Examining Ben Howland's future at UCLA

Over the past two years (including one game this year), the greatest college basketball program of all time has seen its team go 37-30 (.552 winning percentage), with losses to Cal State Fullerton (at home), University of Portland (by 27), Long Beach State, Mississippi State (by 18), Montana (again, at home), and Loyola Marymount (technically at "home"). The team has gone 1-3 against $uc, with one of the losses coming by 21 points.

They have gone 1-2 in Pac-10 Tournament play, losing their elimination games by 13 (in 2010, to the best team in the conference) and 17 (in 2011, to one of the worst teams in the conference) despite the games being played basically in their backyard.

They have made one NCAA Tournament appearance, losing convincingly in the Round of 32. Since 2006, the team has lost eight non-seniors to the NBA draft: sophomore Jordan Farmar in 2006 (justifiably; he was the best player on a team that nearly won the championship); junior Arron Afflalo in 2007 (again defensible, as Afflalo was the best player on a Final Four team); sophomore Russell Westbrook in 2008 (still valid, as Westbrook went in the top 4); freshman Kevin Love in 2008 (understandable as Love went fifth); junior Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in 2008 (completely puzzling; LRMAM was hampered by injuries several times during 2008 and was the fifth-best starter on his own team, and staying for his senior season would have likely catapulted him to the first round in 2009); freshman Jrue Holiday in 2009 (indefensible; Holiday had a subpar season and would have been his team's best player in 2010); sophomore Tyler Honeycutt in 2011 (semi-defensible, as Honeycutt was projected to go in the mid-to-late first round; of course, he ended up sliding to the early second); and junior Malcolm Lee in 2011 (baffling, as Lee was still incredibly raw, projected as a mid-second round pick, and desparately needed another year of college experience). 

So, if you're keeping track, about half of those non-senior early entrees were questionable at best and completely confusing at worst. In addition, the team has lost several potentially good players via transfer due to (usually) lack of playing time: forward Chace Stanback to UNLV in 2008 (averaged an 11-6 as a sophomore in 2009-10 and then a 13-6 on 48% shooting, 36% from three, 80% from the free throw line in 2010-11); forward Drew Gordon to New Mexico in 2009 (averaged a 13-11 on 53% shooting in 2010-11); and forward Mike Moser to UNLV in 2010 (had 16 points and 20 rebounds in his first game in 2011-12), with forward Reeves Nelson now emerging as a likely candidate to leave at the present (Nelson in 2010-11: 14-9, 57% shooting, considered by many to be the team's leader). 

Almost all of these transfers could have been averted; in 2009-10, the team inexplicably gave major minutes to ineffective forward Nikola Dragovic, which dragged down the team's performance and resulted in reduced minutes for Gordon, Moser, and Nelson. The amazing thing is, the team emerged from the 2008 recruiting season with the #1 class in the nation, boasting two five-star recruits (Holiday and center J'Mison Morgan) and three four-star recruits (point guard Jerime Anderson, Lee, and Gordon), and followed that up with another strong class in 2009 (five-star recruit Honeycutt, plus four-star recruits Moser, center Anthony Stover, and forwards Nelson and Brendan Lane). 

All of that talent, all of those prized players...and still, the laundry list of embarrassments mentioned up top. For the greatest basketball program in the country, one that has more tradition and glory and championships than any other, and former alums constantly waxing poetic about the program publically, that is absolutely and completely indefensible. The man running the show during these last two-plus embarrassing years? Ben Howland. So after that 600-word introduction about his recent failings, the question must be begged: why does this man still have a job?

You're not supposed to answer a question with another question, but this situation requires you to do so: How much leeway do you give a coach after he gives you three great years? Answer after the jump.

I don't believe that I have to recap Howland's 2006-2008 stretch for you, but I must for the sake of the fanpost: 97 wins to 17 losses (.850 winning percentage). Three consecutive Final Fours, with one championship game appearance. Should have been one or two titles; had Florida's entire team not inexplicably returned for 2006-07, UCLA likely would have won the championship, and had the NCAA been keeping closer ties on those cheating its system (Calipari and Derrick Rose), they likely would have won in 2007-08. Three regular-season Pac-10 championships, and two Pac-10 Tournament championships. Four players drafted in the first round of the NBA draft (Farmar, Afflalo, Westbrook, Love), with all going on to experience success at the NBA level.

Some incredible "Sistine Chapel" (credit: Bill Simmons) games: three defensive chokeholds in the 2006 Pac-10 Tournament (allowing OSU, Arizona, and California to average 53 points per game between them); a 17-point comeback in the 2006 NCAA Tournament vs. Gonzaga keyed by suffocating Ben Ball defense in the second half; two more unreal defensive performances in the NCAA Tournament (holding both #1 seed Memphis and #4 seed LSU to 45 points); an eviscaration of a more talented Kansas team in the 2007 tournament (picked by many to win it all, Kansas scored 55 points and shot just 41% from the field); and a late comeback in the second round of the 2008 tournament to beat Texas A&M (once again keyed by defense, as the Aggies scored just five points in the final TEN minutes).

Despite disheartening Final Four losses all three years, it was evident to everyone that Howland had saved the program from the seemingly irreparable damage that the Lizard had inflicted on it, and he was rightfully deemed the "Caretaker of Westwood" and almost completely immune to any criticism, especially when he landed those aforementioned plush recruits in 2008 that got the entire UCLA family giddy about the team's future.

You know everything that happened from that point on. And this is why discussing Howland's future is difficult; he led UCLA to some extremely awesome highs, and now is experiencing some crushingly awful lows. Obviously, we're not spoiled; we don't EXPECT a Final Four/NCAA championship squad every single season, like many did when Wooden first retired (thus creating unrealistic expectations that the next few coaches could never even dream about living up to). But it is fair, based on UCLA's history (degrees of success that no other program can match), location (sunny Southern California, one of the best places in the country to live and go to college), and appreciation in the sports world (again, note the many alums who continually hype the school publically), and it is clear that UCLA should never ever ever have a losing season, and should always make the NCAA Tournament unless there is a VERY good reason (i.e., a team made up highly of upperclassmen goes on a Final Four run and all the starters leave, like North Carolina following their 2009 title).

UCLA did have a losing season in 2009-10, and it was not following a deep Final Four run; it was following a second-round blowout loss, and the team that was left to rebound from that year DID have talent; sophomores Jerime Anderson, J'Mison Morgan, Malcolm Lee, and Drew Gordon were all highly-touted high school recruits, as were freshmen Tyler Honeycutt, Mike Moser, and Reeves Nelson. The team also had seniors Michael Roll and James Keefe, two quality role players who had come up big in the past for Howland's Final Four teams. That team finished 14-18. At least seven talented recruits, a few quality role players...and 14-18. In the worst major conference in the NCAA that year.

Howland was (relatively) forgiven for that season, thanks to his 2006-08 run of success. He was not "on the hot seat" entering 2010-11, but he was definitely under pressure to rebuild the team, and rebuild it quick. And he did...sort of. The 2010-11 squad had far more success than the 2009-10 team (second place in the Pac-10, second round of the NCAA Tournament), but there were troubling signs: the team often appeared to drift through games and not give full effort, especially offensive star Tyler Honeycutt. It appeared as though the team was getting by on talent alone and underachieving, as compared to the Ben Ball Warriors of 2006-08 that OVERachieved at every point and gutted their way to three straight Final Fours. So while 2010-11 did seem like a drastic improvement on paper, it wasn't ALL that incredible. After the season, Howland still needed to show that the team would improve, show 100% effort all the time, and return to the glory days of 2006-08.

You know what's happened so far this year. Prized recruit Josh Smith, critcized in 2010-11 for his weight problems, lack of conditioning, and lack of discipline, appeared to have absolutely no improvement on any of those fronts during preseason workouts. The Bruins fell embarrassingly to a bad LMU team in the opening game of the season, with all of Josh's weaknesses exposed. Afterward, Josh and star recruit Norman Powell both jokingly tweeted about how they lost to "wack bums," something that previous Howland recruits would have never done. Star forward and team leader Reeves Nelson appeared bummed out during the game and on a different plane than Howland, and now appears to be considering departing UCLA. The Bruin guards played listless defense and worse offense, and were soundly outplayed by the LMU guards, who probably dreamnt at night of playing for UCLA when they were in high school. It is just one game, but based on everything that happened before, during, and after, it appears that Howland has not taken the proper steps to improve the team from 2010-11, and instead has seen it revert to the 2009-10 platform. This is not acceptable.

Maybe it's just a one-game anamoly. Maybe the Bruins will come out pissed off, energetic, and enthusiastic in their next few games and roll to a confidence-inspiring winning streak heading into the Pac-12 season. Maybe Howland will get Reeves' head on straight, and he'll go back to being the team leader and offensive force that he needs to be. But one thing is for sure: if Howland fails to do these things, and UCLA either has a losing season or misses the tournament, Ben Howland should be fired. His three-year run of success from 2006-08 allowed him to be forgiven for the 2009-10 debacle of 14-18, which again, should never ever ever ever happen to a UCLA basketball team. His 2010-11 "improvement" was nice, but would not prevent him from getting fired for another subpar showing in 2011-12. Should UCLA disappoint again, with this much talent and these expectations (many news outlets picking them to win the conference), Howland will need to go. There will be no excuse for him if he epically fails a second time with so much talent and history behind him.

Ben: I like you as a person, and your 2006-08 teams gave me some of the best fan experiences of my UCLA rooting lifetime. But as of now, it looks like you have lost control of the team, lost your ability to bring in prized recruiting classes, and failed to show improvement on the (relatively disappointing) 2010-11 season. I really, really hope that you can reverse the trend and bring the team back to where it was with JF, AA, AA2, LRMAM, RW, KL, and others. But if you cannot: you must go.

<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.</em>

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