Tony Parker is 18 years old and a senior in high school. He lives outside Atlanta. He's 6-foot-9 in shoes, has a 7-foot-1 wingspan, weighs 275 pounds and is very good at basketball. In 2011 ESPN named him the National Junior Player of the Year and this season he became a McDonald's All-American. On Monday he's scheduled to announce which college he'll attend. In the running are Duke, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio State and UCLA, but those who've followed Parker's recruitment think Georgia and UCLA are the frontrunners. Declares recruiting pundit Eric Bossi of Rivals.com, "the Bruins and Bulldogs have been generating the most buzz and for now at least, they are the two safest bets when it comes to predicting which school Parker will choose."
If he makes the call for UCLA, he'll be the capstone of one of the greatest recruiting classes in Bruin history. Already in the fold are Jordan Adams, a sharpshooting wing who's the Bruins' first-ever signing out of legendary hoops feeder school Oak Hill Academy, and a pair of dazzling crown jewels: Kyle Anderson, whom the respected Jonathan Givony of Draft Express calls "the most unconventional player in high school basketball... [with] the size of a power forward and the skill set of a point guard," and Shabazz Muhammad, by consensus the top wing player in high-school ball. Givony predicts that Muhammad will be the second pick in the 2013 NBA draft. NBADraft.net says Muhammad will go number one. No one expects him or Anderson to spend more than a season in Westwood. They're the kind of super-elite, one-and-done talents that John Calipari just molded into a national-championship squad at Kentucky.
With or without Parker, Ben Howland has bagged a hell of a class, which is a touch odd considering how close he's recently come to losing his job. The past four years have seen his once-shining program slide into the muck. Twice he's failed to reach the NCAA tournament. This season, a Bruins squad picked to win the Pac-12 played horribly and got featured in Sports Illustrated for all the wrong reasons. Guys who've transferred out of Howland's program (Mike Moser, Matt Carlino) have flourished at their new schools. Bad seeds Howland chose to coddle (Nikola Dragovic, Reeves Nelson) embarrassed the university. Typically at this stage of a program's decomposition, the embattled coach doesn't have the luxury of reloading with A-list talent.
To understand how UCLA and Howland arrived at this moment, you need to rewind to April 5, 2008. That night, Howland led his best team - conference champions and top seeds in the West Regional, led by future NBA superstars Kevin Love and Russell Westbook - into the Final Four in San Antonio. The Final Four that season had no easy outs: it was (and still is) the only time all four number-one seeds advanced to the tournament semifinals. But Howland's roster was loaded and cohesive. They were easily the best UCLA squad since the 1995 team that brought home the school's only post-Wooden banner.
The semifinal game that night against Memphis, though, was a catastrophe. Calipari exposed Howland as tactically inflexible to a fatal degree. With one awesome point guard (Derrick Rose), one complimentary wing scorer (Chris Douglas-Roberts) and a clutch of decent role players, the speedy Memphis attack blew through Howland's D like wind through a fence. At no point would Howland switch to a zone to force the game into the half court. Only with Memphis far out of reach would he switch Westbrook onto Rose, who to that point had straight destroyed Darren Collison. It's not that Howland lost. It's that he lost so badly (78 to 63 was the final score), with so much talent and having been so egregiously outmaneuvered by Calipari. The first cracks began to appear in Howland's public image and hold over the program.
Had UCLA won that night and defeated Kansas in the title game, it's not hard to imagine the last four seasons unfolding very differently. Perhaps with a banner to his name, Howland doesn't feel the pressure to accommodate talented bad actors like Nelson. Perhaps the whispers about unhappiness among his former players, that his plodding offensive system stifled Love, Westbrook and Collison, never gain traction. Perhaps Jrue Holiday, Malcom Lee and Tyler Honeycutt have enough confidence in Howland's regime not to dash to the NBA at the earliest opportunity.
But there lies the explanation for why Howland still kills on the recruiting trail. Guys he's coached at UCLA almost always outperform expectations when they get to the pros. Love and Westbrook are max-contract All-Stars. Collison and Holiday are starting point guards on playoff-bound teams. Arron Afflalo makes almost $8 million a year as the Nuggets' starting two guard. Even less-heralded players like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Ryan Hollins have carved out pro careers for themselves with the defensive fundamentals drilled into them by Howland. Whatever else can be said about Howland, he gets guys ready for the NBA, and that's what's getting him into the living rooms of the most sought-after prep ballers.
So long as this remains the case, he has a chance to rescale the heights he reached in 2008, if he puts all that talent to good use. The offense must change. You don't sign Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson so you can walk the ball up the court and swing it around the perimeter for 25 seconds. Those two need freedom to punish opponents with their creativity. Howland has to find a way to get center Joshua Smith into semi-decent shape. (Conditioning may also be a concern with Parker, if he joins up). He also needs to find a dependable outside threat. That could be Adams, or it could be returning sophomore Normal Powell. A Pac-12 title run and top-10 ranking are the baseline expectations for next year's team. Oh, and off-court incidents need to be nonexistent. Falling well short of any of these goals will mean the 2013-14 season begins with a new UCLA coach on the sidelines.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.