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The core of the Bruins' Final Four teams came from Howland's first two recruiting classes: Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Lorenzo Mata-Real and Josh Shipp, all 2004 recruits; and Alfred Aboya, Darren Collison, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Michael Roll from 2005. Not one was considered a surefire NBA player. In Rivals.com's national rankings of high school prospects, only Farmar made the top 25. Most others failed to crack the top 50 (Collison was No. 100) or were barely ranked at all.
In an era in which coaches spend considerable time managing athletes with inflated egos, Howland assembled a mostly selfless group. The players were also mature beyond their years, a vital attribute given that Howland was neither a nurturer nor a player's coach. Other than during practices and games, he had little contact with his athletes, according to players. He showed up moments before a workout began and was gone before players paired off to shoot free throws at the end. Several team members say that his approach was how they imagined an NBA coach would run a team.
The task of indoctrinating a new player—such as Westbrook, another unranked recruit, who enrolled in 2006—fell to the veterans. It was a team of prefects, the protectors of the UCLA dynamic, who looked out for each other, making sure that no one got into trouble, that no one threatened what they were trying to accomplish or what UCLA has always been about. They were a tight group. If they went out, to the movies or a party, they were 15 strong.
That kind of camaraderie is not unusual on good teams, but Howland's former players say he had very little to do with instilling it. He focused on basketball strategy, not team building. Each of the players who spoke to SI said they found Howland socially awkward and disapproved of the verbal abuse they say he directed at his staff, the student managers and the weakest players. One player said if he saw Howland waiting for the elevator he would take the stairs.
The players were puzzled by some of their coach's idiosyncrasies. Howland seemed obsessed with the temperature in the film room. If it was not exactly 76º a student manager was certain to feel Howland's wrath. The water bottles handed to him had to be just cold enough and not too large.
He occasionally kicked players out of pregame walk-throughs held in hotel ballrooms if the players weren't executing properly. Two players recall being tossed, on different occasions, for failing to get low enough on defense even though they were wearing jeans that constricted their movements.
In a game during the 2007--08 season, several players on the bench noted Howland's frustration with the shot selection of Westbrook, whose freelancing had resulted in several baskets. But rather than substituting for him, Howland informed one of the officials that Westbrook was wearing socks bearing an NBA logo, which violated NCAA uniform guidelines. Howland told the official he had an obligation to remove Westbrook from the game because of his socks. The official claimed to be unaware of the rule and let play continue.
As focused on detail as Howland was, his players had the freedom to enjoy the perks of being a Bruin during UCLA's run to the three consecutive Final Fours. There were nights out with current and former NBA players, television stars and models. One evening the partying started at the Beverly Hills mansion of a wealthy UCLA fan. The Bruins were then chauffeured in a Rolls-Royce to a West Hollywood club, where several players were ushered past a long line of people and given VIP treatment at a table in the back. Says one player, "We'd go back to the campus bars and students would say, 'Where have you been?' We'd be like, 'If you only knew.'"
The players on those Final Four teams were a mature group, however, and they showed self-restraint. They knew that to achieve their goals on the court, they had to discipline themselves off it. That simple realization can separate winning teams from losing teams. And at UCLA, it did.
AFTER ITS 2008 trip to the Final Four, UCLA lost Love, Westbrook and Mbah a Moute to the NBA, and Mata-Real to graduation. Swingman Chace Stanback, who had spent his first college season tethered to the bench, transferred to UNLV.