Once back on campus this week, Howland can begin to prepare for one of the most unique seasons in program history.
The Bruins will be a nomadic bunch with Pauley Pavilion undergoing a thorough renovation that is expected to transform the historic facility into a much more modern entertainment venue. Pauley had become outdated, with very few perks for coaches, players or fans.
UCLA will be out of the building for practice and games, playing four games at Anaheim's Honda Center and 14 games at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the former home of USC and the Clippers. The road slate stretches from competing in the loaded Maui Invitational to playing at St. John's in mid-February.
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireBen Howland seems optimistic about the 2011-12 Bruins.
It'll be a challenge, but the Bruins do seem to be a more focused group, and at the very least, are more experienced.
Howland is as pumped for this season to begin as any since UCLA played in its last of three straight Final Fours in 2008.
"I'm really excited and I think this team has a chance to do something really good this year," Howland said. "And we're going to have to be tough without playing a true home game on campus. But I'm really looking forward to this."
The Bruins are two seasons removed from not making the NCAA tournament in 2010 with a stunningly pedestrian sub-.500 record overall (14-18) and in the Pac-10 (8-10).
While the talent influx didn't change dramatically a season ago, the mentality did, and the Bruins were able to finish second in the Pac-10 (13-5, 23-11 overall) and then knocked off Michigan State in the NCAA tournament before losing a tight one to Florida in Tampa.
The good vibes were stunted a bit in the offseason when two players who would have likely been studs this season (Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee) opted for the NBA draft -- and were both picked in the second round. Then in July, guard Jerime Anderson was arrested for computer theft. Howland said Anderson will miss a few games as a result.
Still, despite the departures of Honeycutt and Lee and Anderson's arrest, the Bruins are trending upward, according to Howland. So much so that the ninth-year coach fully expects them to be in the mix for the new Pac-12 title with Cal, Arizona and Washington (toss in dark horse Oregon if you'd like).
The reason is that the Bruins have their deepest and best frontcourt of the past three years, certainly since Kevin Love left for the NBA.
Potentially dominating low-post threat Josh Smith returns as a sophomore, and he'll have plenty of help inside with North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear (a gritty pair of forwards), joining Reeves Nelson and Anthony Stover. Nelson doesn't mind hurling his body around, while Stover is more of a defensive presence.
Howland said he might play one of the Wear twins at the 3 to have a taller and even more frontcourt-oriented starting lineup.
"We will put the best five players on the floor and four of the best players [may be forwards]," Howland said. "[The Wears] are really good passers, good shooters, and Josh can really manage a lot of the attention and open up a lot of opportunities for the other players. The Wears are really improved, physically and athletically. They're going to be really good."
Had Honeycutt and Lee stayed, the Bruins would almost certainly have started the season in the top 10. Still, UCLA should be a fringe top-25 preseason team and will likely be in the mix shortly thereafter unless Maui turns out to be a disaster.
The backcourt will lean heavily on point guard Lazeric Jones to push tempo with Tyler Lamb, freshman Norman Powell and JC guard De'End Parker -- who will quite simply be asked to make shots -- as the four starting the season in the rotation. Anderson will factor in there once he's off a to-be-announced suspension.
Howland has former North Carolina point guard Larry Drew II sitting out this season and working out with the team. Drew II quit on the Tar Heels in February in the middle of the ACC season, but apparently he's been committed to UCLA since he arrived and has shown no signs of unhappiness.
"He's so glad to be home," Howland said of Drew II. "He's very quick and has great quickness. He's been well-coached and has been really good with our guys. I'm excited that he's here."
Of course, this is a lot of the same preseason talk we hear every year from all corners of the country. But the Bruins didn't have the same sort of mojo the past two seasons. The timing of the Pauley renovations should be fine for the Bruins because this roster is better-suited to handle the disruptions. A new tape room, weight room, floor, state-of-the-art scoreboard and refurbished concourse are much-needed and welcomed in Westwood.
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, keenly aware that UCLA fans don't like to travel much -- let alone down the 405 in traffic -- will at least alleviate some of the problems by offering bus service from Westwood to the games in Anaheim and downtown Los Angeles. The fans will still be in traffic, but at least they won't be in their own cars.
What they'll see on the court when they get there might not be a national-title contender, but it should be a squad that has the goods to contend for a Pac-12 title. And that's the first step toward building the Bruins back up after three straight trips to the Final Four were followed by a combined two NCAA tournament wins in the next three seasons.
"There's no question we have momentum," Howland said. "I'm really looking forward to this season."