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March 30, 2006
LOS ANGELES - No one has ever confused Ryan Hollins with great UCLA centers like Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton.
The 7-footer, who arrived amid expectations as big as him, at times has fallen off the map and incurred the fans' wrath during his four years in Westwood.
But Hollins rejuvenated himself in time to help the Bruins reach their first Final Four since 1995.
He's shooting 85 percent from the floor, 56 percent from the line and is the team's leading shot blocker in the NCAA tournament.
''His play has definitely elevated our team,'' said fifth-year senior Cedric Bozeman, who, like Hollins, was recruited by former coach Steve Lavin.
Hollins and fellow 7-footer Michael Fey stepped on campus already under scrutiny by the Bruins' older fan base, which has long lusted for a dominant big man like Hall of Famers Alcindor and Walton.
Of course, many of these same fans remember John Wooden's run of 10 NCAA championships and expect that to be duplicated.
Growing up in Pasadena, Hollins was fully aware of the pressures, but knew he possessed some unique abilities.
''There's not too many 7-footers out there that can move,'' he said. ''I know I'm definitely hard to shoot over.''
Sometimes, though, he's been easy to pass over.
Hollins lost his starting job for one game after going scoreless in 22 minutes against Southern California on Feb. 19, when the Bruins lost 71-68. He took three shots and complained his teammates weren't getting him the ball.
But the other Bruins reminded him that they need each other, and against Stanford two weeks later, he had 13 points and eight rebounds.
''Our team is closer than any other team I've been a part of at UCLA,'' he said. ''We have a better chemistry and understanding for each other's strengths and weaknesses and overall heart. We're always uplifting each other.''
Hollins can't pick a particular reason why he's finally playing the way everyone expected. Guard Arron Afflalo jokes that Hollins' dwindling time in a UCLA uniform did the trick.
''He's not trying to do too much,'' point guard Jordan Farmar said. ''It was just a matter of time for him to believe in himself and for us to believe in him. I played against him during the summer. I could see him going up against Kevin Garnett and Amare Stoudemire and holding his own and doing great.''
Hollins was named MVP of the Oakland Regional despite missing nine free throws in a 50-45 win over Memphis. He had 14 points and nine rebounds.
''God, did he make some incredible athletic plays,'' coach Ben Howland said.
Howland likes to point out that Hollins didn't arrive with the typical UCLA pedigree. As a sophomore at John Muir High, he played on the junior varsity, and he didn't start as a junior.
''It's really exciting to watch how he's developed,'' Howland said. ''He's very, very athletic. He takes great pride in being so bright out there and knowing everything he's supposed to do.''
Hollins nearly didn't attend UCLA at all. He originally signed a letter of intent with Saint Louis, but when coach Lorenzo Romar, a former UCLA assistant, took the head job at Washington, Hollins asked out. Saint Louis agreed, allowing him to play for the Bruins as a freshman with four years of eligibility.
He started 15 games his first season under Lavin, whose freewheeling offensive style excited the fans, but had them just as mad when the Bruins sputtered.
Lavin was fired after Hollins' first year and replaced by Howland, who brought an emphasis on defense from the gritty Big East.
''We definitely run a lot more sets,'' Hollins said. ''We haven't been able to get up and down as much as we did in the past, but we've adjusted.''
Like some of his teammates, Hollins initially struggled with Howland's increased discipline and demand for hard-nosed play. He wound up starting one more game than he had as a freshman and his scoring and rebounding averages went up, too.
But things fell apart last season.
Hollins had offseason knee surgery, and Howland went with Fey most of the time. Hollins averaged just over 16 minutes and started a career-low six games.
He didn't resent Fey, explaining that the two 7-footers ''have a special bond and understanding.''
Still, he sought the support of his father, Denier, who rarely misses a game. Hollins always searches the stands to make eye contact with him.
His father urged him to ''just always believe in myself. I know my talents and abilities and whether people see it or not, you do the right thing and you know everything will come through. Everything has its reason.''
And its season.
Now, Fey is the one buried deep on the bench in his senior year, which started with a string of injuries. He played four minutes in UCLA's first-round rout of Belmont and hasn't appeared since, although Howland said he'll use Fey's stature and 279 pounds to help against LSU's Glen Davis.
''I know how bad Mike wants to play. When he's not playing, it hurts me just as much having been through that,'' Hollins said. ''With his size and his great touch around the basket, he can always help. Don't count him out.''
Hollins never counted himself out either, even when critics labeled him too skinny and soft against some of the Pac-10's more rugged centers.
''I'm not a guy to give up on myself or give up on my team,'' he said.
No matter what happens in the Final Four, Hollins is grateful for the way his senior season has gone.
''It's already sweet,'' he said.For more Final Four coverage of the UCLA Bruins, check out BruinBlitz.com.