Sometimes my inability to be articulate regarding my own thoughts and feelings is frustrating. I sit at the keyboard struggling with some ... well I guess "intuition" is the right word. It's something less than an idea, something more than some stray notion.Mostly, when that happens, I just let it go, move on to the next. But this keeps nagging at me, so I'll just do my best and see if the community can help me sort it out. This is what I'm dealing with:
Ben Howland arrived in Los Angeles a relative unknown. Oh, I realize he'd been successful at Pitt and before that at NAU. I understand he'd garnered some coaching awards and national accolades. But, really, most of us did not know much more about him than you could read on his Wikipedia page (if there was a Wikipedia in those days) or the Pittsburgh media guide.
So, Howland the unknown comes in and -- bang -- lands Arron Afflalo as his first recruit, then picks up three top City section players in Jordan Farmar, Lorenzo Mata and Josh Shipp. By the time these guys were sophomores (his third season), he'd expanded his recruiting base and added Alfred Aboya, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison and the Canadian Ryan Wright. That team rose from the dead against Gonzaga and was the first of three straight Final Four teams, teams that would ultimately include Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook.
Some of those names are now among the better players in the NBA. This group, mostly recruited by Howland more on his rep than his actual accomplishments at UCLA, was a simply outstanding group of basketball players.
So, here's my dilemma: Mostly-unknown Howland manages to recruit an outstanding collection of players based on his reputation, UCLA's tradition and who knows what? These guys buy into some notion of UCLA, what the tradition means and what it would mean to restore that tradition. But now Howland is not unknown. Now, Howland is the guy who led UCLA to three straight Final Fours!!!! And yet recruiting did not improve -- recruiting has gotten steadily worse over time.
Think about that. Despite the fact that Ben Howland took UCLA to the brink of three titles three straight seasons -- losing only to a very talented Florida team (twice) and a pretty well-stacked Memphis team -- his recruiting got worse, not better.
The question for me is, how the hell does that happen? What is it about "known Howland," the one with the Final Four runs, that has made recruiting more difficult than it was when no one knew much about him and he'd never sniffed a championship game?
I don't have the answer, just a collection of possibilities?
Is it as simple as the loss of Kerry Keating and the failure to bring in another assistant who specializes in recruiting? Is it our style of play? Because one thing about deep tournament runs, everyone sees all your games. Is it something deeper, something unpleasant about the program that kids just don't want to subject themselves to, even though it is a proven fact that this program and this coach is capable of going to the finals and capable of producing top notch professional players? Or, heck, maybe it's just something out of our control, like a cyclical drop in the quality of the local talent pool?
I don't have the answers, I just know that despite the fact that this coach is only a few years removed from three excellent seasons that culminated in Final Four appearances, he can't recruit as well as he did when no one knew much about him.