It’s a rainy Wednesday in mid-October, wet weather having engulfed the Southern California area just for kicks.
UCLA students, at least those brave enough to roll out of bed, scatter along the north end of Pauley Pavilion as a heavy mist lays a thick cover over the nearby Intramural Field.
It’s basketball media day, but not many people seem excited about the upcoming season.
UCLA is expected to finish no better than third in the Pac-10 Conference, behind California and Washington.
Inside Pauley, reporters scamper to surround seventh-year coach Ben Howland as he gets set to speak for the first time since UCLA’s humiliating second-round loss to Villanova in the NCAA tournament six months prior.
It doesn’t take long for Howland, a stats junkie, to start talking about numbers ““ how many pounds of muscle sophomore guard Jerime Anderson put on during the summer, how much weight sophomore center J’mison Morgan trimmed off, and how many practices top incoming freshman Tyler Honeycutt has missed with a strained back.
There’s more, though.
Howland’s numbers spiel comes just before admitting that he has made a miscalculation or two.
Former guard Jrue Holiday, Howland says, was thought to be staying for more than a year.
Holiday was supposed to be at this media day, a returning starter and prime candidate to take over at the point for the NBA-bound Darren Collison. When Holiday was recruited, Howland thought he’d be a Bruin for at least another season.
Instead, on this rainy Wednesday in Westwood, Holiday is long gone and preparing for his rookie season with the Sixers ““ the fresh prince having bolted from Bel-Air to Philadelphia.
Howland is left at Pauley without a player he spent three years recruiting.
But Howland doesn’t stop there. The raindrops keep falling.
Russell Westbrook, the promising point guard of the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder, is supposed to be a senior, Howland says.
Kevin Love, the skilled post player of the Minnesota Timberwolves, is supposed to be a junior, Howland adds.
With Holiday, Westbrook and Love, UCLA is a lock for the Final Four.
Without the trio, UCLA is, well, a few shots short of mediocre.
The early departures have clearly dampened Howland’s parade. For a coach that maintains his focus on the immediate future, his reminiscent speech is a puzzling way to begin the season.
Not far from Howland sits forward James Keefe, a former McDonald’s All-American and one of UCLA’s three projected senior starters. Keefe has recently injured his left shoulder and is in uniform only because it’s photo day.
He says he should be fine, but his frailty is not a good sign for a team that expects him to fill the gap left by minutes-eater Alfred Aboya.
For whatever reason, the team’s freshmen are unavailable to the media. Maybe they have not been briefed on how to speak to reporters. Maybe they’re sick. Maybe they’re just not ready.
Except for the aforementioned Honeycutt, the only incoming five-star prospect, no one really knows much about the new group.
Morgan, meanwhile, looks noticeably leaner. The same goofy smile remains, but he has apparently made strides in the weight room and says the case is the same on the court. Many think he can be the first player off the bench.
Sophomore forward Drew Gordon, the projected starting center, sits next to him. Last season, Gordon showed a fiery, competitive side and the ability to play angrily. But on this day, he ends up talking about his Twitter account as much as he does his improved rebounding technique.
Then there’s Anderson, who claims he’s redefined his jump shot during the summer. His elbow positioning was his main issue, but he’s corrected it, he says. The Anaheim native talks about wanting to be UCLA’s next great guard and smiles when Jordan Farmar, Westbrook and Collison are brought up.
The former guards have all left big shoes to fill, but he says he’s ready to embrace the challenge and be the team’s floor general.
With Holiday gone, sophomore guard Malcolm Lee is the projected go-to guy on offense. When four television cameras surround him, the look in his face suggests that he might be overwhelmed by all of the attention. Pundits think he will handle the spotlight just fine, with the chance that he jumps to the NBA after the season.
Senior forward Nikola Dragovic is UCLA’s only returning starter and leading scorer. But with Collison, Aboya and Josh Shipp on last year’s squad, Dragovic was not the first option on offense. He says his approach will be no different with those three gone.
Redshirt senior guard Michael Roll, who has been to three Final Fours, talks mostly about being the leader this young team needs. He knows he will be counted upon to provide more offense, but he believes fans will be excited with this batch’s brand of play.
The words “zone” and “defense” never cross Howland’s lips during his 15-minute talk with the media.
Howland does not hint at the fact that he and Gordon have been discussing a possible split.
Howland praises Anderson’s work ethic ““ believing he’s ready to be the Bruins’ next great point guard.
Howland raves about Dragovic’s leadership just weeks before Dragovic is arrested for an alleged assault at a concert in Hollywood.
UCLA basketball fans didn’t know this yet, but it was only a matter of time until the storm made its way into Pauley.