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For UCLA To Get Back On Track In 2010-10: 5 Factors Ben Howland Needs To Address

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All right, let us try to wipe off the Saturday night debacle from our memory at least for now and try to look ahead a bit. By looking ahead I am not talking about the game against Oregon State this Thursday night or looking forward to Ragovic's last home game at Pauley, I am talking about next year.

I still believe Ben Howland has a chance to rebuild once again from the pile of basketball wreckage in Westwood (this time which he is responsible for causing it himself). However, for him to succeed in his second rebuilding project, he and his staff will have to address number of factors concerning our diseased basketball programs:

  • Rebuilding our shattered and demoralized backcourt
  • Frontcourt management: defining roles and developing youngsters
  • The conditioning of Josh Smith
  • Flexibility in Howland's approach
  • The need to fill in a missing link in assistant ranks

Let's go through them in detail after the flip.

Rebuilding Our Shattered And Demoralized Backcourt

I am not going to give up on our current group of sophomores. Not yet. By any measure Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee have been disappointing this season. I believe Lee still has the potential to become a productive player by the time he is done in Westwood. That is going to happen with Lee playing the 2 spot, where he can focus on playing defense, and work on getting his offensive confidence back by keying off his defense. If Lee really wants to dream about the NBA, he should be getting in touch with RW and AA, and find out from them how much dedication and hard work it took on their part for the work they put in during their off-seasons at UCLA.

Same goes for Jerime Anderson. Anderson has been plagued with injury all season. I don't believe he has ever been 100 percent after tweaking his groin during the pre-season and then retweaking it again. However, more disturbingly Anderson seemed to have been plagued with the issue of commitment. From what we saw this year, it did not seem like Anderson put together a lot of effort to get better this off-season and came in with a sense of entitlement thinking would just coast to the starting guard spot at UCLA. I hope the recruitment of Zeke Jones sends him a clear message on what kind of work he need to put in this off-season. In addition to Zeke Jones, UCLA should be bringing in at least one more point guard. It is not going to be an elite one, as the Bruins will most likely end up getting someone like Deonte Burton.

I know lot of people are excited about the arrival of Tyler Lamb. I suggest we temper our enthusiasm a bit considering our experiences with players from Orange County. From what I have read I am hopeful about Lamb but we need to be realistic with our expectations around him. The best we need to hope for is that Coach Howland will give him a fair shot in earning minutes as a freshman (which hasn't always been the case during his seven years in Westwood).

Whatever the final recruiting results are, Howland will need to install an honest competition without gifting the starting spot to any specific player.  I also hope Mustafa Abdul-Hamid sticks around our program next year. Perhaps he will not get the minutes, but we need someone of his character and dedication in this program. He can be a real positive influence on our young guys and he has a coaches' mindset in approaching this game. Lastly, Howland will need to get back to his roots rewarding players who come in the mindset of playing defense first and dedicating themselves to fighting with 40 minutes of intensity and effort. Quiet simply Howland will need to find a way to to shape a leader out of his backcourt who will reestablish a warrior mentality based on work ethic and effort in his program. We have not had leadership in this program since DC's departure last season. If Howland is not able to bring back that culture of work ethic by developing leadership on the court (specifically in the backcourt), he will be doomed.

Frontcourt Management : Defining Roles And Developing Youngsters

Tyler Honeycutt has emerged as the key player for this basketball team. He is a joy to watch and is probably the most skilled athlete in our current roster. It is not clear to me though exactly how Ben Howland is going to get the most out of him in next season.  I would love to hear thoughts from others here on BN, how best we can take advantage of these kids natural court vision and surreal passing skills. He also has shown the shooting touch from outside and AA like tenacity going after lose balls and rebounds. We also have to keep a very close eye on Honeycutt because for the health of this program, it is absolutely essential for Howland not to have just complete buy in from Tyler, but also making sure he is always connecting with him and keeping him inspired enough so that he comes back at least for his third season in Westwood. If Honeycutt high tails it out of Westwood after his second season, it will be a negative mark on Howland.

Meanwhile, Reeves Nelson had a solid start to his freshman season but regressed as the year went on. He needs to work on his FT shooting, watch a lot of game film to get an understanding of defensive positioning and also figure out how to play team-basketball. While UCLA leads the Pac-10 in assists, per ESPN  Nelson has only 8 assists for the entire season. To put in perspective Brendan Lane already has 7 assists and Bobo Morgan and Mike Moser have 4 assists a piece for the season. That is just pitiful on Nelson's part. I am sure he is not a selfish kid and he is trying his best, but that kind of assist number is not going to cut it. He needs to figure out not to become a black hole in this offense and work with Honeycutt and rest of the team to establish a team-first mentality in this program.

Speaking of Lane, Morgan and Moser, I will not bother repeating about the need for PT rest of this season. I do think Lane and Moser have the potential to emerge as productive contributors if and only if their head coach figures out a way to trust them. Similarly Bobo's contributions in the minutes he has received lately has been encouraging but at the same time we have no idea how the coach is going to manage his minutes rest of this season. If I were Howland, I'd get these kids fired up and motivated with more minutes, especially in the remaining home games against Oregon schools, and work with them to make sure they do everything in their power to have a great off-season.

The Conditioning of Josh Smith

Bruins from all over the country is looking forward to arrival of another highly recruited 5 star center from the Pacific Northwest.   Ben Howland and his staff are going to count on Josh Smith from Kentwood High school to contribute right away in his freshman season as a factor if not the starter at 5 spot. That sounds all good but there is a problem.  Scout.com's database listed Smith at 6'9 270lbs to start the season. The most recent update on Smith (as he made the Jordan's High School All Start team) is now listed at 6'9 320 lbs. He gained a lot of weight this season following an injury around December which caused him a lot of playing time in his senior season. In the recent game we saw on ESPN (facing against Terrance Jones) Smith looked somewhat slow and out of shape.

Frankly if Smith does not lose 40-50 pounds by the time school starts next September, Bruins are going to be in trouble. It is not easy to shed weight just like that and it requires an incredible amount of hard work, dedication and guidance from the coaching staff. So that brings me to Howland and his staff. I would sure hope that Coach Howland's staff is on top of this situation and are working with Josh to make sure he is in fit and in good health when he checks into Westwood later this summer. Howland's coaching career will be depending on it.

Flexibility In Howland's Approach

 We don't need to discuss in detail how stubborn Ben Howland is. It took him 14 games to figure out that he needed to play zone.  He still has not figured out that he needed to bench Dragovic midpoint of this season. After experiencing some success with zone, he is now indicating that he will go back exclusively man-to-man next season if he has "the manpower" in his roster.

I strongly believe Howland needs to think this through and not make any decisions until Smith checks into campus. Moreover, it is clear Morgan and Lane have the potential to be very effective in a zone defense.  We saw the defensive flexibility paying dividend last Thursday when the Bruins successfully used a mix of man-to-man and zone to get a nice win in Pullman.

This is a plea to Ben Howland. I really hope he understand the need for flexibility in his approach to this game. He is a great teacher and I will always be grateful to him for how he reestablished this program. However, now that this program is a complete wreck, he needs to understand he will need to be a little flexible, while also returning to roots of building a program around fundamentals and defense.

The Need To Fill In A Missing Link In Assistant Ranks

Achilles has already hit on this point multiple times and I imagine he might have more to say in the coming days/weeks.  We desperately need some new blood in this program. The current combination which has been in place since the departure of Kerry Keating has not been working. Coach Keating possessed a certain skill set (like Jamie Dixon before him) that was crucial for Howland in building his program. We need an assistant of his mindset who is a recruiting gym-rat with a well established reputation within the high school coaching circles and who can evaluate talent and evaluate it early.   Howland also desperately needs someone in his staff beyond Coach Donny Daniels who understands how to build the relationships with players and who understands recruiting strategy (long term, short term and with all the contingency plans).  This strategy includes roster management, anticipating who will go pro early and who won't and figuring out early on who you likely can get and who you can't.

Naturally, no coach will be perfect with all these skills. Not everything can be foreseen or anticipated whether it's strategy or how guys will progress and develop.  Mistakes are made, a program just cannot make many of them (not like we have in recent years).  In UCLA's case, getting a guy like this is doubly important because unlike a Roy Williams, Bill Self or Jay Wright, Howland is not a great recruiter/closer. He's more reliant than those guys because he's a great practice game coach who isn't a fantastic recruiting coach. 

As Achilles explained to me in an email, to use a football analogy, Karl Dorrell needed a guys like Eric Bieniemy because he himself was not a great recruiter or closer.  CRN doesn't need someone like that as much, because he himself is a recruiting animal. Howland desperately needs to make a change in his staff after this season is over bringing back someone, who will fill in this missing link in his program.

So all that said, I think lot of folks are just hoping that everything is going to be automatically get back to normal next season as we will win 25 something games, contend for a Pac-10 championship and perhaps win couple of games in the tourney. As you can see from my thoughts above, I don't believe it is going to be easy. They all are complicated issues which Ben Howland has to address and carefully navigate around in these coming months.

We all want him to get back on top again. I have always appreciated how much reverence he has had for our school and our program. While we hope Howland can get this program back in groove next season, we are going to continue to react positively or negatively depending on how Howland addresses these issues in the near future. If people are uncomfortable with what we strongly believe are reasonable criticisms, then they shouldn't feel obligated to read or visit this blog  Our admiration for Howland here on BN has never been based on blind faith and we would strongly recommend everyone in this community take the same approach in the coming weeks, months and next couple of years.

GO BRUINS.