I am an eternal optimist when it comes to talking about Coach Howland's basketball program in Westwood. For good reasons he is loved around this community and has earned the moniker "the Caretaker of Westwood" as the heir apparent of the greatest Coach ever to lead any American sports team. That said it doesn't mean we cannot be honest about about concerns and questions when they arise about his program on and off court. Right now there are few of them and we have legitimate reasons to wonder about where Howland is taking the UCLA basketball program both in the short and long term. We wonder that because right now we think UCLA basketball is in a very precarious position and how Howland react, adjust and navigate through it in the coming weeks will have ramifications for our program in next few years.
I don't really want to go over the details of last night's game too much. The scoreboard tells the story and frankly the blowout was even worse. I want to focus on few of the big issues that I think will determine what kind of season we end up having in Westwood. BTW after last night we need lower our expectation even more. Forget about making the Big Dance. Right now I am not sure whether we can qualify for the NIT with a winning record at the end of this season. Chew on that for a minute. We are that bad (and it is not going to feel any better tonight after we get done being handled by Butler). So what's our deal (as Jim Harbaugh said last time he left the Mosoluem). Come with me after the flip.
First, the obvious problem starts at our pg. The PG position at PointGuarU is a clusterf**k. It's a mess. I don't want to reach a conclusion on JA. I still think he has a shot of emerging as a credible Pac-10 pg by the time he is done in Westwood. I think it is unfair to make long term conclusion about his game given the fact that he has bee dealing with injuries this season and just doesn't have enough experience as the starting pg of this program. That said, right now he is not a Pac-10 level pg. He certainly wouldn't start for a good team and he is playing for a very bad one right now.
How did we get into this situation? Well the blame lies with Coach Howland, his staff and the primadonna we all know as Jrue Holiday. Obviously Holiday was supposed to be our starting pg this year, but apparently (from what we have heard) he couldn't handle Howland's tough coaching style in Westwood, so he bailed early. Well that is fine. That leads me ask two questions: 1) why didn't Coach Howland have a contingency plan when he knew the brat was going to leave at the end of the season (especially when recruits such as Donte Medder might have been open to coming to Westwood) and 2) why didn't Howland bench Holiday's primadonna a$$ more last season and give more time in favor of someone like ML (who during the second half brought lot more defensive energy and urgency in the game, See i.e. games against ASU and WSU)?
The second question, leads me to my second issue with out team: minute allocation. We find a number of our young players such as JA and ML so inexperience because Howland was too stubborn not to give them enough mins last year. He did the same with RW in his freshman season as well. His stubbornness worked out fine earlier in Westwood because he had enough experience (NBA level at that) on his roster but not this time around. We are seeing that issue again playing out with the minutes given to Nikola Dragovic (and JK).
Nikola Dragovic ate up 22 worthless mintues last night in Anaheim. When he came into the game the score I believe was tied up at 7-7. As soon as he came in his total lack of defensive instincts and intensity, change the complexion of the entire game. The Pilots went on a 9-2 run with him on the court and never looked back. Before Dragovic came in we were not doing too well offensively, but at least we were showing a defensive pulse. We lost all of it after he stepped on the court. The issue is when Dragovic comes on the court, the team loses its classic Howland identity. Ben Ball is predicated upon tough inside-the jersey defense, rebounding, and a solid fundamentals on offense that depends on selective high percentage shots. Well Dragovic doesn't help with any of that (and I don't care much for padded rebounding stats accumulated due to clankers on the offensive end).
Dragovic has no idea how to hedge. He can't really box out. He never finds himself in the right position and he usually sees eithe his man blowing right by him or leaving him wide open. He seeminly has defensive brain cramps in ever possession showing no clue on how to play team-defense. It is a pathetic site to watch him play "Ben Ball". I have no idea why Howland is so obssessed with giving him so many minutes and sitting down players like BL and RN. He didn't do it in his second year when he had no problem sitting down certain Lavin (btw how comical was it it listen to him talk about an "anemic offense" last night?) recruited players so that he could go with AA, JF, JS and LMR. I don't understand why he can't do the same this year. Last night Dragovic shouldn't have been alllowed back on the court after his intial mins. I also though BL played with much more passion and intensity than JK who showed zero signs of urgency and senior leadership on the court.
Third, I am not seeing any signs of Howland holding his young team accountable. Last night was the second game in a row when DG chucked a 3 pointer with lots of time left on the clock? I mean WTF is up with that? DG shooting 3 pointers? I don't understand why Howland didn't bench him immediately after pulling moronic stunts like that. It wasn't just DG who was pulling idiotic and poorly coached "stunts" on the court. Perhaps Howland could have sent a statement if he stated ML at the 1 during second half to send a message to JA.
As for Howland's style of offense, I am not sure he needs to make wholesale changes. The numbers from last few years back him up interms of effectiveness of his offense. However, during last few years he also had college superstars such as JF, RW and DC running it. He doesn't have anyone close to their calliber in his backcourt right now. So he does need to make adjustments, which might entail loosening up the reigns or shifting around his personnel, going with talent and potential over "experience," to make sure he gets the most athletic combination (i.e. more mins for MM) on the court. Right now I rather have Howland struggle with an athletic team that he teaches through taking its lump on the court, than an experienced core, which hasn't proven itself after 3-4 years in Westwood. In other words, Howland needs to do IMHO what he did in his second year in Westwood: go with the youth movement.
This is an interesting moment for Howland. If you think about it he is the ultimate builder/rebuilder of programs. He has done it at three different schools. However, he has never been in a situation where he had to maintain and build on success. This is a first for him. It will mean he will need to make adjustments and some changes to continue the incredible success he has blessed us with in Westwood. It is clear the opponents (and the currrent landscape of basketball with the way draft works) have adjusted to him. It will be up to Howland to make some moves to counter so that he can continue the incredible job of caretaking he has done so far in Westwood.
We will have our game thread up late tonight when we take on Butler. We are all rooting for him.