UCLA disputes Sports Illustrated depiction of basketball program

Damage control was the order of the day around the UCLA basketball team Wednesday.

As the Bruins prepared for their final Pac-12 Conference games of the regular season, against Washington State on Thursday and Washington on Saturday, Coach Ben Howland, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero and university Chancellor Gene Block juggled questions in the wake of a Sports Illustrated article that portrayed UCLA's program as one in chaos.

In the article, Howland was depicted as a coach who in the last four seasons had lost control of undisciplined and immature players who were partying hard, fighting with each other, bickering with their coaches and cruising through practices. The article also said that some players had used drugs.

During a conference call arranged by UCLA in reaction to the story, Guerrero supported Howland but stopped short of guaranteeing he would remain as coach after this season.

"I like the path we're going on," Guerrero said. "We're talking about a few isolated incidents. We're not talking about the entire program."

But he also said, "Ben has been with me nine years. This is a bump in the road and we'll talk through things as they relate to the issues. That's where I want to leave it at this point." He said he would meet with Howland about the future after the season ended.

That could be as soon as next week. UCLA is 16-13 and likely to miss out on the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. The only way the Bruins would advance is by securing the conference's automatic bid, and to do that they'd have to accomplish something during the Pac-12 tournament that they have done only once this season — win four consecutive games.

Without a run that takes them deep into the Pac-12 tournament, the Bruins would be considered a longshot for even the National Invitation Tournament.

Howland guided UCLA to three consecutive Pacific 10 Conference championships and NCAA Final Four appearances from 2006-08, but since then the Bruins haven't advanced past the NCAA tournament's third round.

While the losses mounted, the article asserted, Howland was abusive toward members of his coaching staff, team managers and less talented players while looking the other way when his best players acted out.

Howland acknowledged, "This is not a great day for the program and, of course, for me." But he also said, "Some of the story's claims I had no knowledge about, some were taken out of context and some were not true."

Howland said he spoke with his team about the article Tuesday and would again at practice Wednesday afternoon.

UCLA's troubles in recent years have been well-chronicled by The Times and other local media outlets, with several players choosing to transfer and at least three others — Drew Gordon, J'mison Morgan and Reeves Nelson — being dismissed from the team.

The article described Nelson, UCLA's leading scorer and rebounder as a junior last season, as a bully who fought with teammates on and away from the basketball court as Howland looked the other way for more than two years. Nelson was dismissed from this season's team in December after being suspended twice.

Keith A. Fink, an attorney for Nelson, sent The Times a copy of a letter in which he said all of the "accusations and claims" in the article regarding Nelson were "categorically false."

Howland declined to address individual incidents, citing privacy laws. Speaking generally about the alleged acts of violence, he described them as "hard fouls, cheap shots," and "in the heat of the battle, with elbows flying."

"Never, during my watching, was there an assault," Howland said. He added, "A cheap shot is different from a fist directed at someone."

Howland said anything "of a serious nature, I would bring to Dan."

Guerrero said the allegations would be evaluated. "I knew of some of them," he said. "Those we didn't know about, we'll talk them through."

As for the allegations about some players using drugs and alcohol — attributed in the article to unnamed people — Guerrero and Howland said the university has programs to educate students and a punitive drug-testing policy. Athletes are suspended one game after a third positive test and could have their scholarships revoked after a fourth positive test.

Howland took responsibility for the state of UCLA's program, saying, "If there are any changes that need to be made, I'll make them." He also said he was "very confident that I will lead this program in the future."

UCLA is reportedly in the running for Las Vegas forward Shabazz Muhammad, who is generally considered the nation's top high school player. The Bruins have already signed two other highly regarded recruits, New Jersey swingman Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, a forward from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.

Guerrero said part of UCLA's problems stemmed from recruiting errors.

"You look at the success of our team early in Ben's tenure and it was built on a solid foundation, commensurate with Ben's coaching philosophy," Guerrero said. "Great kids with great character who were hard workers.

"The past several years we have broken away from that in a large part. Ben has admitted he made mistakes in evaluation, whether evaluating talent or character."

Though the article was not critical of Guerrero, the veteran athletic director has his own set of detractors who say he should take the fall for UCLA's flailing football program — the Bruins will open next season with their third football coach in six years — and now struggling men's basketball team.

But unlike Howland, Guerrero on Wednesday received a full vote of confidence from his boss, Chancellor Block.

"I have an athletic director I have faith in," Block said during the conference call. "We're aware of the issues. We meet regularly."

Asked whether Guerrero would be retained, Block said, "I look forward to having Dan [back]. I have great confidence in Dan. We're working through it together."

chris.foster@latimes.com

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