It’s not just the underachieving 5-3 record that UCLA’s basketball team sports after the first month of the season.
It’s not just that the Bruins lost to mid-major cupcake Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in their sparkling new Pauley Pavilion.
It’s not that this squad went from being ranked 11th in the country to falling completely out of the top 25 after that disastrous loss.
It’s not just that two veteran players, Tyler Lamb and Joshua Smith, left the program in a four-day span due to lack of playing time among other things.
And it’s definitely not just the fact that all these troubles are happening in Westwood despite UCLA sporting the nation’s second-best recruiting class; led, of course, by Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams.
No, what I think is the prominent issue with these Bruins is their ten-year head coach, Ben Howland, simply not being a good fit for the type of team he has anymore.
Supporters of the UCLA coach will point to the three consecutive Final Fours that happened under his watch, which was a great feat, but…
There comes a point when past achievements become, for lack of a better way to describe it, ancient history, as in sports – and more or less everything else in life – the only thing that really counts is whether or not you and your charges are producing now.
Those Bruin Final Four teams were made up of hard-hat, defensive-minded, chip-on-the-shoulder guys like Aaron Afflalo, Alfred Aboya, Lorenzo Mata-Real and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, guys who were perhaps not 5-star blue chippers but bought in to Howland’s sometimes harsh style and were able to make it work.
I’m honestly not sure if the team has had those kind of guys these past few years.
Judging by the number of players that have left before their eligibility was up the past few seasons, Howland hasn’t been a good fit for a while as in my opinion, he has tried to force his players into playing his style of hard-nosed, man-to-man defense with a half-court set offense style rather than changing to fit into what his players over the past few campaigns were better suited to do, which was to run and emphasize the fast break.
Here’s a list of Bruins who have left Westwood under Howland – besides Lamb and Smith – either through transferring, going pro, or other reasons:
Reeves Nelson – kicked off the team for being a bully and an overall cancer to the program
Chase Stanback – transferred to UNLV
Drew Gordon – transferred to New Mexico
J’mison (Bobo) Morgan – kicked off the team, transferred to Baylor
Mike Moser – transferred to UNLV
De’End Parker – transferred to USF
Anthony Stover – dismissed due to academic issues, now with the Los Angeles D-Fenders of the NBA’s D-League
Jrue Holiday – went pro, now with the Philadelphia 76ers
Kevin Love – went pro, now starring for the Minnesota Timberwolves
That’s a total of 11 players that are no longer Bruins that either could have been, should have been longer than they were, or both.
It’s no secret that Howland’s, to put it tactfully, unfriendly approach has had an impact on all of this as it’s evident – Muhammad, Adams and the other members of this year’s super freshmen notwithstanding – that the word is out and guys are growing more and more reluctant to play for a coach who, at least according to the Sports Illustrated article “Not The UCLA Way”, is a dictatorial tyrant who doesn’t always take players’ feelings into account when dealing with them on or off the court.
Not that it should matter as many coaches, notably Bob Knight, have had tyrannical styles and been successful; Knight had the record for the most wins as a college basketball coach until Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who’s also known for his yelling, tyrannical approach to his Blue Devils, broke it.
But unfortunately, considering the state of this UCLA hoops squad as their recent loss to San Diego State in the John Wooden Classic has left them with defeats in two out of their last three games, it seems to me that Howland’s approach and philosophy, while it may work in other places and while it may have worked in the past, isn’t working anymore.
Having stated all of that, I recently declared that I don’t think that Howland should be let go; not yet.
But that is only because the Bruins have played but eight games and are weeks away from the Pac-12 Conference schedule.
I will say this, however…
If UCLA doesn’t substantially improve and reach – at minimum – the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament with all the talent that Howland has, then it wold be crystal clear that his tenure as UCLA’s basketball coach has run its course and it would definitely be time for him to go.
If such turns out to be the case, it would be time for athletic director Dan Guerrero to turn the page and start fresh with new leadership to go with a new Pauley Pavilion that took a year and a half and over $100 million to renovate; leadership that, while he wouldn’t be a lassez-faire buddy like previous coach Steve Lavin was, wouldn’t be a tyrannical dictator like Howland either, but someone whose philosophical style, the way he communicates, is in the middle and who is able to adapt to whatever type of players he has, unlike Howland.
Who knows? Maybe the Bruins, despite currently having only eight players on scholarship, will go on a tear, start a long winning streak, win the Pac-12 in convincing fashion and reach their fourth Final Four in this century.
It could happen.
But if it doesn’t – and to be brutally honest, I don’t see any signs of a long, dominating winning streak happening at the present time – then it would be time to make a change, to get someone else to lead this storied program to the glory that John Wooden, with his ten national championships in a 12-year span including seven titles in a row, left and that it deserves.
Not that I expect UCLA to have another dynasty like that, but I do expect them to be in the position to hang another banner in Pauley’s rafters as being that the last crown was in 1995, it has been far too long.
That’s my humble opinion as a longstanding member of Bruin Nation. What’s yours?