While watching the UCLA men's basketball team (15-12) get knocked off by wimpy St. John's (11-16) on national TV, it was hard to ignore the question bubbling like hot oil under the Bruins' many losses. It's this--is it time to say farewell to coach Ben Howland? He's been living off the good will generated by that spate of Final Four appearances last decade. But that was then and this is now, and now sucks.
To the question: "What have you done for me lately?," regarding Howland, the answer is a resounding "Not much." Losing to St John's on national TV was embarrassing. The Pac 12, which has been trashed all season, took another blow to the gut. It doesn't look good when a mid-level Pac 12 team gets knocked out by a Big East bottom-feeder.
UCLA had another reason for wanting to win this game. St. John's is coached by former Bruin coach Steve Lavin. Beating their old coach would have been a thrill for UCLA, even though Lavin is recovering from prostate cancer surgery and hasn't coached since November. But it didn't happen. From the opening tip, it was clear that St. John's was the better team.
Not the giant-killer of last season. St. John's is a bad team flopping around the nether regions of the Big East, which is mostly mediocre, a shadow of last year's monster. St; Johns' was ripe for a beatdown. A half-decent team would have left them in ruins, administering a double-digit whipping. But the Bruins, these days, aren't a half decent team.
Too often, the Bruins, who don't have a real star, looked slow and confused, prone to bad decisions, making dumb turnovers and settling for perimeter shots. They didn't look like a well-coached, motivated team. Remember, that was a constant complaint during the Lavin years. That's why the Bruins dumped him.
What makes this situation so irritating is that Howland does have talented players. These guys aren't a bunch of stiffs that no other colleges wanted. There's no Kevin Love or Russell Westbrook, but there's enough talent for the team to have a better record than 15-12. With some smart, insightful coaching Howland could have boosted the Bruins to a few more wins.
OK, it's not his fault that his best player, Reeves Nelson, is a bonehead and a locker-room cancer who had to be cut loose. And you can't blame the coach for the Josh Smith fiasco. Like everyone else, the coach wishes his prize center wasn't a lazy, fast-food junkie who's fat, out of shape and a slug in the paint.
What about next season? Howland needs more quality players. Signing super-sized, hotshot Jersey guard Kyle Anderson is a step in the right direction. Hopefully the coach can sign a few more of that calibre. And maybe he can do some good, old-fashioned coaching and help these current players reach their potential. If not, and there's another woeful season like this one, where the Bruins are barely NIT-worthy, maybe it's time for a new coach.