Team preview: UCLA
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2006-07 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.
(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
Considering Florida convincingly won the 2006 NCAA crown, and returns its starting lineup intact, the Gators have a legitimate chance of joining Duke (1991-92) as the only repeat champs since UCLA won seven straight from 1967-73. Right?
Maybe, but don't forget about the team Florida more or less dissembled the night of April 3 in Indianapolis.
Yes, that would be the Bruins, who despite losing All-Pac-10 point guard Jordan Farmar to the NBA with two years of eligibility remaining and two other starters could be a significantly improved team.
No, that's not a misprint, last season's national runner-up, despite losing three starters, including a first-round draft pick, enters 2006-07 with a stronger starting lineup and more depth and experience than a season ago.
"We had more injuries last season than any team I've ever been associated with in my life, coaching, playing, whatever, I was absolutely shocked to look back at season's end -- it was a nightmare," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "If this team stays healthy, we'll be right there with anyone."
Another Pac-10 coach takes it a step farther, saying, "Even without Farmar, to me, UCLA's the best team in the country."
As for the injuries Howland spoke of, every scholarship player missed at least one practice with an injury, while seven of those players combined to miss 89 games.
Injuries aside, though, UCLA's 2005-06 success, while not expected to that degree, wasn't a complete shock. The Bruins debuted at 18th in the preseason USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll, and was a team deemed by Blue Ribbon to have considerable upside.
UCLA delivered on that potential, winning the Pac-10 regular-season and tournament championships, and tied a school-record with 32 wins. The 1994-95 championship team finished 32-1.
Followers of Howland's coaching career weren't surprised by the Bruins' success, for it was accomplished in his third season at UCLA. Consider that after winning a combined 16 games at Northern Arizona his first two seasons as a head coach, Howland led the Lumberjacks to the Big Sky regular-season championship and 21 wins in 1996-97. The following season, NAU earned its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.
In 1999, Howland went to Pitt, inheriting a program more or less in shambles. The first year was rough, with just 13 wins, but after 19 victories and an NIT bid in 2000-01, Pitt went 29-6 and advanced to the Sweet 16.
As for the chronology at UCLA, the program was coming off its first losing season in 55 years when Howland arrived in 2003. His inaugural team lost 14-of-16 to complete an 11-17 campaign that without debate brought the program to an all-time low. Sure enough, following the career pattern, Howland guided perhaps the youngest team in the country to 18 wins and an NCAA Tournament invite in 2004-05.
So what's the secret to Howland's three-year plan?
"I think, anytime you take over a new program, the first year's going to be tough," Howland said. "But then you bring in some of your own recruits, and the first class gets in there for the second season and is able to have an impact. And by that third year, you've brought in two, maybe three classes including late signings that first season."
Howland, 49, enters his fourth season in Westwood with no seniors and just two juniors on the roster. It would appear at first glance that this would be more of a transition year than one to compete for the program's record 12th national title.
"Last year definitely gives us credibility, especially recruiting wise," Howland said. "That's a young team like last season won the Pac-10, and went to the NCAA title game, that says a lot about the players. We're young again, even younger really, but we have some experience and people were so excited around here last season. I'm just so happy for the program and the fans. It was special, it really was, and we've gained some momentum."
And while momentum is always nice, Howland, who in late July signed a seven-year contract extension that keeps him in LA through 2013, is well aware of the expectations this season and beyond. There's only one step beyond the path the Bruins traveled last season.