Los Angeles Eleven national championships. John Wooden. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bill Walton. Jackie Robinson. Gail Goodrich. Walt Hazzard. Keith Wilkes. Marques Johnson. Dave Myers. Richard Washington.
If those names don’t mean anything to today’s recruits, UCLA coach Ben Howland always can sell the fact he took the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours (2006-08). Mix in that the school is located in a massive city rich with high school basketball talent, and it’s a given UCLA will field a nationally ranked team every year.
There’s no such thing as a given in college basketball, not anywhere. Early exits to the NBA, key injuries and a recruiting miss here and there can add up to a perennial powerhouse slipping to 2-5 in early December, as UCLA has, including losses to Cal State Fullerton, Portland and Long Beach State.
It could happen to anyone, even Kansas University, which didn’t play its best game but didn’t need to in order to defeat UCLA, 73-61, Sunday at Pauley Pavilion.
Two years ago in San Antonio, Kansas and UCLA were two of the four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four.
Kansas, despite having just one player (Sherron Collins) who played more than four minutes in the 45-minute national title game against Memphis, is back on top, ranked No. 1 in the nation. UCLA’s only victories have come against Cal State Bakersfield and Pepperdine.
Take it from Howland, the quick Kansas reloading job should not be taken for granted.
“It’s very impressive,” Howland said. “Collins is a very good player. He was part of that team. Obviously, (Cole) Aldrich was part of that, just a freshman a the time. I saw Cole coming out of high school. Compared to where he is now, he’s really developed well. He’s bigger, stronger. And these young kids they have are really good, especially the (Morris) twins. They’re really formidable. The kid (Thomas) Robinson, he played only a minute. Watching him on film, he’s a good player, and he played one minute.”
How has Kansas avoided the cliff that ate up UCLA’s chances of putting together another memorable March run? In a word, charm. KU’s coach and home court have it, UCLA’s coach and building don’t. In another word, loyalty. KU’s fan base has it. UCLA’s does not.
Bill Self, like Howland, is a tough taskmaster blessed with a keen basketball mind. Both men see all the mistakes and don’t let any go unpunished. Self’s also armed with a sense of humor to cut the tension and a natural charm that comes in handy in recruiting and in keeping players on his side. If Howland has that side to his personality, it’s not nearly as obvious.
Howland is hamstrung by a fickle fan base. The Bruins drew just 6,145 spectators for their season-opener and just 10,451 Sunday for the No. 1 team in the nation. A huge segment of the paying customers sported KU gear. UCLA fans are front-runners.
The Bruins’ homecourt is far more airy, not nearly as intimate, as the fieldhouse. It feels more like an NBA arena from a bygone era.
The chances of KU slipping under Self to the sort of season UCLA is having are remote. Still, it pays to remember just how remarkable a two-year reloading job the Kansas coaching staff has engineered.