him here," Howland said of Smith. "It'll be nice that he'll be around Kevin. It's not just working out, but it is also doing a better job with your diet. It's more important for certain players than others."
Nelson said he was unsure whether he would play again this season. His grandmother has two detached retinas and there is concern that the family history could make Nelson more vulnerable.
"I can understand the apprehension and the anxiety that goes with it because of how he plays," Howland said. "He's not a guard running around out there; he's got his nose in there, literally and figuratively. He took a head hit in Wednesday's practice, and it may have given him pause."
Howland said Nelson will make the decision, adding that to play in the tournament "he would need two days of practice for timing and conditioning." Nelson has not played since a Feb. 20 game against Washington.