#23 UCLA now has a realistic shot at winning the PAC 12 this season. Should we all say "great" Ben Howland is now safe and coach for life? Of course not, despite what haters say. But let me put it in perspective in a manner that will make no one happy but I believe is both simple and true. It's about math and how you count.
- If Howland gets to the final four this year and finishes in first in the PAC 12, I think it is fair to say Howland should stay because he has been to the final four and won the conference 4 times in the last eight years. In the abstract that is a good record.
- If Howland fails to get to the final four, it is fair to say that he should be fired because no UCLA coach should fail to make the tournament every other year and fail to make the sweet 16 for five years. (If he makes the sweet 16 change that to once in five years.)
I realize this makes no one happy. Howland has burned some bridges in recruiting in California that make him arguably untenable as a UCLA coach but others with blinders on feel strongly that you must support the coach regardless.
Those who say winning the conference and getting to the tournament is enough have to put that in the context of the last five years. In the same sense those that say Howland is gone have to realize if he reaches the final four the math changes from the last four years to the last eight.
But here is the bottom line. I think Tydides said the Howland must go argument very well:
It's not surprising that the dominant feeling surrounding Howland's final OPUG game is one of ambivalence. Nevertheless, I hope he enjoyed his time here as well, and I do hope he finds somewhere else to land on his feet. I think if he recommits to what made him successful through 2008, and surrounds himself with the right assistants again, he can reclaim the reputation he has lost, but it just won't work here anymore. Thanks for the memories, Ben.
But if Howland gets to the final four this season he has proved he is successful in a new manner. He has proved his offense first approach can work. And I personally think this was a conscious decision by Howland.
The key game in Howland history was the 2008 loss to Memphis in the final four. That team was loaded with two future NBA All Stars (Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook), one NBA starting point guard (Darren Collision) and one NBA role player (Luc Richard Mbah a Moute). Yet it lost to a Memphis team with an NBA MVP (Derrick Rose), two guys who got a cup of coffee in the NBA and one role player. After that game Howland may have felt his approach was good but never going to win a championship.
Most UCLA fans thought Howland lost the game because he did not put Westbook on Rose. Most think it was about defense but Howland thought it was about offense. Howland thought he lost the game because Memphis dared Luc to shoot. Luc went 5-13 and they were almost all open looks. Memphis doubled Kevin Love with Luc's man and dared Luc to beat them and Luc did not want to shoot.
So Howland made a decision to go for shooters. If UCLA had a healthy Travis Wear that game, they win. Travis would have buried the open looks and would have forced Memphis to play Kevin Love man to man. Of course, without Luc I am not sure they get to the Memphis game but put that aside. After this it was guys like Dragovic that Howland went for (potentially good shooters) over guys like Mike Moser (great athlete but not necessarily a shooter). Those sorts of decisions led to the problems of the last four years.
But then what about this season? You look at the current team and the two guys who are not good outside shooters (Anderson and Drew II) are great passers. Further Larry Drew II is becoming a shooter you can't ignore. Plus Anderson in that Memphis game if left alone would have driven to the hoop and made them pay.
As Tydides wrote, Howland's new strategy has been to this point a failure. I really don't see this as a final four team. But Howland says they are peaking now. He is semi-right. The team played the last three games with an intensity that we have not seen in years. But it still seems a semi-decent big man who is reasonably well coached will kill UCLA. Just think Saturday night if Arizona makes just three more of their open lay ups/dunks they win.
And if you think Howland should stay short of a final four, please explain why as a UCLA fan just making the tournament every other year is enough or how a sweet 16 once every five years is good enough for a UCLA.
But if you think a final four coach should still be fired, keep in mind that changes the argument to the last eight years and brings up the image of UCLA fans are never happy. An average of a final four every other year for the last eight is pretty good they will reasonably say.
I really think this is a moot argument. I like watching this team more than any since 2008. But I am not willing to wait another five years for a team that is only good enough to win a really bad Pathetic 12 and win a game or two in the tournament. But if we go to the final four Howland's new strategy has proven "successful" and bought him another year.
And I will guess I will say on the one side:
- At the beginning of the year, I never dreamed that Larry Drew II would be the number one all time Bruin in single season assists. (Shoot I did not think he would even lead the team as I picked Kyle.) I did not think Jordan Adams would do much besides make an occasional three off the bench; instead he has become arguably UCLA's most complete player. Howland deserves credit.
And on the other side I will say:
- At the beginning of the year, I never dreamed we would lose to Cal Poly or a bad USC team at home. I never dreamed we would be dead last in a bad conference in rebounding. No UCLA coach should ever have these distinctions, Howland deserves the blame.
So I want UCLA to go all the way this year but I also want to win the lottery and the World Series of Poker. I don't like the chances of any of them but I will keep rooting.
All I know for sure is it is Howland who deserves the credit and the blame for what happens. UCLA must hold him accountable.