Howland returning UCLA to glory days

JIM KELLER -- SportsTicker

, Last Updated: 10:30 AM ET

Ben Howland, who has turned around programs at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, now seems on the verge of revitalizing the most storied basketball program in the nation.

After dreaming of coaching at UCLA when he was a boy, Howland took over the program in 2003-04, when the Bruins were coming off their first losing season in 55 years (10-19).

UCLA continued its losing ways last season, going 11-17, but they are off to a 9-3 start this season with a starting lineup that includes three freshmen and senior forward Dijon Thompson.

Even better, Howland already has commitments for next season from five high schoolers ranked among the top 150 recruits in the country and likely will get point guard Cedric Bozeman back after he spent this season rehabbing from knee surgery.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Howland guided a dormant Northern Arizona program to three straight 20-win seasons, two Big Sky Conference titles and one NCAA appearance. He then moved to Pittsburgh and took the Panthers to four straight NCAA tournaments and was voted national coach of the year in 2002 after guiding the team to a school-record 29 wins.

This season, UCLA lost its first Pac-10 Conference game at Oregon but has rebounded with three straight wins, including a sweep against the Washington schools at home this past weekend.

The Bruins came from 17 down last Thursday to beat Washington State, 80-77, in double overtime, then came back from a 21-point deficit Saturday to defeat then-No. 14 Washington, 95-86.

UCLA will have a litmus test this weekend with road games against much-improved Arizona State and national power Arizona.

Thompson leads the Bruins at 17.5 points and nine rebounds per game. Freshmen Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp combine for 34 points per game.

"Dijon Thompson is clearly our best player, and playing like it," Howland said. "He's second in the conference in rebounding and third in scoring. He's just playing like you want a senior to play, really stepping up."

Against the Huskies on Saturday, the freshmen kept UCLA from being blown out in the first half by combining for 23 points.

Thompson and sharp shooter Brian Morrison took over in the second half to give the Bruins their first win over a ranked school since they beat California in 2003 in coach Steve Lavin's last season.

Thompson matched his career high with 29 points and Morrison added 19 on four 3-pointers.

"Dijon Thompson played like a senior and like a future pro," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said after the game. "He took the ball and made some big shots and helped them win."

Morrison, a second-year Bruin who transferred from North Carolina, has scored 60 points in 97 minutes in his first four conference battles and has hit 14-of-26 shots from the arc.

Farmar was the key on Thursday with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting, six assists and four rebounds with no turnovers in 46 minutes.

"I think the most pleasing thing is that in the last three games, all wins, he's had just three turnovers," Howland said. "We're asking him to play a lot of minutes, I think he's second in the conference in minutes which is tough for a kid who just turned 18 on November 30."

The 6-2 Farmar is averaging 13.2 points and 5.3 assists this season and is shooting 42 percent from the floor and 86 percent from the line. He's also made 14-of-37 shots from the arc.

"He's really good down the stretch of games," Howland said. "And he's doing a good job of pushing the ball, so I'm very pleased with how he's progressed."

Afflalo, a 6-5 guard, can get points from the outside or by taking it to the basket. He scored 21 in a win against Long Beach State and 16 in a loss to Michigan State. Shipp, the younger brother of former California standout and 2003 Pac-10 scoring champion, Joe Shipp, joined the starting lineup a month ago.

The 6-5 forward is a strong interior player who can shoot from the arc. He scored 18 against the Spartans.

"They (the three freshmen) have shown a lot of poise," Howland said. "We got down big in both games to Washington State and Washington and we battled back and gave it our best. The thing you like about the freshmen is they're used to winning, and they keep battling back."

Howland is not kidding about his freshmen - all from California - being used to winning. Farmar led his school to the city championship and Afflalo and Shipp took their prep teams to state titles last season.

The backcourt of Farmar and Afflalo are in good company. This is the third time since 1980 that the Bruins started a pair of freshmen in the backcourt. In 1979-80, Rod Foster and Michael Holton helped UCLA to the national championship game. Baron Davis and Earl Watson took the 1997-98 squad to the Sweet 16.

The Bruins are a few years away from being a dominant power again, but if it happened this year, it wouldn't be the first time a young UCLA team went deep into the tournament.

This weekend will give Howland a better indication of where this team is headed and where the Bruins stand in the rebuilding process.


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