UCLA basketball might be OK after all

LOS ANGELES -- If ever the UCLA Bruins needed a game like this, it was now.

The Bruins shook off the negative attention thrust their way this week by a Sports Illustrated story alleging mass dysfunction in the program and routed Washington State 78-46 on Thursday night in a Pac-12 Conference game at the Sports Arena.

It was a victory that re-established the character of a team for which character had been called into question. It was a victory that displayed camaraderie in a program that had its chemistry called into question. And it was a game in which the walk-ons got to play in garbage time and every one of them had a jersey underneath his warm-ups.

It was the kind of performance that bodes well for not only this team, but the future of UCLA basketball.

Tyler Lamb had one of his best games as a Bruin with 16 points and five assists. He is a sophomore. Twins David and Travis Wear, also sophomores, continued their solid play with a combined 21 points and 10 rebounds. Freshman Norman Powell made two of three 3-point shots and finished with eight points.

Those guys are the future of UCLA basketball, the guys who will be asked to carry the Bruins out of the current mess they are in, and that's a good thing because they showed that not only can they play, but all are high-character people.

They are the type of low-ego, hard-working players coach Ben Howland built his three consecutive Final Four teams around, but were scarce as an influx of prima donna attitudes took over and the program took a nose dive over the past three seasons.

If the way the Bruins responded Thursday is any indication of the direction of the program in the wake of the rippling Sports Illustrated report, the Bruins are in good hands.

"We have really worked hard in our last two recruiting years to really put a huge emphasis on character," Howland said. "And that's how we got to Final Fours. Not only great players, but great kids. Kids who work hard. Kids who are serious about the best they can be."

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said Wednesday that Howland lost his way with recruiting over the past three years. Instead of going after the players who brought UCLA success, Howland chased the glitzy, big-name recruits.

Maybe it was the fear of not being able to keep things going with a status quo. Maybe it was the fact Howland got to three Final Fours but never won a championship and he felt he needed better talent.

Whatever the reason, Howland brought in such recruits as Drew Gordon, J'mison Morgan and Reeves Nelson -- all of whom disrupted things so badly with their attitude problems that they were eventually dismissed from the team.

"Ben has admitted that he has made some mistakes in evaluation, whether it's evaluation of talent or evaluation of character, and we've had to live with that for the last two or three years," Guerrero said.

The good news now, with players such as the Wear twins and Lamb and Powell, the program seems to be headed in the right direction. And from all reports, incoming recruits Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams are also high-character players, as are Shabazz Muhammad and Tony Parker -- two highly sought players who are considering UCLA.

"The two kids that we signed early, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, are great kids," Howland said. "High character, good people from great solid backgrounds and families. And the kids that we're involved with down the stretch are great kids. Among the best I've ever met both in terms of their families and the players. They don't get any better than this."

The key will be to keep them that way once they arrive on campus. If Howland lands Muhammad and Parker -- assuming those are the players with which he's talking about being involved -- UCLA will have the undisputed No. 1 recruiting class in the country.

The last time that happened was 2008, with Gordon, Morgan, Jerime Anderson, Malcolm Lee and Jrue Holiday. Only Lee made more news on the court than off it as a UCLA player.

The task of imparting the UCLA way to those players falls on Lamb, the Wear twins and Powell, and they say the recent negative attention surrounding the program has brought a renewed emphasis on that duty.

"I think it's just a good wake-up call for us as an organization to start all over and start up where we left off with the Final Four teams," Lamb said. "UCLA is one of the historic programs and top programs, and when young players come in, they don't really realize how special it is to be a part of this, and I'm definitely going to look out for the young guys as a junior next year. I'm going to teach them that with those four letters, you have to bring it to the next level."

That's part of what was missing during the previous three years. When that ill-fated class of 2008 arrived, it wanted little to do with learning from the older players. Those guys wanted to make the team their team.

The next season, Nelson arrived and wanted to make it his team. And last season, when Lamb and the Wear twins arrived, there were no seniors -- no one who had been through the system and learned the UCLA way.

This season, the team captain is Lazeric Jones, a junior college transfer who hasn't been around long enough to learn the UCLA ropes, either. The only other senior is Anderson, who seems to have finally figured things out but has a past checkered enough that he's unable to offer valued leadership to teammates.

But now, with a foundation of solid character players who have respect for the UCLA way of doing things, UCLA could indeed be on the upswing.

"We have a tradition of winning, and we don't want to change that at all," Powell said. "It's not quite like that the last couple of years, but we are getting back to the UCLA way. We'll show the new guys next year, and it will continue."

It starts at the top, of course, and Howland knows that, too. He's a stubborn coach, but even he knows when it's time to change.

"I'm always trying to improve and get better as a coach," he said.

There are still questions, however. Joshua Smith is going to be a junior next season and has displayed a lack of maturity throughout his career. He came to school grossly overweight this season, and questions remain about his dedication to the program, although Howland said his character is not in question.

"Josh is a real good kid," Howland said. "He's a kid that is young and needs to figure out how important basketball is to him. If he decides it's really important for him, he can be a very effective player."

Smith says he is working on his maturity all the time, whether it be arguing with officials or showing up late to practices and meetings.

"I understand that 100 percent," Smith said. "I love my teammates, and I know the team is more important than any player."

Maybe it has taken Smith that long to figure out things. Maybe he just needed to be around the UCLA way long enough.

A lot of the past players who caused many of UCLA's problems didn't stick around long enough. Dismissals, transfers and early departures for the NBA have been rampant over the past few seasons, further eroding the amount of institutional knowledge in the program.

It's no wonder the program lost its way. But now, with the current corps of players, the Bruins are on the verge of rediscovering the UCLA way.

Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com.