On a wall in Ben Howland's UCLA office, there is a photo collage that makes even the toughest face in college basketball melt.
"Look at those guys," he says softly Tuesday afternoon, spinning in his chair and pointing to melded images of players who once led his team to three consecutive Final Fours. "They were something, weren't they?"
There's Russell Westbrook throwing down a dunk, Kevin Love rolling out a smile, Jordan Farmar flying on a break, Arron Afflalo slapping at a pass, Darren Collison dribbling through a screen, memory after memory, snipped nets and hoisted trophies and winning.
The dozens of shining moments on that wall are held together today by hook. They were held together then by a heartbeat.
Every day since the semifinal loss to Memphis in the spring of 2008, Howland has been listening for the return of that heartbeat.
"We're still so young," he says, shaking his head.
"We need to get tougher," he says, tightening his jaw.
"The expectations are huge," he says, staring at the floor.
Howland sits close enough to those faces of past greatness that he could take two steps from his desk and touch them. Yet, entering the middle of his third season since his three magical runs, he has never seemed farther away.
The bloom is off. The buzz is gone. The constant whirring around the J.D. Morgan Center is not only the sound of the Pauley Pavilion remodeling, but of the concern that the Bruins will no longer be an attraction once it's completed. After losing in the second round in 2009, his Bruins didn't qualify for the NCAA tournament last year, and are headed for the bubble this season, and it's hard to project a return to glory by the time they move in for the 2012 season.
"You know, I've practiced longer with this team than any of those teams," Howland says, pointing to the wall. "We have really worked. And we're going to have to keep working."
What he can't say is, those guys on the wall were gifted, while those guys on his court are, well, not so much, not yet anyway.
Coming off a great weekend against some lousy Oregon teams, the Bruins are still only 11-6 overall with the heart of their schedule beckoning. There are two games remaining against Stanford, two against Arizona, one more against USC and Washingon and, oh yeah, that funky little Saturday morning game Feb. 5.
The Lavin Bowl.
The game will mark the return of former embattled Bruins boss Steve Lavin and his new team at St. John's. Right now, they are playing better than the Bruins, and if the Red Storm wins, Howland will start to hear the howling.
"I really like Steve and his team, I know everybody will be making a big deal about it, but I just can't think that far ahead," Howland says.
Of course not. Not with a team that ranks 63rd in RPI. Not with a team that, despite handing ninth-ranked Brigham Young its only defeat, has endured bad losses to Montana and USC. With a lack of on-court leadership and consistent defense, his current team bears so little resemblance to those teams on the wall, it's almost like watching a different program.
One of his captains is a guy who was given the title despite just arriving from a junior college — "It's a process," Lazeric Jones says.
Meanwhile, his leading scorer is a guy who scored exactly zero points in their last game in Oregon. Listen to this exchange between Times writer Ben Bolch and Howland at Tuesday's news conference, and you'll know all you need to know about the unsettling development of Reeves Nelson.
Bolch: "Something goes wrong on defense or offense and [Nelson] kind of checks out for a little while and needs to maintain that continuity and focus?"
Bolch: "How do you correct that?"
Howland: "You just keep trying."
Bolch: "Are you making progress?"
Howland: "What do you think?"
Here's what I think: Howland is still one of the 10 best coaches in the country, but in five seasons he has sent six players into the first round of the NBA draft — equaling the best in the nation during that time — and he hasn't recruited well enough to shelter his program from those losses.
Here's what I also think: Since the early years of John Wooden, only one UCLA coach — Walt Hazzard — has endured consecutive seasons in which his team didn't get to the NCAA tournament, and Howland doesn't want to be the second.
The question I'm most asked about UCLA basketball these days is, how long is Athletic Director Dan Guerrero going to give Howland?
Having watched Howland turn numerous cocky kids into strong, resilient men while winning 74% of his tournament games in eight UCLA seasons, I'm hoping he finishes his career here. But, with a new arena coming and those giant expectations remaining, I'm guessing Howland needs to start turning his team back into headliners again, at least before the end of next season.