LOS ANGELES – Unless it involves team defense, UCLA coach Ben Howland is no proselytizer. But he is a man of God.
Howland is the son of a Presbyterian minister, and his maternal grandparents were missionaries who traveled to China to spread the gospel. So it was with sincerity last week that Howland said, "I'll be praying very hard for our good health."
Just two weeks into practice, seven of his players have been treated for injuries. And that's not counting a walk-on who was filling in for one of the injured players before he came down with the flu. Among the afflicted: Michael Roll, Malcolm Lee, James Keefe, J'mison Morgan, Brendan Lane and Jerime Anderson.
"One after another, dropping like flies," Roll said at the Pac-10 conference preseason basketball media event last week. "You couldn't think any more could happen, and then someone else would get hurt."
As a matter of fact, it was Roll who went down next, with a sprained ankle.
While discussing his team, Howland made sure to single out the exceptional work of newcomer Laef Morris. Haven't heard of Morris? He's the team's first-year trainer.
The Bruins looked vulnerable even before Morris started handing out Ace bandages and ice packs at breakneck speed. That's one reason Cal was picked by the media to win the conference, marking the first time in a decade that a school other than UCLA or Arizona was so targeted.
But the rash of injuries heightens the challenge for a Bruins squad that lost a trio of seniors – Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya – who produced 40 percent of UCLA's scoring last season.
Adding to the Bruins' issues, point guard Jrue Holiday, expected to direct the offense this year, bolted for the NBA after his freshman season. That leaves the job in the hands of Anderson, a sophomore who has yet to practice because he's suffering from a pulled groin.
Lee, a sophomore, figures to be a capable fill-in at the point – despite the fact he recently suffered a concussion. Next, the Bruins would have to turn to Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, former walk-on, to play a role that over the past four years has been handled by Jordan Farmar, Russell Westbook, Collison and Holiday – all first-round NBA draft picks.
"Having a really good point guard, to me, is the key to a college basketball team to start with," Howland said. "You've got to have a good leader and someone who can run your team out there to make good decisions. So, yeah, I'm concerned."
UCLA fans looking for hope should hearken back to the 2005-06 season. The poster child for that team was Lorenzo Mata, who twice broke his nose and also suffered a broken leg. Injuries also led Shipp to sit out the season as a medical redshirt and temporarily forced Cedric Bozeman and Ryan Hollins onto the bench.
"We had so many injuries that year I can't count them all," Howland said. "But we somehow found a way."
They found a way to the national championship game before losing to Florida, starting a run of three consecutive Final Four berths.
Oregon coach Ernie Kent downplayed the significance of UCLA losing its top three scorers from last season.
"They've got some good personnel sitting there in their program," he said. "I don't think there's going to be too much slippage."
Maybe Howland knows as much. As he reminded a group of reporters, during his six years at UCLA, the program has sent 11 players to the NBA.
On cue, Cal coach Mike Montgomery poked his head into view.
"You got eight NBA players again this year," Montgomery said.
"Yeah," he said, "we'll see."
Unless they're in the trainer's room.