Thursday, May 28

Court Visions: Basketball program in limbo following early NCAA Tournament exit

Sophomore guard Norman Powell sits with his face in his hands in the locker room after the Bruins were eliminated from the NCAA tournament in the second round. Blaine Ohigashi / Daily Bruin

AUSTIN, Texas — The final buzzer of the year for UCLA men’s basketball rang here in the Lone Star State, marking the end of one season and the beginning of the next one.

Taking inventory of the team that walked off the Frank Erwin Center court Friday night was a quick exercise. Not counting walk-ons, seven Bruins remained, plus one embattled head coach. They were all battered by a tougher, deeper Minnesota team, the 83-63 final score a reflection of that fact.

After more than five months of sticking together, traveling across the country and developing relationships, the Bruins will disembark the team bus back home and go their separate ways.

Now the question is: When the signal flashes in the sky and the Bruins have to reunite as a team, who shows up?

You can’t build on a blowout postseason loss which was reminiscent of some of the disappointing efforts this team turned in this season. The Bruins can build on a regular-season Pac-12 title and the fact that they even reached the NCAA Tournament.

But this foundation is just a collection of loosely tied-together pieces, more Jenga than jigsaw puzzle.

Who puts on the hard hats and works to bring UCLA basketball back to the elite level it used to occupy?

Most importantly, the fate of the man leading the Bruins is still up in the air.

Ben Howland and UCLA, once a perfect match for each other, have quickly seen their relationship sour.

It was such a well-known fact that Steve Lavin was going to be fired that the former UCLA coach spoke openly about his final season before he was officially sacked.

Howland, the man who replaced Lavin, tersely turned away any questions about his job status in the final weeks of the season. In what could have been his final press conference as the UCLA coach, he gave a “no comment” when asked about his future doing what he has always called his “dream job,” and referred all question to UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero.

Regardless of Howland’s status, Shabazz Muhammad won’t be back. Unless he wants even more NCAA scrutiny and inquiries to see the age on his driver’s license, he will leave for the NBA, which was always his intention.

Larry Drew II isn’t returning, either. The Bruins’ motor, on the court and off it, has already taken his last class at UCLA. He will move on to try to make the NBA and maybe drop some rhymes on the side.

Not working in Howland’s favor is tepid locker room support.

“It’s not really up to me,” freshman forward Kyle Anderson said. “He’s done a great job with us this year. Whatever decision they make is OK.”

“What happens happens, and we’re just going to roll with it,” sophomore guard Norman Powell added.

They might have tuned out the chatter about Howland’s job status all season up to this point, but a rally to save his job could only have been started by either Muhammad or Drew, two people whose words carry little weight for Howland’s future since it’s been clear that both are leaving.

For what it’s worth, Muhammad casually said that Howland deserved to come back. Drew, who owes it to Howland for getting a second chance to play college basketball, was much more passionate.

“I think coach Howland is a great coach,” Drew said. “I feel like at the end of the day he’s going to be coaching basketball. That’s what he does. That’s what he knows how to do best. Obviously, I owe a lot to that man. Whatever happens, I can’t call it. I can, for one, say that he’s a great coach. He’s a great person in general.”

One person that wasn’t in Austin to speak on his coach’s job status was freshman guard Jordan Adams. The Bruins lost Adams to a broken foot one week ago, and the freshman’s absence showed how vital he was to the fibers of the team’s success. They deteriorated over the last week of the season, falling behind early in two games and losing that finishing kick they had cultivated in Las Vegas with a pair of come-from-behind wins.

Despite all of the success this team had, the future for UCLA basketball is as dark as it has been in recent memory, and there are other uncertainties. Will Anderson be bold enough to go to the NBA ranks? Will Tony Parker, fuming all season on the bench and feeling homesick, leave too?

The final result is a fragmented program that has more questions than answers hanging over it. Right now, there’s no one ready to put it all back together.

E-mail Menezes at [email protected] or tweet him at @ryanvmenezes.

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