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The Howland Era Revisited

Our friend Bruin Blue is back with a little commentary on UCLA hoops following Saturday's game. Please note that the following post represents BB's commentary and not the view of Bruins Nation. I noted to BB that I disagreed with this take slightly because I think, even with the new rules, Howland's coaching style works as good as anyone else including Roy Williams, and I am not worried about mass defections to NBA as are some of the alarmists on message boards. Nevertheless, this is an excellent read which gives us a lot to think about. Also note that BB told me that this is not meant to be a negative essay at all. In fact, if anything, the main point from this essay is to appreciate Coach Howland's coaching abilities in today's college basketball world of coaching with mostly talented underclassmen while also dealing with injuries GO BRUINS. -N

Two years ago, before the Final Fours, and after a loss to Washington, which ignited a lot of debate about Howland's coaching, I expressed my opinions about Howland.  My belief, then as now, is that he is one of the very best coaches in college basketball, probably the best defensive coach out there.  However, like any coach (outside of the nonpareil John Wooden, who even so had a couple of critics), Howland is not impeccable or infallible.  His offense is not a thing of beauty, and we seem to need at least half the game to figure out an opponent's zone.  He substitutes rather more than I would like; and while the early timeouts are a legitimate approach, they can be a problem near the end.  Put it all together, and there is no coach whom I would rather have at UCLA than Howland, as his abilities far outweigh these slight negatives.

However, what we are seeing now at UCLA is the burden of high expectations.  It was one thing two years ago to be overjoyed to beat Gonzaga and then make our first Final Four in a decade.  Last year, we expected more, but still many of us (including me) were not very confident that we could beat Kansas and do it again.  Now, this year, we expect a Final Four, or at least will be quite disappointed if it is not forthcoming.  And of course a National Title is something that we consider a very legitimate goal.  In fact, if we don't win it this year, we may not for several years; and that would be disappointing to all.  So it seems as if the excitement of beating Washington State or Arizona or Stanford has mostly dissipated; and most of us are anxious for the tournament to start.  That is great in some ways--that we have gotten so far--but it also causes us to take things for granted, and in some sense spoils much of the season.

I will admit that I am trying very hard to keep my love for college basketball and UCLA basketball at the level of the past.  To me, the NBA, and all those players leaving so early, has made this very difficult.  There have been a lot of discussions on Bruin message boards about which players will leave this year, and who would do what in the pros.  We watch Kevin Love, and for all his abilities, realize that his UCLA career is almost over.  Worse than that, all the natural improvement he will make in the future will not benefit our program.  He is a freshman, and as polished as he is for that level, there are obviously things he needs to improve.  He will, but we won't see it, unless we care to watch the NBA, which I do not.  Whatever he can do this year is what we will benefit from, and that's it.  We are obviously still struggling to adjust from our guard-oriented approach of the last two years to one which emphasizes feeding the post.  Sometimes in games one can see the two approaches conflicting with one another . Again, if Love were here three or four years, it would all fit in; but as it is, we have only the one season to master this, which seems terribly unfair.  And as good as Love is, he is not a physical marvel like Greg Oden, who was more likely to dominate in his one year of NCAA play.  How good was Christian Laettner in his first year?  No one remembers, because he got to play four.  It's really painful for me to see Love, as good as he is, and realize that if he would just stay and learn from our coaches, he would be a dominant player in a couple of years.  But he won't; and that is what Howland must deal with.

Which leads to a key point--that I think Howland is hurt more than the other top coaches by this current state of affairs.  Howland is a teacher; his players improve from year to year more than most coaches' players.  If things were as they were thirty years ago, with no NBA defections, we would be the best program around.  But in this era of the top players going one- or two-and-out, it's the programs like North Carolina which can bring in great offensive talent every year, which get the advantage.  Roy Williams' style of coaching (and he is a fine coach, but not as fundamentally sound as Howland in my view) is perfect for this era, because his offenses are readymade for players with great offensive skills who can come in for a year or two.  Howland's style is made for players to learn and grow into.  Howland's juniors and seniors would be better than Williams', except that we aren't going to be having any juniors and seniors, except for "project" types like Mata and Roll.

So it's the battles of the underclassmen; and UCLA's academic and fit requirements make it difficult for us to match Carolina and Florida and Kansas in yearly recruiting.  We get our share; but we couldn't match Florida's talent in the last two years, and may not be able to prevail with our underclassmen-laden class this season.  Realize that we are starting a freshman (Love), a backcourt of a still-injured junior (Collison) and a junior (Shipp) who is really playing out of position, and a frontcourt of a very raw junior (Aboya) and an often-injured junior (Luc).  Our backups are a sophomore Westbrook, a sophomore in Keefe who is just rounding into form, and our one senior, the hard-trying but obviously limited Mata.  And that's our team.  Yes, other teams are no more experienced, but some have better athletes.  And so we go 16-2 to date, and are obviously one of the top seven or so teams, but we may well not make it all the way once again.

Next year, if we lose all those players whom people are speculating about, we will probably be a little short again.  Again, if Howland could ever get a team of all juniors and seniors, we would be awesome; but we apparently never will.  So our underclassmen compete with those of the other big-time schools; and in the end, talent with good coaching may trump our slightly lesser talent with better coaching.  It did the last two years.  Howland has probably taken us as far as we are likely to go in this era of short-time players and constant turnover of talent.  We are a perennnial Top Ten team, but so are others; and there is no real reason to expect our freshmen and sophomores to consistently outplay the underclassmen of Carolina, Kansas, Memphis and Duke, among others.  I wish that the NBA would go away, but it won't.  Every year will see a mostly new UCLA team; and Howland will do everything he can to teach as many fundamentals as possible.  Maybe that is why we are apparently going after Renardo Sidney--because he realizes that if he is going to rigidly adhere to "fit," he is going to likely fall short at the very end every season.  Howland's coaching is as good as anyone's--but coaching can only take one so far, the way that college basketball exists these days.

- Bruin Blue