Last week I would have considered myself one of the aptly named "Howlers." In an argument about whether or not Ben Howland should remain UCLA's basketball coach after this season, I would have been the one pointing to the three Final Fours and number 1 recruiting classes as qualifications for him to stay. I would have argued that its not his fault Reeves Nelson is a moron, its not his fault for losing players such as Mike Moser to transfers, et cetera, et cetera...
This week, my opinion has changed. What has not changed, though, is my opinion that CBH deserves one more season.
There is no questioning the fact that this season has been a disappointment on the court and off the court for UCLA basketball. But on the recruiting trail it has not been. Arguably our two biggest weaknesses this year are outside shooting and the lack of a point guard who can run the offense effectively. Our recruiting class as it stands right now for next year includes one of the best shooters in all of high school basketball and a top-5 recruit who is reminiscent of Magic Johnson. Also, next year PG Larry Drew II will be able to suit up for the Bruins after sitting out this year due to transfer rules.
We cannot afford to lose recruits Jordan Adams and/or Kyle Anderson. If Howland is fired, both players have the option to get out of their letters of intent because of a coaching change. That is within NCAA rules and happens often. If Howland stays, those two are Bruins next year, no doubt about it. Then there is the Shabazz issue. Number one recruit Shabazz Muhammed is strongly considering UCLA and it has been said that he is down to three: UCLA, Kentucky, and UNLV. There is no doubt that Shabazz wants to play for a winner and if he thinks Howland can't coach a winning team he won't be in Westwood next year. Nonetheless, Howland has managed to get his interest. A coaching change will almost certainly kill our chances of landing Shabazz. What will absolutely kill our chances? A coaching change plus Shabazz's best friend Kyle Anderson decommitting from UCLA.
A little about this year's team: Two seniors, both PGs. One junior, Brendan Lane who rarely plays (whether he should play more is a different debate). The rest are underclassmen. The rest are unimpressive underclassmen. My point? No one is going pro after this year. No one. Josh Smith needs to get in shape before entering the draft. The Wears don't play defense. Tyler Lamb, Norman Powell, Anthony Stover? No. All of these players have shown at least flashes of brilliance this season. All of these players will be returning. Getting rid of ball hog Lazeric Jones and "point guard" Jermie Anderson while getting back PGs Kyle Anderson and Larry Drew is a huge upgrade. No matter what this team is better next season.
The last thing that cannot be discounted is the reopening of Pauley Pavilion. There is no doubt UCLA has struggled not having a true home court. I'm not saying we would be unbeaten at home, I'm just saying getting our floor back only helps. The players would also be less tired when traveling to away games.
Ben Howland deserves one more season. Not because of the Final Fours, not because its not his fault his number one recruiting class failed, but because he has assembled a recruiting class that addresses this team's needs and will return pretty much the exact same team with another summer for improvement. There is a strong chance he could get the consensus number one recruit in the nation. Giving Howland one last season, and telling him that its Final Four or bust, makes sense. Firing Howland after the end of this season sets the program back more than an in season firing next year would.
The way this UCLA basketball team is playing is unacceptable given our rich tradition and history of success. We have a standard of excellence that must be lived up to. I call for one more season of Ben Howland, one more season with a top recruiting class, and the first season since the Final Fours in which we don't lose pivotal underclassmen to the NBA draft. If Howland does not succeed next year, if he doesn't make it at the very least to the Elite 8, he should be fired. But not yet.