Ben Howland said Friday he’s is going about his business as usual as the Bruins (8-3), who had a tumultuous first six weeks of the season, prepare for their final two games before Pac-12 play.
"I’m just doing everything I can to help this team improve and grow and become the best team it can become and help the players and individuals grow and become the best players they can," Howland said.
Howland came under fire last season when a Sport Illustrated article painted an unflattering image of him and his program, and he missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero brought back his coach, who is under contract through the 2016-17 season, but this season started on the wrong foot despite high expectations brought on by the nation's top-ranked recruiting class.
The Bruins barely survived an overtime game against UC Irvine, then less than two weeks later blew an 18-point lead against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Two players, guard Tyler Lamb and center Joshua Smith quit the team within a four-day span. Later that week, an embarrassing fan turnout at the Wooden Classic during a loss to San Diego State led to speculation that Howland might be nearing the end of the line at UCLA.
Howland and the Bruins have won three in a row since then and appear to be playing at a higher level, but UCLA fan website Bruin Report Online reported this week that UCLA was "currently leaning toward replacing Ben Howland as its head basketball coach, and he could be let go before the end of the season." The report, citing sources, went on to say, "This is not to say that it's completely certain that UCLA will fire Howland, however."
To fire Howland would require a buyout of one year's salary plus whatever is remaining on the current year. That would come to about $2.85 million if he were to be fired today. Howland said Friday that he has had no discussions with Guerrero or anyone in the athletic department regarding his future and that such reports are simply part of life as a coach at a major college program.
"I can’t help you in substantiating anything that is written on the boards," Howland said. "Everything at UCLA since I’ve been here has been very much the same in that you are evaluated at the end of every season."
Parker still in the mix
Freshman center Tony Parker played only five minutes Tuesday against Long Beach State and is averaging fewer than nine minutes a game this year -- almost 17 minutes less than any body else in UCLA’s regular rotation.
Howland said Friday that he still sees Parker as a major part of the Bruins’ plans for the future.
"Tony is going to end up playing major minutes in huge games for us as this season unfolds," Howland said. "He’s making good progress. I’m excited about Tony. He didn’t play many minutes against Long Beach. It was a very difficult matchup game, I thought, in that game."
Howland said Parker (6-9, 275) is still working himself into game shape after a series of injuries has set back his progress. He tore his hamstring in the summer and did not practice or play during the team’s trip to China, then threw out his back during UCLA's trip to New York last month and sprained his ankle during pre-game warmups earlier this month. Howland said Parker had one of his best practices of the year on Thursday.
"He’s had some tough luck and seems to be getting in better condition," Howland said.
They won't be home for Christmas
UCLA's heralded freshman class has four out-of-state players -- Shabazz Muhammad from Nevada, Kyle Anderson from New Jersey and Jordan Adams and Parker from Georgia -- but Howland said the team will be staying in Westwood for Christmas. The Bruins play Saturday and don't have another game until Dec. 28, but will be practicing on Christmas night, Howland said.
"They’re going to stick around," Howland said. "It’s tough right now. I feel bad that they won’t be able to go home, but playing basketball the holidays are a little different."
The players will have Sunday and Monday off, Howland said, but they will be back in the gym for three straight days of preparation for the Dec. 28 game against No. 12 Missouri. Howland said some of the players have family in town and that nobody will be left alone for Christmas.
"All of our players will have a nice Christmas dinner before practice," he said.