UCLA Basketball: Well Coached Teams Finish Strong

Team MVP Lazeric Jones #11 of the UCLA Bruins looks worn down, yet Ben Howland wants him to shoot more threes. (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

One of the marks of a coach doing a good job is steady improvement over the course of the season. An argument could be made this UCLA team was steadily improving at points during Pac-12 conference play. But that feeling has been gone since the Washington State game.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. One of them is Lazeric Jones is being asked to do too much. Zeek leads the team in minutes played, is the team's leading scorer, and even its defensive stopper. In the last three games, two losses and a "moral defeat" he has shot 9-27, and in the last two games 3-12. UCLA can't win often with Jones playing like this.

Once Jones' contributions were better, the Bruins started to play better. He's been the team's most valuable player this season, due in part to him being assertive on offense --something that's been missing lately.

"We need Zeek to take more (shots). He should be leading us in shots attempted or right at the top every game and he really hasn't been," said Howland. "We got to get more shots for him."

A part of Jones being able to be more assertive is being able to play off of the ball more with Jerime Anderson shouldering the brunt of the point guard responsibilities. With that, Jones has also had to guard more athletic wings. On Saturday, Jones was given the task of guarding St. John's guard D'Angelo Harrison.

CBH's solution to the problem seems strange. I would think it would be to either rest him more or stop asking him to try to be Arron Afflalo. Essentially, CBH is asking him to be the team's best offense and defensive player and no one since AA has been that in the CBH era. Zeek is trying but he is looking tired. Even more puzzling is CBH's next instruction to Zeek:

"Late in the game he passed up a wide open three to drive and take a guarded shot. He's got to shoot more jump shots. He's going to the basket and shooting floaters instead of shooting jump shots," said Howland.

Of course Zeek's 2-8 was the best of the Bruin guards on Saturday with Anderson going 0-7 and Powell 0-3. While Zeek's man did score 22 points he did it going 7-19. Meanwhile Anderson, of course, did not box out his man for the game deciding tip-in.

But of course, decisions like asking Zeek to be the best defensive and offensive player or to shoot more threes are part of the puzzling trend. In a piece on the disappointing Pac-12, Bud Withers of the Seattle Times has a whole section dedicated to the "UCLA puzzler." Some highlights:

On the regional cover of Sports Illustrated's 2011-12 college basketball issue was UCLA forward Reeves Nelson. A few weeks later, Nelson was suspended and then booted from the team, breaking new territory for the famed SI jinx.

Of all the aspects in the Pac-12's fall, UCLA's slide seems most mysterious. The overarching theme is that the Bruins have made multiple misjudgments in recruiting, and some trace Kerry Keating's departure from the Bruins' staff in 2007 to become coach at Santa Clara as the turning point. . . .

Some believe Howland's rugged defensive style wears on players, and indeed, some of their departures for the NBA have caught Howland by surprise. Holiday's did, and last year, Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee went in the second round.

Asked recently if he underwent any soul-searching because of the attrition, Howland said, "I don't think we could have done anything different to retain some of these kids. It's part of the culture that is college basketball right now. You have a lot of people getting to these kids and encouraging them.

That is a real worrying statement. Maybe that is part of Howland's problem. He is not ready for the new "culture" in college basketball. I am sure there is more to be said here so I don't want to take a quote out of context. But any way you look at it Howland has made mistakes and the fact that he says "I don't think we could have done anything different" is worrisome. Maybe he is doing something different with the new recruits but there is a reason why he is on the hot seat.

We also suspect how it will go down in Los Angeles, where UCLA coach Ben Howland will be under increased heat.

Westwood is not a happy place these days. A growing of number of vocal, disillusioned alums and fans is calling for a coaching change because the Bruins not only are failing to meet expectations, they are also not playing the entertaining, uptempo style that was so popular at that school during the glory years of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.

Howland, the latest coach attempting to fill the late John Wooden's shoes, has been at UCLA since 2004. He coached the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-2008 but has accomplished very little at the school beyond that.

The Bruins are 15-12 and are struggling in the woeful Pac-12. It has been a dysfunctional season for UCLA, punctuated by Howland suspending and then throwing forward Reeves Nelson, arguably his best player, off the team in December for insubordination. Overweight, out-of-shape 6-9, 375-pound former McDonald's All- American center Josh Smith hasn't helped. The Bruins have been playing their home games in front of 5,000 listless fans at the sterile Sports Arena while dingy Pauley Pavilion on campus is being rehabbed.

No one expects Howland to duplicate Wooden's string of 10 NCAA championships, but Bruin fans expect UCLA to honor the Wizard's legacy by earning an invitation to the NCAA Tournament every season and advancing past the first weekend.

Putting aside the style comment, which I think is irrelevant, the real issue is Howland, barring a miracle Pac-12 tournament run by a tired team, is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. That should be unacceptable to all Bruins fans. Moreover, the way this tired team is playing now, I am not sure a return trip to Madison Square Garden via the NIT semi-finals will even be possible.

Good coaches improve their teams through the season, not drag tired players to the season's end. Howland's team's used to do that. But now, like his job status, that is highly in doubt.

Go Bruins.

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