San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard may have been a star at Riverside King… (George Frey / Associated…)
The kids were all right. Nothing spectacular, Ben Howland and his coaching staff figured.
Derrick Williams of La Mirada and Kawhi Leonard of Riverside King were good high school basketball players but didn't warrant an offer from UCLA.
So Howland passed, even though he prides himself on stocking the UCLA roster with area players and had won big in recent seasons thanks in part to under-the-radar recruits.
After signing with USC, Williams left for Arizona in the wake of the Trojans' NCAA entanglement and has become the most dynamic forward in the Pacific 10 Conference. Leonard went to San Diego State and is projected as a possible NBA lottery pick.
"We did a poor job not evaluating them as well as we should have," Howland said recently.
The duo is among a series of recruiting miscalculations that have triggered the Bruins' precipitous drop since their run of three consecutive Final Four appearances. Indeed, less than three years after that span of success, the Bruins will be trying Wednesday night to end at four games a losing streak against their football-focused crosstown rival.
Perceptions about UCLA's program have recently changed in some circles, where Westwood is viewed as a less-desirable destination than it had been earlier in Howland's tenure.
"From my observation, UCLA is not held in as high esteem as it was three years ago," said Bob Gibbons, a North Carolina-based national recruiting expert. "For some reason, players are leaving the area and going east."
Part of the migration might be attributable to disenchantment with certain aspects of Howland's coaching. Stan Love, whose son Kevin led UCLA to its last Final Four appearance in 2008, acknowledged speaking with the family of Portland (Ore.) Jesuit High standout forward Kyle Wiltjer, but declined to disclose what he told them.
Wiltjer, who was pursued by the Bruins, signed with Kentucky.
"I like Ben. It's UCLA," Stan Love said, speaking generally about his thoughts on the program. "But you do have to play modern basketball. We could have won the championship if he would have taken the reins off a little bit. Sometimes, you have to outscore the other team; you can't just 'D up' all the time."
Kevin Love, now a standout center for the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves, was diplomatic when asked whether Howland suppressed his players' offensive talents.
"Could [Howland] have let a little bit of freedom go on the offensive end?" Love said. "Yes and no. But as far as defensively, he's prepared everybody at the highest level."
Howland went to great lengths before this season to trumpet a faster-paced, more free-flowing offense, something Kevin Love and his father said they believed was designed in part to help the coach lure top recruits. Howland denied there was a recruiting component to his change in philosophy.
The Bruins appeared poised to maintain their lofty national standing after Kevin Love's departure when they secured what was widely tabbed as the country's top-ranked recruiting class in 2008. Three years later, that class's legacy has largely been one of disappointment.
Jrue Holiday bolted for the NBA after one so-so season. Drew Gordon and J'mison Morgan were bad fits who transferred. Jerime Anderson underperformed, prompting Howland to dip into the junior college ranks to find a starting point guard.
Only Malcolm Lee, the Bruins' starting shooting guard and best perimeter defender, has lived up to expectations.
The early departure of Holiday left UCLA particularly short-handed because the Bruins have been unable to acquire the type of playmaking point guard that fueled their Final Four runs.
The Bruins have also had trouble replacing some of the gritty, hardworking players that Howland brought in earlier in his coaching tenure, grinders such as Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya.
"Those guys were special," Howland said, "and we need to find more guys like them."
Howland's last two recruiting classes have been solid but unspectacular. Some might say that's reflected in the way the inconsistent Bruins have performed this season.
"You've got to get one or two blue-chippers every year if you're going to maintain your program at the level Ben Howland had when he had Final Four teams," Gibbons said, "and therein lies the problem: He has not been able to do it."
The competition for such players is fierce, of course, even from across town.
USC prevailed when forward Alex Stepheson transferred from North Carolina.
The former North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake standout said he picked the Trojans over the Bruins in part because he "wanted to help create a great program for USC and be a part of it, as opposed to just blending in at UCLA."
Howland makes no secret of his preference for area players such as Stepheson because he said they typically come from tight-knit, academically oriented families that fit the UCLA mold. On the current roster, nine of the 11 scholarship players hail from California, including seven from Southern California.
But there have been area players who got away besides Williams and Leonard. California's Allen Crabbe, a leading candidate for Pac-10 freshman of the year, could have been a Bruin.
"He was being recruited by UCLA and really wanted to go there, but they kind of backed off because he didn't develop like they thought he would," said Crabbe's father, also named Allen.
Howland said Crabbe wanted to make his commitment before his junior year at Los Angeles Price High, but the Bruins weren't ready to pull the trigger — which he now calls "a huge blunder."
How can UCLA pull out of its recruiting funk?
"This is a phase they're going through," Gibbons said of the Bruins, "and I think it will rectify itself beginning with getting top players in the Class of 2012."
Assuming, of course, UCLA can accurately identify who they might be.
Staff writer Baxter Holmes contributed to this report.