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Utah basketball: Another Pac-12 milestone for Utes — Bruins arrive

UCLA head coach John Wooden, center, holds the NCAA championship trophy after his Bruins defeated Villanova University, 68-62, to win their fifth straight national title in Houston, Texas, March 27, 1971. Standing next to Wooden at right is Sidney Wicks (35), wearing basketball net around his neck, and the others are players, assistant coaches and student managers. (AP Photo)

By Tony Jones

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jan 09 2013 03:51PM
Updated May 5, 2013 11:32PM

Unlike many of his peers in and around Los Angeles, Jarred DuBois didn’t fantasize about playing for UCLA in his youth.

But the history and the legacy surrounding the program made it impossible for DuBois to ignore.

Utah’s senior shooting guard grew up with Russell Westbrook, who played for the Bruins and now stars in Oklahoma City. DuBois played at national power Westchester High, while people such as Trevor Ariza went on to play at UCLA before heading to the pros.

For DuBois, the tradition was immediately noticeable. The Bruins are the New York Yankees of college basketball — at least historically — winning seven consecutive national titles. On Thursday night, UCLA visits the Huntsman Center for the first time since Utah joined the Pac-12. You better believe the Utes are excited.

"It will be a special night," DuBois said. "Everyone talked about UCLA growing up. Everyone wanted to play there, everyone used to imitate the players. We all kind of rooted for them, and when I played in high school there were a lot of guys that I knew who went to UCLA. We all wanted to see them do well."

UCLA is where John Wooden cemented his legacy as the greatest coach in the history of college basketball. It’s where Lew Alcinder and Bill Walton became superstars. Larry Brown took the Bruins to a national title game. Steve Lavin led UCLA to five consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, only to be fired for not taking the Bruins to the Final Four.

That’s the standard in Westwood. And that’s why current Bruins coach Ben Howland, who has taken UCLA to three Final Fours in 10 years, has been feeling the heat this season.

The Bruins finshed 19-14 (11-7 in the Pac-12) and missed the NCAA Tournament last year. Another season like it might have finished Howland off. Instead, the Bruins are 12-3 (2-0 in the Pac-12) and boast two of the top five freshmen in the country — Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson.

Anderson is a New Jersey kid, a 6-foot-9 do-everything forward with the nickname "Slo Mo." Muhammad is a 6-6 slasher averaging 19.6 points per game, second in the Pac-12.

With scholarship offers from schools around the country, Anderson spurned notable East Coast programs to play college basketball 3,000 miles away from home. His visit to Los Angeles, plus the chance to play with comparable talent, sealed his decision.

That’s what the name of UCLA can do for you on the recruiting front.

"We are fortunate to have history and success on our side," Howland said. "Guys see what we’ve accomplished as a program, and they want to be a part of that. Kyle was very impressed with the facilities as well, and the improvements made on campus. He had a previous relationship with Shabazz, and he wanted to play with him as well. Recruiting a kid like that so far away isn’t always going to happen, so we were lucky in that respect."

The Bruins have experienced tumultuous times over the years. Rumors of recruiting impropriety hounded Wooden in his latter years, particularly about his relationship with booster Sam Gilbert.

Jim Harrick, who won a national title in 1995, was fired for lying on an expense report. Howland came under fire last season when a Sports Illustrated article painted a picture of a program in turmoil.

Even this season has not been without incident. Muhammad missed the early portion of the schedule because he took extra benefits during his prep days, and Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb left the program over playing-time issues.

Through it all, though, UCLA remains one of the most visible programs in college basketball.

"I want the kids to soak it in," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "Utah has a very proud tradition of basketball, and I think these are two programs with a lot of history. It’s going to be a fun game and a fun atmosphere."

It will also be a challenge for the Utes.

The Bruins are playing their best basketball, after stumbling early. Muhammad has lost 15 pounds since regaining his eligibility, and the lefty shooting guard is playing like a top-five NBA lottery pick.

Anderson has moved to power forward and is stretching defenses with his length and superior passing ability. Senior point guard Larry Drew II is one of the national leaders in the assists category. The Wear twins — David and Travis — are providing depth in the paint.

"It’s a team that’s coming together at the right time," Krystkowiak said. "The freshmen have kind of arrived and are doing what they are capable of. We have to keep them out of transition, and we have to rebound and play well defensively. We have a lot of work ahead of us."

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