The recent chatter on Ben’s performance has me wondering if there is a somewhat objective way to measure how well he has done this season. So, just like another Ben (Benjamin Franklin) would suggest, an easy way to start this conversation is to compile two lists. One list of what CBH has done right, and one of what he has done wrong. If you missed it, I did a similar list in a comment thread during the Norm Chow to USC story where I argued it was highly unlikely that Chow would bail to SUC even though they had a bunch of money to throw at him. Basically this method is a useful and simple way to judge pluses and minuses.
So, here is a pro and con list of how CBH has performed this season. Rather than list every argument, I have put them in groups. I have ranked them according to my own judgment, but feel free to discuss! The purpose of this, as I see it, is to have an enlightening discussion about where our program is.Against Howland:
- Player control. This is a general problem which actually predates this season. As Wooden said, the goal of a coach is to correct without causing resentment. I wonder if Howland causes resentment. I also wonder if he protects his seniors too much. Thus, problems with transfers (Stanback, Gordon); head cases (Rago); and other general malcontents (Lee?). Has he just lost this team? Is he too much Bobby Knight and not enough John Wooden?
- Style of play. Too slow, too much focus on defense. The players don’t develop enough offensively. CBH doesn’t play a long enough rotation. Of these I find the argument that Howland doesn’t give young players enough time to develop in the court to be the most persuasive. This is not to say that the defensive style of play shouldn’t be criticized, but I think players really do need time on the court to develop.
- Recruiting. There are a lot of opinions on exactly how and why CBH has left such obvious gaps in our roster this season. There are also a lot of other explanations for why a lot of it isn’t his fault. There are a lot of ins and outs to this question, but it’s pretty clear that coaches aren’t fortune-tellers. To a certain extent recruiting is always about uncertainty and risk.
My judgment: There is something to each of these arguments, and they all kind of feed into each other. So, style of play makes player control harder, and both are related to recruiting. Overall I am surprised how harsh this list is. There are some serious minuses to CBH’s coaching job this season but, in my mind, player control stands out. It seems like the attitude problems with this years team (but starting last year or even before) just continue. Has Howland lost them? As for style of play, I don’t have as much a problem with the style of play as with the fact he doesn’t give young players time on the court to develop. The exception to this, of course, is need. So, that’s why RN and TH get time on the court, but not Hamid or Lane. Finally, I don’t find the recruiting criticism to be particularly persuasive. Recruiting is a bit like gambling, everybody craps out sometimes.
- He’s adjusted to the team he has and they’re improving. Zone defense has given us a chance to win games, and the young guys are starting to come along. For every bad apple there is a shiny peach. For Drago there is Roll, for Gordon there is Nelson, etc…nor has he ‘just lost’ this team because they’re still fighting and scraping. Even if they fight and scrape less well than they have in the past.
- Ben Howland coaches them up. This one is related to the first, as far as the improvement we have seen in this season. And it’s true. While Howland’s style of play might be very defensive, it prepares players to play in the NBA in a much better way than most programs. Put another way, CBH’s players tend to OVERPERFORM at the NBA level in comparison to their draft ranking. And when ranked highly, they have yet to bust. This is a serious plus, and good evidence of what CBH’s does right. I don't know if Roll will have the same NBA career as Kapono, but he came in with much less and is leaving with much more. Kapono came into Lavin’s UCLA program as a dynamic scorer and left a one-dimensional shooter; Roll came into Howland’s program a shooter and is leaving with a much more complete offensive game. All of Howland’s players in the NBA (except JH) have had immediate impacts on their teams.
- It’s not his fault. All ‘excuses’ fall in here. Some of them may be valid (i.e. recruiting IS a crapshoot) but it’s hard to say. I find this one, like the recruiting question, to be indeterminate. The one excuse that gives CBH just a bit of consideration is the basic observation that after sitting at the top so long, it frequently happens that a program needs a year or two to rebuild. Not always, but frequently.
My judgment. Howland has to be given credit for adjusting to the team he has. This is a serious plus, so too is the general fact that he really does coach them up. His ability to both adjust to the team and continue to get improvement from them is actually highly commendable. He has not done his best job as a coach this season, but in the face of diversity he had demonstrated steadfastness and resolve that he has passed on to his players. Next year we’ll improve on the foundation of TH and RN, and probably be back in the NCAA.
My overall judgment: the jury is still out. We’ll have to wait and see, as they say. I do find Howland’s minuses to be very strong, but his plusses clearly demonstrate why he has had so much success at UCLA and other places over the years. While CBH unquestionably coaches them up, this plus is tempered by the fact he doesn’t give young players enough time on the court. In turn, the lack of development by the young kids is one major reason why the cupboard is bare. Additionally, the attitude problems of this team are the clearest indicators that something is wrong in Westwood. I hope this year’s team gets the mix right and makes a miracle run…barring that I am hoping that next year will be a fresh start…barring that I think three seasons around .500 will probably be what it takes before Guerrero tries to show CBH the door.
There are also a couple of outside variables like the down year in the PAC-10, and changes at assistant coaching positions. These are both valid considerations, but it's hard to determine how to rank their influence.
The most crucial question, but one that is hard to answer from the outside, is ‘Has CBH lost this team?’ This happens to coaches in every sport, and while it obviously reflects poorly on him, coaches don’t always have the right answers to their teams’ problems. We’ll have a better idea after we see how this team finishes the season, and we’ll have a better idea after next season.