We don't really have to do much analysis of what took place last night against Washington. Everything we needed to know about this year's UCLA basketball team was evidence in Bruins' first offensive possession, when senior scrub Ragovic put up an ugly, impatient, awkward looking jump shot, and then pathetically flailed his arm to draw a foul.
That possession of yet another impatient Ragovic jump shot was everything Ben Howland has preached against (publicly) this season imploring his team to show patience on offense. Yet Howland continued to give favorable treatment to perhaps the worst starter in recent history of UCLA basketball by not showing the courage to sit him down and send a message to rest of the team. While Ragovic put together yet another ugly display of "team basketball," it is Ben Howland who is responsible for enabling him and setting the tone for rest of the team.
The frustration with Ragovic and Ben Howland is not just about anger about minutes of an awful basketball player, who has embarrassed and disgraced the four letters both on and off the court, it speaks to a larger issue of how Ben Howland has mismanaged this program in recent years.
What is happening with Nikola Ragovic is not any different than what took place with Josh Shipp last two years, when Shipp was not being held accountable for not playing defense in number of occasions game after game. In Shipp's defense he made some memorable shots during his UCLA career and was not the same after dealing with two surgeries. Yet there were times when Ben Howland needed to bench Shipp for not playing on defense and sending a message to rest of the team that he would hold everyone to same standard (like he especially does for certain freshmen when he pulls them off the court after their first mistake).
The special favorable treatment Ben Howland has afforded to Nikola Dragovic is similar to what he afforded to Shipp, except it's lot uglier and noticeable. Last night was just a validation of what many of us have been screaming about all season, as Howland and Ragovic got called out for it on national television.
I doubt Ben Howland is humble enough to sincerely admit his mistakes and diminish Dragovic to a minimal role for rest of this season, so that he can get his younger players ready for next season, who also give our team a better chance to succeed by bringing more hustle, intensity, and brains on the court. Even if Howland does it at this point, the damage to this team's psyche is done. Plus we are already seeing signs of Reeves Nelson emerging as the next Ragovic/Shipp who gets to play chunks of minutes without bothering to show up on defensive front.
As for Ragovic, his post game comment is rich (emphasis added throughout):
The lesson from the loss being, "learn from it and forget about it," forward Nikola Dragovic said standing in hall outside the Bruins' locker room.
Inside, there had been long postgame coaches meeting, followed by a few more minutes with players, punctuated by a loud bang against the wall as it broke up.
The time alone didn't result in any clear-cut answers.
How can there be any attempt to get clear-cut answer, when the coach keeps going back to same formula over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
Yes, I understand full well that we don't have any credible guard play in our team. Jay Bilas astutely called out Ben Howland and his coaching staff for miscalculating the Jrue Holiday saga, and failing to see how he was most likely going to go pro after one season. Malcolm Lee is clearly struggling as he does not look to be the answer at 1. Jerime Anderson's performance has been beyond ugly but I am willing to cut the kid some slack because he has been playing injured all season long. Mustafa Abdul-Hamid should get some more minutes, but he is not the answer as our starter.
I don't believe the final result would have been any different if Ben Howland had benched Ragovic early and also benched him to start the second half. However, what I believe very strongly that Howland needed to send a message to his team that he would not stand for his players not playing defense and quitting on both ends of the court. Instead he took the gutless route as he has been all season, by letting Ragovic set the tone. I do believe the way he has handled the minutes of Ragovic (and Shipp last season) has had a cancerous impact on the program and has disrupted the chemistry in this program.
This is why we see a freshman like Nelson speaking up (even though he should keep his trap shut considering he was just as responsible for not playing D):
"People were watching and they can decide for themselves if we gave up," Nelson said. "You know how I have to answer that."
This is why we are seeing soft spoken Michael Roll calling out his team-mates:
Roll was visibly frustrated at times with the effort of some of his teammates, who failed to execute simple passes, were seconds late on defensive rotations and put little emphasis on the glass, where the Bruins were outrebounded 33-23.
"I saw it a lot and it's frustrating," Roll said. "We were down a lot, yeah, but if we come out in the second half and we punch them in the mouth right away, we could've got back in there real easy. But we just kinda folded."
Roll also called out his team-mates (pointing to Ragovic) earlier in the week. This is an ugly situation all the way around and it is all on Ben Howland.
Howland and his team had a great opportunity to build on Thursday night's performance. Even if the game hadn't gone their way, if they came out and played hard for 40 minutes with Michael Roll and the players who are going to be called upon to make meaningful contributions next season, there would have been some positive vibes around this program.
Instead it is toxic and it is ugly around Ben Howland's UCLA program. The responsibility for it falls on the coach whose cowardly leadership (or lack thereof) from last two years has resulted in the current mess. I really hope Howland can fix this in next two seasons, but I am not sure I can trust him any longer. Last night was the most jarring example, why it is getting difficult to have faith in Howland.