- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES--At his season-ending press conference Tuesday, UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland gave a surgery update on injured guard Malcolm Lee and then a reporter asked the logical next question: Is anyone else going to have any off-season procedures?
“Not to my knowledge,” Howland said, then paused for a few moments, cracked a grin and added “maybe me.”
Howland said that he was kidding, but as he waves goodbye to the season his Bruins just put him through, a visit to a heart specialist or a psychologist’s couch might not be a bad idea.
The Bruins (23-10) ended their season Saturday in Tampa, Fla., with a 73-65 loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament, completing a four-month journey that featured a stress-inducing wild ride of highs and lows.
In the end, the season had to be considered a success based on the amount of improvement UCLA made from where they ended last season, but getting there wasn’t easy on anyone who followed the team simply because you never knew what you were going to get.
The Bruins made a run at the Pac-10 title, won some high-profile games and got into the NCAA tournament -- meeting the minimum of standards at UCLA -- but along the way delivered moments of hair-pulling frustration and scream-out-loud elation, sometimes within the span of the same game and hardly ever with any rhyme or reason.
In 12 of their 23 victories UCLA kept fans on the edge of their seats by either rallying from double-digit deficits or by nearly blowing leads for 15 points or more only to squeak by at the end. Those practices became so commonplace that Howland joked about it, quipping that “this is a great team for TV ratings and keeping the fans involved for sponsors all the way until the end.”
With those near collapses and huge deficits to overcome, UCLA’s season easily could have gone the other way, but by continually pulling out victories in those situations, the Bruins showed that they were growing up and improving.
“We had a lot of improvement form a lot of our kids and that is really exciting for me,” he said. “I love to see that. And that’s what you want is you want to have that continued improvement. I do think that we were a good team at the end of the year.”
UCLA entered this season coming off a disappointing 14-18 season and was an inexperienced and unproven squad. Early in the season, their youth and inexperience showed as they were unable to overcome early holes against Villanova and Virginia Commonwealth, but gradually the team started to grow up in front of our eyes.
Kansas opened an early eight-point lead against UCLA, but the Bruins didn’t wilt and fought back to take a six-point lead before falling by a point. Against Brigham Young, UCLA got over the hump when the Bruins overcame an early 10-point deficit and won, 86-79. And then the fun began.
Against UC Irvine, Oregon State, California, Arizona State, Oregon State again, Stanford and Michigan State, the Bruins raced to leads of 15 points or more only to have their opponents pull to within four or fewer before UCLA squeaked by with the win.
On the other side of the spectrum came games against Brigham Young, Washington State, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State when UCLA fell behind by 10 points or more before second-half rallies secured victories.
But win they did, going 21-0 in games in which they had opened a lead of 10 points or more at some point, even though the final margin of victory was double digits in only 10 of those games. And as the victories mounted, so did the feeling that UCLA was learning on the job, taking lessons to heart and turning into a team on the rise.
“I’m very pleased about how far we’ve come,” Howland said. “A year ago at this time we had a losing record. We finished one game out of first with a chance going into the final week to win the conference. I’m very optimistic about the future and very pleased with how our team developed.”
The season ultimately ended in part because of one area in which UCLA had not had a chance to develop. In a season in which it seemed like the Bruins saw it all, the Florida game was somewhat foreign territory. It was a see-saw battle with 11 ties and 10 lead changes and neither team took a lead of more than four points until the final six mnutes -- a major departure for a team that was used to double digits deficits one way or another.
The only other time UCLA had been involved in a game that neither team led by 10 points or more at any point was at Kansas and that was Dec. 2. So just as experience in similar situations helped UCLA pull through after nearly blowing a 23-point lead against Michigan State, inexperience prevented UCLA from being able to close against Florida despite being within a point with 1:34 to go.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” Howland said. “Experience is really important. It’s critical.”
Next season, that won’t be an issue. Unless a player or two leaves school for the NBA, UCLA will have everybody back when the 2011-12 season begins. North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear will join an already loaded front court that includes center Joshua Smith and forwards Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt.
Smith will undoubtedly emerge as the top big man in the country if he improves his conditioning and sheds about 25 pounds. Nelson is already talking about improving all areas of his game to avoid the bitter taste of defeat at the end of the season and Honeycutt, the most likely of UCLA’s players to leave school for the NBA, hinted that the potential of the team would play a factor in his decision.
Incoming freshman guard Norman Powell, a tremendous athlete, will add depth to a backcourt that is the most experienced unit on the team with Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones all heading into their senior year.
“We have a chance to be pretty darn good next year,” Howland said.
The Bruins should be ranked among the preseason top-10 and would almost certainly be the favorites to win the Pac-10. And the Bruins, after coming so close to tasting the Sweet 16 this season, intend on doing whatever they can to make sure that happens next season.
“We’re not satisfied,” Anderson said. “Guys are going to work hard in the offseason and come back here that much better and we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with throughout the whole country.”
And just maybe they can do it without all the heart-stopping, hair-pulling, frantic finishes.
2dChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell