Bruins not in ruins

WESTWOOD, Calif. – The UCLA Bruins have been bounced from the Final Four three straight years without winning the national title. On Thursday, point guard Darren Collison alluded to the possibility of earning opportunity No. 4.

“We’ve still got some unfinished business to take care of,” said Collison, who had a cold look in his eye that, for a minute, made you believe the Bruins really do have what it takes to advance to college basketball’s final weekend once again.

But the truth is they don’t.

And that’s OK.

Or at least it should be.

Some folks have tried to label UCLA’s season as a failure because they’ve lost a few games they wouldn’t normally lose and because they’re currently ranked No. 20 instead of in the top 10.

Such criticisms are narrow-minded and unfair to coach Ben Howland, who – even with the all the Final Four appearances – might be doing his best coaching job since arriving in Westwood.

Thursday’s 85-76 victory over league-leading Washington made the Bruins the favorite to win a fourth straight Pac-10 title for the first time in school history. The Huskies are 10-4 while UCLA is 9-4 along with Arizona State and Cal.

No team, though, has a remaining schedule as favorable as the Bruins, who play four of their final games against teams from the bottom half of the league.

“I love our players to death,” Howland said. “I love them so much. I’ve never doubted our team.”

Plenty of others did – and for good reason.

The top two standouts from last year’s squad, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, left school early and were among the top five players selected in the NBA draft. A third player, forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, was plucked in the second round and is averaging 25 minutes a game as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Still, here’s UCLA, in the thick of the Pac-10 race.

“I don’t think (Howland) changed his approach at all with this team,” said Collison, an All-American candidate. “His mentality and focus is still the same. A lot of people think he nags a lot. But he’s not really nagging. He’s just doing what’s best for us.”

It hasn’t always been easy.

Led by guard Jrue Holiday, UCLA’s high-profile recruiting class caused quite a buzz when it arrived on campus last fall. Incorporating talented freshmen into a rotation dotted with seniors such as Collison and Josh Shipp can be a slippery slope.

Howland, though, handled it masterfully. Players said there has been no in-fighting, no cattiness or complaints about minutes or a lack thereof, mainly because Howland used the freshmen in a way that wouldn’t alienate his veterans.

“You might think it’d be hard to blend them in,” Collison said. “But if you’re a freshman, what better situation could you ask for then to have a lot of senior leadership?

“I think it was great for the guys to come play alongside the seniors to see how serious and how intense it could be.”

UCLA’s newcomers have discovered that firsthand on a number of occasions. Backup guard Jerime Anderson had five turnovers in seven minutes against the physical Huskies on Thursday.

A week ago, with scores of pro scouts in the stands, Holiday – a top NBA prospect – went scoreless in 33 minutes against Arizona State.

The good thing is that UCLA’s veterans have been there to make up for the struggles. On Thursday Collison, Shipp and Alfred Aboya combined for 50 points on 18 of 36 shooting. Aboya was so dehydrated that he needed an IV at intermission. But when team doctors couldn’t find a vein, he still insisted on playing the second half.

Fittingly, it was Aboya’s 18-footer with 2:30 remaining that gave UCLA a 75-69 lead and momentum it would never relinquish.

“I’m hoping things will continue on forward like they did tonight,” Howland said. “I’m very gratified with the year we’re having.”

Howland should be.

It’s one thing to work with an experienced team full of NBA draft picks who win a conference title with ease. Games are rarely close and practices are short and simple because everyone knows what to do and where to be.

Seasons such as this, though, are when coaches such as Howland and fellow 2008 Final Four participants Bill Self (Kansas) and John Calipari (Memphis) prove their mettle. With newcomers infiltrating the roster and former role players competing for minutes, it becomes about teaching again. It becomes about coaching.

By putting the Bruins in a position to win the Pac-10 title, Howland has proven yet again that he’s one of the best.

The difference is that this time, he’ll probably have a Pac-10 title – and not a Final Four appearance – to show for it.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Feb 20, 2009