By Gary Parrish
You can blame it on underclassmen leaving early or on a recruiting lull.
Or on a combination of the two.
Either way, Ben Howland hasn't tasted a Sweet 16 since he made three consecutive Final Fours from 2006 to 2008, and many had started to wonder about his long-term viability at UCLA. Had his style of play run its course in Los Angeles? Could he still consistently recruit elite-level prospects? Was his hiring of a summer coach from the Atlanta Celtics program a sign that Howland was getting desperate?
Those are the questions basketball people spent July asking each other.
Now a new question must be asked: Is Howland suddenly in position to make a fourth Final Four?
That's how significant Kyle Anderson's commitment to the Bruins was late Monday. Not only did it give Howland a consensus top-five prospect from the Class of 2012, it also quieted critics and suggested UCLA's first season in what will be a renovated Pauley Pavilion could lead to Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
That's the site of the 2013 Final Four.
Pencil UCLA in for it if Howland next lures a commitment from Shabazz Muhammad -- a Las Vegas native and the top prospect in the Class of 2012 who, according to sources, is likely to choose the Bruins over Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and UNLV. It should also be noted that Howland's assistant from the Atlanta Celtics (Korey McCray) has UCLA seriously involved with a pair of elite bigs from Georgia, specifically Tony Parker and Shaq Goodwin. Assuming the Bruins get just one of them, Howland could have a 2012-13 roster that looks like this:
G: Larry Drew
G: Shabazz Muhammad
F: Kyle Anderson (as primary ball-handler)
F: Reeves Nelson
C: Josh Smith
Key Reserves: David Wear, Travis Wear, Dominic Artis, Jordan Adams and Tony Parker/Shaq Goodwin.
That would be quite a collection of talent in Westwood.
Perhaps good enough to bring a 12th national championship to the school.