LOS ANGELES - It’s a new basketball era at UCLA, yet the Bruins could struggle before reaching .500 and contending for an NCAA tournament berth.
Ben Howland turned around programs at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, and the coach will need time to do the same kind of extreme makeover at UCLA. The Bruins, who opened the season 2-1, have Loyola-Marymount at home Saturday.
He succeeds Steve Lavin, who was fired after letting one of college basketball’s most storied programs sink to its worst results in decades last season.
“We have a long way to compete with the best teams in our conference,” Howland said. “We got one direction to go, back up.”
Lavin has taken his slick looks and glib style to ESPN, where he’ll work as a college basketball analyst this season.
He left behind the wreckage of UCLA’s first losing season in 55 years. The Bruins were 10-19 and tied for sixth in the Pac-10.
Lavin’s teams were defined by lack of set rotations, poor defense, turnovers, freelancing on offense and weak free throw shooting.
“We are really preaching defense, emphasizing rebounding, being unselfish,” Howland said. “We want to play good, smart percentage basketball,” he said. “We have real nice kids. They’re hardworking. They’re doing everything we ask them to do. I like their attitude.”
Howland inherited a team that enters its third straight season without a top point guard. Cedric Bozeman, who shared time at the point last season with Ryan Walcott and Ray Young, has been an enigma in his first two seasons.
Bozeman averaged 3.2 assists in 26 minutes last season. He is an outstanding one-on-one player but has yet to prove he can run the offense.
He had offseason shoulder surgery and resumed playing in July, so he’ll be healthy for the first time in three seasons. He also dedicated himself in the weight room.
Howland plans to start Bozeman at the point while Walcott remains the backup.
“What’s happened in the past happened, and now we’re just looking to the present day,” Bozeman said.
The Bruins will begin without senior power forward T.J. Cummings, who will miss at least the first three games because he is academically ineligible. He is expected to return in December.
Cummings has a new attitude toward class work and conditioning, and he attributes that to Howland.
“He’s just really straightforward,” Cummings said. “I love that about him. We know exactly what he wants from us and he tells the truth so much that you have to be able to take it. That’s what I respect about him.”
The Bruins lost star shooter Jason Kapono (16.8 points), along with Young and Andre Patterson, who flunked out for the second time last spring.
Junior forward Dijon Thompson is the top returning scorer (14 points). Key additions are forward Trevor Ariza and guard Brian Morrison, a North Carolina transfer who can shoot.
Centers Ryan Hollins and Michael Fey return after promising freshmen seasons. The 6-foot-11 Hollins showed a rangy athleticism, while the 7-0 Fey provides beef in the post.
The Bruins opened with a home win against Vermont, where fans regularly booed the team last season.
“UCLA alumni are known for great patience, and they’ll be very understanding,” Howland deadpanned.
That remains to seen after the Bruins tough non-conference schedule. They lost a heartbreaker against Kentucky in the Wooden Classic, then have Michigan State at home, at Michigan, at St. John’s and Notre Dame at home.
“There’s a sense of optimism anytime you have a change,” Howland said. “I have a track record. I’m confident, given the time, we’re going to get it done.”
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