Well this is going to be interesting. It was just a matter of time for the piranha of the LA Times - aka TJ Simers - to make his way into the troubled basketball waters in Westwood. He got to it this week as Ben Howland is all but certain to compile only the third losing season in UCLA basketball's history since John Wooden took over the program.
Simers has a profile on Howland in which the coach sounds contrite and reflective. As Howland has done throughout his career he took responsibility and issued mea culpa (more on that later in this post) for this unacceptable season. The comment that really stands out from the column is Howland's direct call out of the "character" of his "recruits" (emphasis added):
"You can say I know failure because that's what it has been relative to our expectations here," he says. "It's no fun. I have sleepless nights wondering how the heck did we get here.
"But all of it starts right here with me. I'm in charge of making this program competitive year after year, but I did a poor job of evaluation of some of our recruits — from a talent, as well as a character standpoint."
First of all, I appreciate the fact that Coach Howland is indeed concerned about what is going on instead of "sleeping well." That said, Howland's comments about "our recruits" (in plural) is more than interesting. It means he is referring to other guys besides Drew Gordon. It will not be unreasonable to speculate that he is also referring to Jrue Holiday and also possibly other players in his current program. If that is the case it is pretty troubling. It also raises a number of questions.
If Howland is not happy with the character of any of his current players, the question is why should they still be on the team? Otherwise, it is not helpful for him to send signals publicly that he is unhappy with some of the current players until the season is over. Howland also specifically mentioned the character of his classic Ben Ball warriors:
"The bottom line is it's about players," Howland says. "The reason we had success with those three Final Four teams was because we had really good players, that were not only great players, but great competitors and great kids.
"You can see it in the nine kids that are in the NBA now — seven of them starting and the two that aren't, Jordan Farmar and Kevin Love, two of the best we've had here."
We can't disagree with Howland here. However, that also raises the question why he continued to reward a guy like Nikola Dragovic playing time, even though he showed ZERO character on the court and questionable judgment off it.
If Howland is not happy with the character of his recruits (other than Drew Gordon) than he needs to be lot more transparent about it. Again at this point it is a safe guess he was also referring to his relationship with Jrue Holiday, which deteriorated - at least in the public eye - fast after he benched him following his putrid defensive effort against Klay Thompson. The problem with that is Howland also coddled Holiday by basically giving him mins all through last season, even though Malcolm Lee was bringing more effort and hustle as a defensive 2 guard (people can go back and watch the Arizona State game on February 12th). Again the way he gave Jrue (and also JS) preferential treatment was not as noticeable with what he has done with Rag, but it was there and it really set the tone of a culture of entitlement that has rotted away at the core of his program.
I appreciate the fact that Ben Howland is reflective and contrite in public. However, I have questions and doubts about whether he is capable from learning from his mistakes. It looks like he issued yet another mea culpa this week:
"Brendan Lane in retrospect I should've played him more minutes. He did a great job on a sprained ankle on Saturday. Of course he makes mistakes, but when you make mistakes out of trying as hard as you can, it's hard to fault kids for that."
This follows the mea culpa from last week when he stated that he should have pulled Rag for taking his usual dumb shots with plenty of time left in the shot clock. Yet after that reflection he went on to play Rag for another 30+ mins letting him take the same stupid shots (without exerting any effort on either end of the court) the following week.
We have also seen mea culpa from earlier this season on how he should have gone to zone sooner. That came after it took him almost half the season to figure out what everyone else was seeing. We have gotten mea culpa from him in previous season on how he screwed up , only to watch in horror this year how he essentially wasted 's red shirt seasonMike Moser's year by rotting him on the bench.
All of this just gets really old after a while. So with that backdrop I am little weary of Howland calling out his players' characters at this point of the season. I am glad that he is being reflective and contrite. I am glad that he is losing sleep of this mess (which he should since he is the one responsible for creating this mess). However, he needs to show discernible progress during the upcoming recruiting periods this spring, summer and coming fall and on the court next season. It means he and his staff needs to close out this recruiting period strong, bring in a great class for 2011. He then needs to produce more than a subpar season barely getting us back to the tournament in 2010-11, setting us up for a Final-4 type of run in the following one.
We are giving Howland a mulligan for his one recruiting class (2008) screw up (even though he started digging this hole in 2006). If Howland was another coach without those 3 runs to the Final-4 and Pac-10 championships, he would be on the firing line right now. Instead his seat is just warm (and again for those who cannot read: we are not calling him to be fired) now. It will be up to him to cool it down which he can do by bringing in the right recruits, recommit his program to players who are grounded on defense and fundamentals (unlike you know who), and produce results on the court. If he doesn't get it done in next two years, he is not going to be able to get away by doubting characters of his own recruits.