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Some thoughts on Bruin Basketball ...

A friend of mine shared the following post vial email  few days after Washington game.  I really haven't had the stomach to think much about the absurd loss over this past weekend. I thought rereading this post was a good start for me to move on beyond Saturday. Again there was no excuse for that inspired performance. It was probably the worst game oh Howland's tenure at UCLA.  But fortunately there are still lot of games left. We got to regroup - sweep the last home stand - and get back the momentum we have lost in last two weeks. Otherwise we are going to be staring at the possibility of an ugly trip up in No. Cal.  Not good.  Anyways here is again the post from a long time Bruin fan, BrunBlue, that was emailed to me few days back. Well worth the read given the fragile state of mind of the Bruin Hoops Nation. - N

I was going to start with, "I'm happy to be back. How could I not want to participate in such fervent discussion of our most enjoyable UCLA season in many years?" However, now I see that the discussion is apparently deemed to be over, which is disappointing to me both inherently and morally. So as to try to avoid getting deleted, I will just say that this is what the forum means to me--the opportunity to engage in spirited debate about UCLA sports. Apparently the game debate (and game "debates" are almost always about coaching, whatever the sport), was "ended" 18 hours after the game, which seems indefensible, except on financial grounds.

To (hopefully) continue, I don't think that any coach in the country could have done any better job this year with UCLA than Ben Howland. I don't know if he's the best coach in the country--I think Jim Calhoun probably is--but he's in the top ten, surely. And given the choices available when replacing Lavin (Calhoun wasn't coming, nor was K; Brown will retire soon; Williams might have come but for the NC job opening), I thought Howland was the best. Better than Few, better than Crean, or Montgomery, or anyone else mentioned. We are lucky to have him, particularly given our abysmal record of the last thirty years in hiring coaches for the major sports. And for that, Dan Guerrero certainly deserves credit.

That said, Howland is certainly not a "perfect" coach. Actually, our opinions of him are necessarily still evolving, since he has a rather short resume. We know he can rebuild a program in amazing time; but can he build a consistent national championship contender? Can he win a championship? Who can be sure? This is in some sense the best time for us UCLA fans--as it is for fans of any program which is gaining (or regaining) national ascendancy. Anything we do now takes us to heights we have not experienced recently, and which some of us have wondered if we would ever reach again. We are a definite Top 15 team; have a great chance to win the Pac 10, and get the highest seed we've had since 1997. Suddenly, every game matters, as it has not (at least to me) for many years. I think it was bluegold who said when Howland was hired, "I want to hurt again," by which was meant that he wanted the games to matter enough so that it would hurt if we lost and feel wonderful if we won. That's what's happening now, and it is so great to feel engaged in a major Bruin sport once again.

For those of us who believe that UCLA should rightfully be a national championship contender virtually every year, like Connecticut, Duke, and now North Carolina under Williams, the next plateau is going to be much harder Those three schools will threaten to dominate the championship pedestal, because they have great coaches, and the ability to "reload" every year, no matter how many players they lose early to the NBA. Will UCLA be able to do that? Not yet; Howland has shown some remarkable acuity in recruiting, but most of our players are not complete players, and we do not have the overall athletic talent of those three schools. There is no question at all that under Howland we will be very good--a perpetual Pac 10 contender. But will we be as good as UConn and Duke, or will we be at a level more like, say, Oklahoma State under Sutton, or even Howland's Pitt teams--perennial Sweet Sixteen threats, but a Final Four rarity? That will depend on our ability to bring in the kind of athletes which the aforementioned three schools regularly obtain. If we do, I see no reason whatsoever that Howland's coaching won't take us the rest of the way. In fact, I think Howland teaches the best straight-up man defense in the country, as good as Izzo's, Sutton's, or K's. Give us athletes who can create shots and make them, and the sky seems to be the limit. But rest assured that for us expectant Bruin fans, anything less than that sky is going to be disappointing. And I don't think that is unreasonable, given our natural advantages in this sport.

Which brings us back to yesterday's game. In general (and with the obvious caveat that this is just my opinion, and can hardly be the definitive analysis of a coach who knows more about his profession than I ever could), I think that Howland's strengths lie in his ability to coach fundamentals, and what seems to be a remarkable ability to spot nascent talent which will blend into what he already has. I haven't seen him to be a great "game coach," making all sorts of clever changes mid-game, using the clock brilliantly, etc. Of course, some coaches who have such a reputation are inferior in fundamental coaching, and thus are often behind when they shouldn't be. You know, the "book" on Wooden was that he was not a great game coach, but that he won on the practice court, by teaching his players how to execute, so that game strategy was rarely necessary. I always thought that this "book" was a bit of jealousy on the part of other coaches, but there is probably some truth in it. Wooden never called timeouts, almost never adjusted his defense within the game, almost never ran a play out of a gamebreak or even out of bounds. And we can think back to games like Notre Dame in '74, where calling a timeout might have won the game; but Wooden would prefer to lose the little battles to win the greater war. I remember all of that, as I think that I would far rather have a coach who taught execution rather than one who was a brilliant in-game tactician (presuming that only one in a thousand might be both).

Briefly, then (lol), I am not thrilled at some of Howland's substitution patterns, which often seem to be "automatic," rather than strategical. I think that Howland believes that Farmar (particularly since his injuries) just needs a certain amount of rest, and he is going to get it, no matter what. I am hunching and hoping that in the NCAA's, Howland is going to adjust this, to have his three best players on the court as much as possible. We will see, I guess. I wouldn't have taken Luc out with two early fouls, but I remember that Larry Brown would always take out any player with two fouls for the rest of the first half. Wooden used to wait until three, which I like better. We saw how important Luc is, in the second half; I think that had he played more of the first half, we would have won. But with the way that game was being called (I thought the refereeing was horrible), he might have fouled out early.

As to the notorious (lack of) timeout, Howland is certainly smart enough to realize when and why he used his last timeout. I think he thought his team was tired; they needed a break in addition to the four-minute timeout which was imminent. And of course they did score the go-ahead points on the ensuing play. Of course it would have been nice to have had one more TO to set up a play at the end; but I always think that focusing on a timeout or lack of one in a basketball game is pretty silly. Conserving timeouts to use for last-minute strategy versus using them for keeping one's team fresh and focused earlier is a very open question, and I would defer to Howland on this. I'm sure we all agree that with any of our previous four coaches, a pretty talented Washington team playing unusually tough defense in a must-win game, would have beaten us by 10-15 points; we would in no way have been one rather easy layup, one free throw and one stop from actually winning.

I really wanted that game. We would have been Top Ten; almost a sure conference winner, and likely an ultimate #2 seed, rather than what I am afraid will be our ultimate #4, and elimination by a #1 seed in the Regional Semis. But it's great for it to matter so much, and that's what it's all about. Hey, I'd be happy to debate this game for the next week with other intelligent, fervent fans; and I think we should be able to. It's a nice break from thinking about all that's wrong with the world.

One little postcript, which I can't resist, since I've written so much. My biggest worry about the UCLA future is Darren Collison, and what will happen if he has to replace Farmar next year or the one after. Sure, he'll improve, and he is quick. But what I've seen does not make me confident that he will blossom into the kind of PG that you need to win a national title. Rest assured that unless you have an absolutely awesome front line, you need a topflight PG to be a national contender. Farmar is that; so was Edney. I don't think Collison will ever be; and that we had better be able to recruit at a higher level than Collison, Wright and Roll (who all will undoubtedly contribute some), to beat the UConns, Dukes and Carolinas.