Hollins inside is big key to Bruins' hopes

INDIANAPOLIS -- A few weeks into Ben Howland's tenure as UCLA's head coach, he was sitting against the folded bleachers at Pauley Pavilion, wondering just how much he could get out of some of former coach Steve Lavin's holdovers.

Now fast forward three seasons. Oft-injured Cedric Bozeman has become one of the team's most valuable players because of his leadership and versatility, but he's still only averaging 5.3 points a game in the NCAAs (along with 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists). Michael Fey, a seven-foot senior who also has had his share of injuries, was more of a factor a year ago, when he started 27 of 29 games.

Then there's the other 7-foot senior, Ryan Hollins.

For whatever reason, Bozeman got what Howland wanted early in the process. Hollins got on board late -- just in time to have an impact on this season's Final Four run.

"He's made himself into one of Ben's guys," said UCLA assistant Kerry Keating.

Bozeman said it wasn't like Hollins was "fighting it," but rather he took some time to understand what Howland wanted.

"Now he's bought into it and fully understands that he has to play hard," Bozeman said.

Hollins questions any implication that he's soft, claiming he's always been a tough player. Still, the numbers show that Hollins took the opportunity to be the guy in the post when injuries limited Fey, still-developing role player Lorenzo Mata (out with a broken right leg for 14 games) and wing Josh Shipp (who was out for all but four games this season with a hip injury).

Hollins started 22 of 31 games, and during the NCAA Tournament is averaging 12 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 85 percent from the field. He was named the most outstanding player in the Oakland bracket, averaging 13 points, 8.5 rebounds and making 9-of-12 shots in the two games.

"I'm getting an opportunity now and the chance to prove that I'm good enough," said Hollins. "Coach is calling plays for me now."

Hollins also hit two key free throws that cut Gonzaga's lead to one with 19 seconds left in UCLA's remarkable comeback against the Zgas in the Sweet 16.

Howland said Hollins has been playing the best basketball of his career recently and "we would not be here" without Hollins' play.

"Ryan Hollins' greatest attribute is how smart he is," Howland said. "He's very bright. His best basketball is in his future. He's a 21-year old senior who doesn't turn 22 until October. I mean, I had players at Pitt who were playing at 25."

Hollins, according to Keating, was trying to be something that he wasn't -- an NBA player way too soon.

"You don't just show up and it happens," Keating said of Hollins, who came from John Muir High in Pasadena. "Ryan is a long, rangy, athletic player and has the NBA monikers attached to him.

"To his credit, Ryan was never a sour puss in the locker room or on the bench," Keating said of Hollins' numbers dropping as from his sophomore season (6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds) to his junior (4.5 and 3.4).

"Everyone was saying that we needed a third scorer or else we wouldn't win a Tournament game or be in the Sweet 16," Keating said of another source of offense after guards Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo. "It took a little longer than we thought, but he bought into what we wanted to do. He just had to play slow, play smart and don't try to do anything he couldn't do."

Well, if all he has to do is board, finish, drop the occasional post move and be a defensive presence, all while busting his tail, then he's doing what he's supposed to do for UCLA.

Hollins banged his right thigh at an early practice Friday. He sat out the open practice at the RCA Dome later in the day, but Howland doesn't think anything would keep him out of the Final Four.

"I'm a tough player," Hollins said. "I've always played hard and gone after it with a lot of heart. I don't give up."

And that's why he's a Howland guy now, just in time to be perhaps the key player for the Bruins, especially in trying to keep LSU's Glen "Big Baby" Davis and/or Tyrus Thomas off the glass. That's a must if UCLA is going to advance to the national title game Monday.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.