A year ago UCLA signed a recruiting class rated by most experts among the top 10 nationally, with two McDonald’s All-Americans from Southern California -- guards Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar.
That highly recruited class -- which also included center Lorenzo Mata from South Gate High and swingman Josh Shipp from Los Angeles Fairfax -- continues its crash course in college basketball against UC Irvine today at Pauley Pavilion. Mata, who sat out the first two games because of a sprained ankle, is expected to make his debut today.
But in the recruiting world, Afflalo, Farmar, Mata and Shipp are old recruiting news two games into the season.
Coach Ben Howland has already signed his second class -- five players, including three from outside the United States. It has been ranked from about No. 12 to No. 20 in the country and below Washington’s and Arizona’s in the Pacific 10.
Still, recruiting analysts say, Howland has methodically reconstructed the faltering Bruin program by following his own, successful blueprint.
“His first class got Ben the top-quality building blocks,” said Clark Francis, editor and publisher of Hoop Scoop Online. “Keeping Jordan Farmar [of Woodland Hills Taft] and Arron Afflalo [of Compton Centennial], that was big. That was key.”
The newest group consists of Ryan Wright, a forward from Canada; Alfred Aboya, a center/forward, and Luc Richard Mbaha Moute, a swingman, both from Cameroon; point guard Darren Collison from Etiwanda High; and small forward Mike Roll from Aliso Niguel High in Aliso Viejo.
If they aren’t as recognized nationally as Howland’s first class, Francis said he thought the coach accomplished what he needed to.
“He needed to get a [power forward] and he did that with the kid from Canada and Alfred Aboya,” Francis said. “The other kid from Cameroon is a great athlete, and he could be a surprise. The two local kids are role players and they add depth. They’re two kids who want to be at UCLA.
“Now Ben’s got some depth. Now he has the luxury of aiming for some big names around the country because he can afford to finish second sometimes. He needed to stabilize things there and get some backup help. He’s done that.”
What Howland hasn’t done yet is sign a highly rated player from any of the other 49 states. A radio talk show caller last week was angry that “Howland can get kids from Africa but not New York,” and said this wouldn’t have been a problem had UCLA hired Rick Pitino. Instead Pitino took the Louisville job, where his newest group of signees has been rated No. 1 by several recruiting services, including Francis’.
UCLA was a finalist for 6-foot-7, 245-pound power forward Jon Brockman of Snohomish, Wash., who signed with Washington last week. Coach Lorenzo Romar, once a UCLA assistant, was jubilant.
The Bruins worked hard to corral 6-9, 220-pound forward Brandon Costner too. Costner, from New Jersey, visited Westwood, saw the gorgeous campus and the championship banners. He signed with North Carolina State last week.
While John Wooden could pluck Lew Alcindor from New York City, Walt Hazzard from Philadelphia, Mike Warren from Pittsburgh, Lucius Allen from Kansas City and Henry Bibby from North Carolina, the Bruins’ last big-name national recruit was T.J. Cummings of Homewood, Ill., in 2000.
Duke gets players from all over the country. On this year’s roster are DeMarcus Nelson, a freshman guard from Elk Grove, Calif., and Shelden Williams, a junior forward from Forest Park, Okla. Only four Duke players are from North Carolina.
Kentucky gets players from everywhere, as do North Carolina and Kansas. Connecticut has two players from California, sophomore guard Marcus Williams from Los Angeles and freshman guard Antonio Kellogg from Oakland.
“Right now, the hot five are Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and UConn,” Francis said. “UCLA used to be there. Can it get back there? Sure it can. But it can’t be like the Wooden days. No way.”
A year ago, UCLA was among the five final contenders for highly regarded forward Malik Hairston of Detroit. After looking closely at Michigan, Ohio State and Kansas, as well as UCLA, Hairston chose Oregon. It was a last-minute decision after a trip on a private jet from Detroit to Eugene, paid for by Oregon graduate and then-Nike president Phil Knight. Hairston said in several interviews afterward that one element of his decision was the possibility of future Nike earnings in his post-college career.
The charter was acceptable under NCAA rules.
“The Hairston thing, that was an unusual set of circumstances,” said Bob Gibbons, national recruiting director for rivals.com. “When Nike gets personally involved and a kid goes to Phil Knight’s alma mater, what are you going to do?
“I had UCLA’s freshman class rated No. 3. If they’d gotten Hairston, I would have had them No. 1. So they’re getting there, back on the national scene.”
Francis and Gibbons suggest that keeping the best West Coast players close to home is more important than signing players from New York, Michigan or Illinois.
“Would we be talking about this if UCLA had kept the Collins twins, Casey Jacobsen, Josh Childress, Gilbert Arenas in Westwood?” asked Gibbons.
“The talent in the West is so good now. That’s why what Ben did last year was so important.”
A real key as to where UCLA ranks in the recruiting landscape, Francis says, is high school junior James Keefe, a 6-8 forward at Santa Margarita High in Rancho Santa Margarita. He is rated one of the top 25 players in the country. Keefe recently gave an oral commitment to UCLA after including Arizona, Duke, Stanford and Notre Dame among his final choices.
“UCLA can’t afford to let him get away,” Francis said. “He plays the position they need, he’s the kind of kid you want in your program. He’s a must-keep for Howland.”
A year from now Keefe can officially make UCLA his choice. Until then, Howland can only keep his fingers crossed.