Friday, March 15, 2013

UCLA Stuck In Howland Hell

Condolences, UCLA basketball fans. That's right, condolences.

You're off base if you think congratulations are in order because the Bruins beat Arizona State 80-75 to advance to the semis of the Pac12 tournament in Las Vegas, playing Arizona. Condolences are in order, Bruin fans, because Ben Howland is still your coach. The Bruins didn't win that game because of him, they won in spite of him. This is just another reason why AD Dan Guerrero should boot Ben out.

Legions of Bruin followers have been screaming for Howland's head for the last few years. There's no reason that the Bruins, who play most of their games in a generally crappy conference, should not only be the perennial conference leader but a fixture in the later rounds of the NCAA tournament. Yet, they've only made the NCAAs twice in the last four years. Unacceptable..The Bruins are now 24-8. Some of the wins were, unnecessarily, struggles. Some of the losses shouldn't have happened.  The problem? Ineffective coaching.

In terms of talent, the Bruins are usually loaded. This season, the only Pac12 team, talent-wise, in the Bruins' ballpark is Arizona, the team they play today, a team they've beaten twice. UCLA, though, should have trampled the rest of the league. However they didn't. They won the league crown, but it was nip and tuck all the way.

Two beatdowns this season, by Washington State and Cal, were particularly shocking. Though both were UCLA road games, neither team is as talented as UCLA. In fact, Washington State is downright awful.The only reason for such fiascos is that UCLA didn't mentally show up. That's on Howland. Teams, especially big-time teams with high-profile coaches, should show up every game. When they don't it's a coaching blunder.

Speaking of not showing up for games, where were the Bruin players' heads in the first half of the Arizona State game yesterday? Not in the game, that's for sure. This should have been an easy win for the Bruins. They were resting Wednesday while Arizona State was working hard, eking out an 89-88 OT win over Stanford. And don't forget, Arizona State is a No.9 seed. Even if Arizona State was fresh, this lower-tier unit should have been roadkill for UCLA. They're simply not in the Bruins' class.

But once again, Howland didn't have his team ready to play. They stumbled through the first half, looking half asleep. They were a step slow and often out of  position. For most of the game, they were outplayed, outsmarted and out-hustled. In the second half, against a fatigued team with inferior talent, the Bruins trailed, astonishingly, by 15 points and looked dead. Everyone's now saying the Bruins woke up in time. What really happened is that Arizona State, on the heels of that Wednesday OT game, finally wore down and the Bruins talent-edge took over. With Shabazz Muhammad, Travis Wear and point guard Larry Drew, who had a career game, leading the surge, the Bruins won by five. But it shouldn't have been that close..They were lucky to win..

Don't be surprised if the Bruins win the Pac12 tournament and even, with favorable match-ups, advance to the Sweet 16. It's certainly possible with their talent and with a senior point guard, Drew, playing at the top of his game. But that's hell for Howland haters. More wins means more Howland.  Here's a reality that Howland haters hate. Winning the Pac12 regular season crown guarantees him another year.

That's not good for UCLA. With Howland, the team is in limbo--never quite bad enough to get him fired but never good enough to get back to the Final Four. His success in the middle of last decade, leading the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours, is actually a curse. Having been to the mountaintop with Howland, fans want to get back there again and again, or at least get close. Considering what their fans are accustomed to, reaching the Sweet 16 annually is a minimum requirement. In recent years, though, Howland has fallen short of those high standards. Since those glory years the program has been sliding downhill.. Howland has recruited high-quality players but hasn't developed any stars.

It hasn't helped that Howland has acquired a reputation for mishandling talent. So many top recruits either bail out or never reach their full potential under his guidance. On the plus side many of his players, like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holliday, have become major NBA stars. On the negative side, though, all blossomed after they left UCLA.

With his dogged emphasis on structure and excessive attention to defense, Howland tends to stifle players' offensive development. The word is out that he's is inflexible, dictatorial and out of touch with youth. Most big-time recruits are looking to play fast-paced, racehorse basketball in college. UCLA, then, isn't the place for them. Howland has loosened up a bit in the last year or two but not enough to seriously alter the perception of UCLA as a place that covets stodgy, old-school basketball..

So what's UCLA's future like? It's not exactly rosy, with Drew graduating and Muhammad, the best Bruin player, headed to the NBA. Final Four next season? Chances of UCLA getting there are pretty remote. With Howland in charge, the Bruins will, once again, be average-to-good. But great? No way. So isn't it well past time for a coaching change and definitely time for a new direction?

But unfortunately, UCLA fans, you're stuck with him..

Again, my condolences.