Thursday, January 10, 2013

UCLA Basketball: The Ben Howland Conundrum

To be very, very mellow, its been a strange season.

First off, to those who thought that this UCLA team would not improve and wouldn't gain some momentum (I was among them), you should have known better. Ben Howland might be stubborn, and it might take a while for his players to get what he's saying, but he knows what he's doing. Anybody who questions Ben Howland's basketball coaching abilities are mistaken. He did not take a stupid pill overnight.

Howland's teams always improve as the season goes on. Even the last three years, after miserable starts, the team has gained momentum and has put itself in a position to salvage the season, only to then fail. This year the talent level is far higher than it has been for some time, so the improvement is greater. So where does that leave us?

No idea.

For me, if UCLA does not win the conference and/or make the elite 8, Ben Howland has to go. There are no exceptions. This is UCLA, and those are the bare minimum expectations every year. Again, because the elite 8 becomes a crapshoot, and anything can happen, the bar isn't at a final four. At UCLA, you are expected to contend for national championships every year. I have defended Howland night and day, but I cannot do so if he cannot deliver in what was supposed to be the year. But really, its more about whats on the horizon that really bothers me.

The reality is this: Shabazz Muhammad is gone after this season. He's already back up to the top 3 on most draft charts. Larry Drew II is graduating. And while that should be all the departures, you never know given the track record of the past few years. Tony Parker is already crying foul after just one season. Next year, its very likely that some subset in the group of Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, and Norman Powell will leave, along with the Wear twins to graduation. And again, this is UCLA. Rebuilding years aren't supposed to come every 2-3 years, final fours and/or national championships are. So can Ben Howland recruit at a high enough level that the roster will have enough bodies and talent to consistently contend against college basketball's upper echelon? At this point, I don't think so, unless he starts to win again, and win big.

UCLA is facing far too many negative battles in recruiting right now. The narratives are very easy to bring about. Anywhere from "he's not a players coach, you wont like it there. Look how many people are leaving," to "how sure are you that their even going to win? This year they had all this talent, and they couldn't do it." Even the NBA production, Howland's greatest recruiting lifeline, is starting to fade. They might say "sure, they had a bunch of guys go during the final four years, but that was five years ago. Who's been their NBA rock the past few years?" Far too many high school coaches, AAU circuits, and parents are slowly becoming alienated from UCLA strictly because of Ben Howland. And UCLA picked a real bad time to be viewed as such.

The talent on the west coast was at a major downswing these past few seasons, but that won't be the case for the next 2-3 years. In next years class alone, depending on which site your using, there are anywhere from 5-7 recruits from California in the top 50 alone. UCLA is on the radar of several top prospects from next years class. 5 star wing Justice Winslow has family connections out west. Jordan McLaughlin and Parker Jackson-Cartwright are both 5 star PG's, Jackson-Cartwright from LA and McLaughlin from Etiwanda, the same high school Darren Collison went to. Stanley Johnson is a 4 star wing from Mater Dei that has had UCLA in his sights as well, Shaquan Aaron is in the Bruins backyard at Taft HS. None of it matters if UCLA cannot put together a great finish, because at this point, the recruits have seen all they need to see. This year, with all the talent the team had, it still couldn't get it done, and all the player issues are there.

To be fair to Howland, this isn't an issue that is exclusive to UCLA. All big time programs deal with earlier than expected NBA departures, as well as transfers. Majority of the transfers have been due to playing time, something that happens at every school. Arizona has seen more than their fair share of transfers in the past three years, as have North Carolina, Kansas, and Duke. As for the NBA departures, remember, these kids have been thinking about playing in the league for quite some time. It is their lifelong dream, and their leaving school more often than not just means they are chasing that dream, not because they hate UCLA. And while the Bruins have definitely seen more, and Howland deserves a lot of the criticism, its really just highlighted because the UCLA has been losing. Remember, during the final four years, UCLA regularly had guys transfer and leave early to the pros. They just reloaded for another run the next year, and nobody cared.

Therefore, I for one can only see one way that Howland survives, and that is to keep the Bruins in title contention through late March, and perhaps early April. Winning really does cure all evils, and if the Bruins can meet those levels, then Howland will have shown that he really is still a great basketball coach. At that point, the administration and Howland will have to sit down and evaluate the program and ask, can we continue to sustain success? If the answer is no, then Howland goes. If some of the negativity clears, and I think it can if the Bruins win big with this group, and there is no other coach out there that can do better, Howland stays and must use his coaching abilities to put together a similar season next year. Now can the administration correctly make that decision? That's another issue entirely, one that would take several more columns to address.

The basic question is this: with Ben Howland, can UCLA realistically win a national championship in the next 2-3 years? Once again, this is UCLA. If the answer is no, then there's nothing to discuss. The coach must go.

It really is just a strange, strange situation.

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