What's wrong with Ben Howland? Before I can get to that let me just say the question can no longer be IS there something wrong but now it is WHAT is wrong. With all due respect to Cal Poly and their classy coach, this was the worst loss ever for UCLA basketball.
Five quick reasons why this was the worst loss and then let's go on to the larger issue.
1. Cal Poly is not a team of hidden gems or even a diamond in the rough. Their best player, Chris Eversley, went 6-16 in the game. There is not one Cal Poly player that can make the UCLA roster.
2. Cal Poly had a losing record coming into the game and had not scored 70 points this season. This is not a good mid-major.
3. Cal Poly shot only 32% in the first half and were down by 2. They shot an unspectacular 44% and 36% from three for the game. Cal Poly did not play at a magical level or rain down lucky 3 point bombs.
4. Cal Poly's unrated Freshman Brian Bennett had more points on fewer shots than UCLA's 5 star freshman Shabazz Muhammad. Anyone think Bennett is a better talent? This was not a case of a bunch of experienced seniors out playing a bunch of talented but raw freshman.
5. How is this stat: "Not only did the Bruins enter the game as 18.5-point favorites, they also had a 99.8% chance of winning when they led 51-33 with less than 12 minutes remaining in the second half, according to kenpom.com." This loss was unprecedented on every level.
Cal Poly beat UCLA. And really UCLA is lucky this did happen to another mid-major with a losing record, UCI (currently 3-4), which beats UCLA if a kid makes one of two free throws.
So this is not a fluke, you cannot explain this away, but we can all agree this is completely unacceptable.
So what is wrong?
1. Theory One -The Players are at Fault by ESPN
It was almost as if the Bruins thought they could just coast to the finish after opening a 51-33 lead with a little more than 12 minutes to play. You almost got the sense that they thought Cal Poly would fold just because they were playing at Pauley Pavilion against mighty UCLA.
. . .
Maybe they started believing their own hype, because it sure seems like a team that feels it can merely walk on the floor and win games just with its presence. The team plays with very little sense of urgency, shows a disturbing lack of hustle and appears to lack on-court chemistry.
Cal Poly, a middle-of-the-pack Big West team, had as many rebounds as UCLA on Sunday, outscored the Bruins 28-16 in the paint and had 12 second-chance points to UCLA's six. The Mustangs had eight steals, while UCLA had only four.
Those are hustle stats and indicate that UCLA simply wasn't playing hard, especially against a team the Bruins should have no trouble beating.
Of course Ben tried to say this in his press conference where he said his players were "unathletic." Really? More so than a bunch of kids from Cal Poly? That is not why Ben lost to Cal Poly.
Besides even if this team is not the most "athletic," this is the team Ben wanted. This was his dream recruiting class plus some other players Ben really likes. He called Larry Drew II indispensable and his love of the Wears is known. This is a team littered with McDonald's All Americans. Trust me, Cal Poly would love to have anyone from UCLA on their roster. No ESPN and Ben, the players are not the problem as almost any coach would love to have at least some of them.
2. Theory Two-" Ben has lost his players" from Bruin Report Online
The significant element for this team, too, that we haven't mentioned yet but is also clearly evident: the team looks miserable. Not only because they lost this game, but in playing basketball. They clearly aren't having fun. And they don't look like they're engaged at all in what Ben Howland is trying to accomplish. At this point, right now, Howland looks like he's lost the players.
So much of the season will hinge on whether he can get them back.
Nestor has been writing for years of the joylessness of playing for Ben. Even, Ben's biggest defender in the pros, Darren Collision, once said playing for him was like "eating your vegetables" a necessary learning experience but not fun. There is certainly some truth here. Smith has the ability but it seems he would rather be anywhere than playing for Ben. Brendan Lane, Mike Moser, and Tyler Lamb were all good kids according to Ben who left anyways.
But I find it hard to believe this is the biggest reason. Shabazz is the definition of intensity and hard work. Kyle Anderson's high school team dismissed 8 players and still won a high school championship. Jordan Adams and Tony Parker are both guys who lost significant amount of weight to get ready for the season. These are guys who want to be taught and learn. These are kids who want it.
3. Theory Three - Ben Howland is Playing Favorites from Bruins Fans
From what I see, I see probably one of the two worst UCLA basketball teams from this past decade. I see a team which is not playing up to its potential and playing without heart and effort on too many Saturdays. I see a team where the players have tuned out the head coach and perhaps just frustrated and puzzled by the fact that the head coach is clearly playing favorites with certain characters on the team.
Yelled by a UCLA Fan: "Howland you can't start two Wears. Don't you read the blogs!"
Me: "Which blog?"
Fan response: "Any blog! They all say it."
The latter quote I heard in the UCLA section in Brooklyn against Georgetown. But the first quote was not written recently but rather by Nestor January 16, 2010. Scary that this applies so well to today as well.
UCLA has two players averaging over 30 minutes a game, Larry Drew II (an outrageous 34.5) and Travis Wear 31.2. Does anyone believe they are the two best players? I could make a strong argument they are the seventh and eighth best players on the team. Travis leads UCLA in one statistic, turnovers per game. Larry Drew II is the opposite; he has the fewest shot attempts of all seven players (plus Jordan Adams) to start a game for UCLA. He has a lot of assists but he is a passive player. He is almost just there.
Then there is David Wear who I think is ninth best player on the team. Yet David, Travis, and Larry have started every game but the one that David was hurt. Can't somebody whisper in Ben's ear: Psst. Ben, it is hard to win if you don't play your best players. Psst Part 2. The Wears are identical in looks and very similar in play, it does not help to have two of them on the floor at once. Psst Part Three. There is a reason these guys were bench players for North Carolina.
And when Shabazz came back, Ben's solution was not to bench one of the 7-9th best players on the team , the North Carolina transfer players. Nope, he benched Kyle Anderson.
Even the biggest Ben defender must admit he does play favorites.
4. Theory Four - Howland Can't Coach by CBS (emphasis mine)
But UCLA is the story, and UCLA's story again is an underachieving quagmire of a club that in no way resembles the UCLA that reclaimed its rank among the nation's best programs when it went to three straight Final Fours from 2006-08.
We've gone through this before with Howland and UCLA. It's been an uncertain ride for the past few years, only this time the recruits are there and everyone's patience has about run out. Well, the worst loss of them all has hopefully come to roost. Only thing now is to hope Howland can coach -- actually coach; really, truly, fully coach -- his team out of the dark and get a bunch of four- and five-star recruits to jell like the way they do in Lexington, Lawrence, Durham and Bloomington.
This is the best reason for me with a catch. Howland can coach but only one way. Howland can teach players over time to run good set offense plays which helps them in the pros where you run plays (It was also a key to his success at NAU). He can teach man-to-man defense as well as anyone to those who have the tools which again helps pro players. He can make a willing athlete into a great defender such as Russell Westbrook or even Malcolm Lee.
But this is not a pro training camp but rather this is a talented young NCAA team. According to Ben, this is a team he wants to run. But there is a catch, Ben can't teach running basketball. The CBS article has a great picture of the NC three standing still while a Cal Poly skies over them. But that is not the picture I have of the problem; that goes to number 3 more. The picture I have is Josh Smith on the break and air-balling a layup before collapsing earlier this season. Or the number of times against Cal Poly David or Travis Wear tried to lead the break and it ended up in a turnover and disaster. Or even the time Shabazz tried to lead the break.
Tydides screamed "Yes" in the Cal Poly game thread when Kyle Anderson led a nice break and passed to Shabazz for the dunk. That is how a fast break is supposed to look and it has happen once this year. Get the ball to the Point Guard in the middle who dishes it. It was not Kareem Abdul Jabbar leading the break for the Showtime Lakers and passing to Magic on the wing. It was not even James Worthy passing to Magic. It was Magic leading the break. That is the way it works.
But even worse, I have watched all but a couple minutes of every game this year and two of the China exhibitions and I don't recall Larry Drew II, our starting point guard in our "running offense", leading a break. Yet I have seen Josh and Travis, the two players who have played the most at Center, lead them. It is as if in trying to run, Ben has made the team worse then if he did nothing.
This is not the first time either. In 2010-11 when we briefly tried to play up tempo before Josh emerged, the breaks were led by Tyler Honeycutt (who people nicknamed THTO) and Reeves Nelson, a power forward.
I am very serious about this: Ben, do you know how to run a 3 on 1 or a 2 on 1? Do you ever practice it? You have a great passer and a 28% shooter Kyle Anderson playing the wing, where players are supposed to finish the break and shoot outside in a set offense. If you want to run, why not play your best point at point guard on offense? Another Anderson, Jerime, use to drive me crazy on how terrible he was at running a break. Maybe that was not Jerime's fault but Howland's fault.
And then let's get to what made Ben famous: Defense. Ben if this team is as "unathletic" as you say you can't play man to man only. You beat Georgia with a zone. A very long but relatively slow team would be better in a zone.
But you refuse. This is the team you wanted but will you play to its strengths?
I am now thinking something I never dreamed I would say. This team right now would be better off "coached" by Steve Lavin. Lavin would pick the five best guys (okay he often had a pet but just one not three) and let them play. He would play zone some, man some (heck he might not know), but he would not have Travis Wear leading the break and he would not have three NC rejects starting playing man to man.
And no, I do not want a Lavin or a Lavin type. Lavin could never get to the final four like Ben did. But right now Ben is making the team worse then if they had a caretaker "coach." A Lavin type would get us to an unacceptable Sweet 16 on talent alone. A good coach would get this team further.
Right now Ben is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole coaching man to man defense and outside his comfort, or even knowledge, zone trying to coach a running team. This is worse than a caretaker coach as we can't even beat an average mid-major at home. Howland is hurting the team.
Enough. Maybe the question is wrong and the theories misdirected. Maybe we should be looking at Athletic Director Dan Guerrero. Why Dan Guerrero did you keep a UCLA coach who had missed the tournament for two out of the last three years? Did he really think that Ben Howland could change his spots and make a running team? Did you really think this team would not have in season transfers? What is going to take for you to fire Ben? Do we need to fire you too?
I am a UCLA fan. I want to believe, still do, but enough is enough. Time to say goodbye Howland. Thanks for 2006-08, that was fun.