Return of the Bruins?

By Dennis Berry

When you think of UCLA basketball, you think of success. The Bruins have won the most NCAA men's basketball championships with 11. All but one of those titles came under legendary coach John Wooden in the 1960's & 70's.

Still since John Wooden retired as coach, UCLA is usually one of the top programs in the NCAA. While other programs on the West Coast struggle to stay relevant year in and year out, UCLA is always on the national radar. That remains true in good times and bad.

The last few years have been rough at UCLA. Since the Bruins went to three straight Final fours from 2006-2008 the program has been inconsistent at best. The Bruins have not been past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2008.

They have missed the NCAA twice during that span. They went 14-18 during the 2009-10 season, the second losing record in eight years. A 19-14 record this past season was not good enough to get them in the NCAA Tournament.

It was also a rough year. The Bruins played their home games at the Los Angeles Sports Arena while Pauley Pavilion received a make over. The Bruins struggled to start the year losing to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee St. Then leading scorer Reeves Nelson was dismissed from the team.

The low point of the season was when Sport's Illustrated released a report on the state of UCLA basketball. It was titled "Not the UCLA Way" and it detailed a long list of partying, drugs, and disrespectful players that brought down the program.

So yeah, there has not been much to cheer for if you are a fan of UCLA basketball.

All that changed this past week when UCLA landed Shabazz Muhammad. Depending on which scouting service you look at he is either the top ranked player ( & or the second best player (ESPN) in the 2012 class. One thing for certain is that Muhammad is the best scorer coming out of high school.

Return of the Bruins
Shabazz Muhammad. Thanks to Bryan Horowitz at Flickr for this great picture of Shabazz Muhammad.

Shabazz Muhammad. Thanks to Bryan Horowitz at Flickr for this great picture of Shabazz Muhammad.

The UCLA class is one of the top three in the country. Along with Muhammad, the Bruins got commits from Kyle Anderson, a top 10 player from New Jersey, and Jordan Adams, a top 100 player from Georgia.

It was just the class that Ben Howland needed after the struggles of the past few years. How quickly things changed too. There was speculation that Howland was on the verge of losing his job months ago. Now he has 2 of the top 3 players in the 2012 class.

Howland could have a legit contender on his hands w/ another addition or two. As Kentucky showed this past year it is possible to win it all with a group of young, talented players. It just takes a commitment to the team to make it work.

The Bruins are in a position to have a good run next year. While the Pac-12 should be improved with the talent coming in, they will be the most talented team in the conference. It remains to be seen where they will be on the national level.

It is hard to put the Bruins on the same level as Indiana, Louisville, or Kentucky – the teams that almost everybody sees as the top three teams next year. Indiana and Louisville return their key players from last year's team.

Some might ask how UCLA is different from Kentucky. The Wildcats could be losing six players – five leaving earlier and one to graduation – and will be starting over with another group of talented freshmen. The difference is that John Calipari has proven he can take a group of young players and get them to sacrifice and play as a team.

That will be the challenge Howland will be faced with next year. How will he bring in this talented class of freshman and mix them with what he already has in place? Returning for the Bruins next year are twins David (10 ppg) and Travis (11.5 ppg) Wear. Also returning – as of right now – are wingman Tyler Lamb and center Joshua Smith. All four will be juniors.

The pressure will be on UCLA next year. Fans will expect the Bruins to return to the top of Pac-12 and be a major player on the national scene. Ticket sales have increased for next season and there is a buzz around UCLA basketball that has been missing the past few years.

Now all the Bruins – and Howland – have to do is win.

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