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Howland's State of the Union address

March 24, 2009 |  8:39 pm

UCLA coach Ben Howland during the 2009 NCAA tournament.

It felt a little strange to Ben Howland, sitting down with reporters Tuesday for his annual end-of-the-season news conference.

"We haven’t done it this early the last three years," said the UCLA coach, whose team had made a habit of reaching the Final Four. "It’s been really nice to be going that far every year."

But the Bruins fell in the NCAA tournament’s second round last weekend, so Howland was left to discuss a season that might have been. He touched on a series of topics, starting with the loss to Villanova in a physical game.

"Their plan to come out and hard-foul our guys was evident, especially as you watched the film," he said, adding, "I don’t think we played very good. And they played very well."

The subject of leadership also came up. After Saturday’s game, swingman Josh Shipp wondered whether he and his fellow seniors could have been more effective leaders on a team that relied heavily on freshmen, both in the starting lineup and coming off the bench.

Howland said only that Shipp should be commended for taking responsibility. He also mentioned that freshman guard Jerime Anderson -- "very outspoken" -– seemed most likely to step into a void left by the departure of Shipp, Darren Collison and Alfred Aboya.

Despite the return of juniors Nikola Dragovic, Michael Roll and James Keefe, the Bruins will need bigger things from their young players.

"I’ve always said I think you see the most improvement in a college basketball player between the freshman and sophomore year," Howland said.

While freshman Jrue Holiday thinks about leaving school early for the NBA -– he has several weeks to decide -– the rest of his class needs to get stronger, given the fact that UCLA was out-muscled by Villanova.

Howland said that Malcolm Lee, Drew Gordon and J’mison Morgan, in particular, have the body types to fill out.

Finally, Howland talked about a change in NCAA rules that prohibits college coaches from attending non-scholastic events such as AAU tournaments in April. To put it simply, he wasn’t happy.

Watching numerous prospects gathered together was a streamlined way of recruiting. Now, coaches might have to make more trips during the season to various high schools and junior colleges.

"It’s really a bad thing for college basketball," he said, explaining: "We’re talking about being cost-effective."

-- David Wharton

Photo: UCLA Coach Ben Howland during the 2009 NCAA tournament. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times.