Thursday, March 30, 2006

Seniors Provide Veteran Leadership

By Jim Alexander
The Press-Enterprise

They are the survivors.

Cedric Bozeman came to UCLA in the fall of 2001, Ryan Hollins and Michael Fey a year later. Guard Janou Rubin preceded them all by a year, arriving as a walk-on in 2000.

All came to play for Steve Lavin. They stayed when Lavin was fired and Ben Howland replaced him, though they could have been excused for having second and maybe even third thoughts.

"I never thought about transferring," Bozeman said. "I knew the chance was there for us to get better."

Perseverance, persistence and resilience have been rewarded. The Bruins' first trip to the Final Four in 11 seasons is a fitting treat for seniors who found themselves in a system 180 degrees from the one they first joined, and a program that wasn't expected to blossom until after they were gone.

And while Howland bluntly stated this week that "the reason we are where we are is two very good recruiting classes," he also realizes that the guys he inherited have provided more backbone than he expected.

"It's great to see (people) work so hard and be rewarded for their effort," he said.

Bozeman, a 6-foot-6 guard from Santa Ana Mater Dei, has dealt with knee and shoulder injuries, a position switch and Howland's initial perception that he wasn't tough enough.

He arrived at UCLA touted as the second coming of Magic Johnson, a big point guard who could dazzle. It turns out he was more like the next Jerry Sloan, an off guard who is efficient offensively, a pest defensively and full of grit and scrappiness.

"There were probably times when it seemed like I wasn't playing tough," Bozeman said. "But everything happens for a reason."

Hollins, a 7-foot forward/center from Pasadena Muir, also dealt with the toughness question, but he kept coming back for more and has been a force in the 11-game winning streak that got the Bruins to Saturday's national semifinal against LSU in Indianapolis.

In fact, his career track probably turned around at the same time as the Bruins' season.

He had no points and no blocks in 22 minutes of a Feb. 19 loss to USC at the Sports Arena. Since then, UCLA has won 11 in a row, and Hollins has averaged 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds in 24.3 minutes while shooting 71.9 percent from the field.

"We need him to continue to build on what he's doing, to let the game come to him," Howland said.

"Against Memphis, he was the most athletic guy on the floor among all the bigs, and it wasn't even close."

Even in the low moments, Hollins stayed positive.

"My Dad always said, 'Just believe in yourself,' " he said. "I know my talents and abilities, whether other people see them or not. If I do all the right things, they'll show through.

"At the beginning, Coach Howland didn't have to give me a shot. He doesn't have to put me in games. For him to give me a chance to play and develop and grow as a player, it's big."

Fey and Rubin have played lesser roles.

A 7-foot center from Olympia, Wash., Fey has played 17 games because of shoulder, ankle and groin injuries. He could see a larger role Saturday as Howland looks for ways to handle LSU's 6-9, 310-pound Glen "Big Baby" Davis.

"They've got 'Big Baby,' " Howland said. "We need big bodies. Fey will be called upon."

Hollins will welcome it, even if it cuts into his playing time.

"I know how bad Mike wants to play," he said. "His not playing hurts as much as if it was me. His size and touch around the basket can only help."

Lavin, reached by cell phone while en route to Indianapolis for the Final Four, noted that Hollins and Fey were recruited as "diamonds in the rough," and the fact that their first two seasons coincided with Lavin's 10-19 exit and Howland's 11-17 entrance probably hampered their development.

"Also, because we'd had so many consecutive successful seasons, the seniors and upperclassmen could take the youngsters under their wing and mentor them," Lavin said. "But because our last season was so challenging, Ryan and Mike's development suffered the most of anybody."

In that sense, Rubin, a 6-3 guard from Union City who had to petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility due to injuries, is sort of a throwback. He's backup point guard Darren Collison's road roommate and has shared his experience with the exuberant freshman.

This could have been a melancholy weekend for Lavin, whose teams reached the Sweet 16 four times and the Elite Eight once in his seven seasons at UCLA. But it's not. Now a commentator for ESPN and ABC, Lavin left congratulatory messages for Howland and for his former players after the Pac-10 Tournament and after last week's West Regional.

"We had such a good run of 11 years," he said, counting his time as Jim Harrick's assistant. "And I came in fully aware what the expectations are. If you deliver the results and create revenue, you get to make that run as long as you can.

"If you don't, someone else gets a crack at it."

(reprinted with permission)

(photo credit: AP)



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