Just when it appeared as if UCLA might have turned the proverbial corner and made a return to near national prominence, the program takes a step back. A big step back. With pressure mounting, of course, the job security of coach Ben Howland is called into question more and more.
Case in point: Wednesday night's 75-71 overtime loss in a Pac-12 Conference crosstown showdown against USC at Pauley Pavilion. The setback, for all intents and purposes, should have never happened with Howland at the helm. Not against a seemingly inferior opponent.
Struggling against the Trojans isn't acceptable. Never has been. Never will be. Certainly not acceptable after Howland assembled one of the nation's best set of recruits for the Class of 2012. More on that later. Duplicating the feat in the future and luring high-profile prospects to Westwood figures to be somewhat difficult given the often times unclear direction of UCLA this season.
The Bruins (16-6 overall, 6-3 in conference) have lost back-to-back games after a recent 10-game winning streak. Nevertheless, first-place is within reach. Nine games remain in the regular season and Oregon (18-3, 7-1) sits atop of the standings followed by Arizona (17-2, 5-2) and Arizona State (16-4, 5-2). March Madness is the goal. An appearance in the NCAA Tournament is a must.
Before looking to far ahead, however, Howland needs to address some issues.
Granted, Shabazz Muhammad (pictured) was not his normal self against USC. The freshman phenom scored 22 points despite having flu-like conditions and receiving two liters of IV fluids beforehand. This time last year, he was the country's No. 2 player in the 247Sports Composite Rankings.
Muhammad is one of several individuals on the UCLA roster that were among the nation's top 100 for the Class of 2012, according to the 247Sports Composite Rankings. Kyle Anderson (No. 3), Tony Parker (No. 24) and Jordan Adams (No. 65) were the others. The fact Howland hasn't been able to get the group to buy into his system is particularly puzzling. Each player was a believer not long ago.
On the bright side, if there is one, Howland has three players on the hook for the Class of 2013. Allerik Freeman from Henderson (NV) Findlay Prep, Zach LaVine from Bothwell (WA) and Noah Allen from Salinas (CA) Palma recently signed letter of intents to UCLA. Finding players to fill up the remaining scholarships could be a daunting task moving forward, especially after the loss to USC.
Bottom line: Howland's job is in jeopardy with the Bruins. That's no secret. Far from it, in fact. His options are either turn things around now or start looking for work somewhere else.
Sean Ceglinsky has covered prep and college sports on the West Coast for the better part of the past 15-plus years. Follow him on twitter: @SeanCeglinsky