Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, UCLA was the one college basketball program that was most synonymous with excellence.
No program has or ever will have the run of titles the John Wooden-coached Bruins had, winning 10 national championships in 12 years. The utter impact of that extraordinary era still carries weight in the basketball world and on the Westwood campus more than three decades later.
Eight different men have led the UCLA basketball program since Wooden: Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham, Larry Brown, Larry Farmer, Walt Hazzard, Jim Harrick, Steve Lavin and now Ben Howland.
Is UCLA still an elite program? Are they legitimately still regarded as one of the best, most distinguished and most powerful programs in NCAA men's basketball?
The history will always be there at Pauley Pavilion.
But what is the real status of UCLA basketball?
Success after Wooden
It’s hard to follow a legend.
It’s nearly impossible to maintain the record of a genius.
Ask Hunk Anderson, the coach who followed Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. Ask Bill Guthridge, the coach who followed Dean Smith at North Carolina. Ask whoever follows Coach K at Duke.
UCLA basketball has seen great success in the post-Wooden era, competing in 27 NCAA tournaments, advancing to six Final Fours and winning an NCAA title under Harrick.
Most recently, Howland’s teams played in three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-2008, playing in the National Championship game in 2006. The Bruins' record was a nasty 97-17 over those three years.
Players in the NBA
Few programs have sent as many players to the NBA as UCLA. Going back to the Wooden years, the list of players could be confused with a Hall of Fame registry.
Even under Howland’s watch, the collection of players who have gone on to the NBA is very impressive. Players such as Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Trevor Ariza and Jrue Holiday are among the top young players in the league.
One of the reasons behind UCLA’s drop-off last year (14-18) was due to the early departure of some of the above players.
UCLA continues to swing a big stick when it comes to getting commitments from elite-level players up-and-down the West Coast and across the country. This year’s squad has no seniors, and the Bruins will be picking up David and Travis Wear, transfers from North Carolina, next year.
Howland’s Bruins are making progress, moving back toward where UCLA is used to being. Just like the job Howland did when he first took over the program, he is restoring success at Pauley Pavilion. Even as the Bruins have opened Pac-10 conference play with a 5-2 record, the pieces are beginning to fall into place.
Basketball programs shouldn’t be thought of as elite because of a few seasons of success. On the same hand, though, basketball programs shouldn’t be removed from such a status because of a couple of sub-standard years.
In my opinion, UCLA is still an elite-level program that is fighting its way back to competing at the highest level.