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More Thoughts On Howland's Faltering UCLA Program

There were two moments from yesterday's game that crystallized this season for me. If you have the stomach to go back and watch the last two minutes of yesterday's game, zero in on the offensive possession when we fell behind by 3 points (65-68 with 51 seconds left in the game clock). Watch our guys on offense. You will see clearly how hard the guys were trying not to pass the ball to Nikola Ragovic because they KNEW if they passed it to him, he would jack up a three point shot. Of course Jerime Anderson went on to turn the ball over. 

When the Bruins came down again next offensive possession (down by 4 after a missed FT), Ragovic promptly jacked up a 3. You could see how Ben Howland was telling Ragovic that we didn't need a 3 (as Donnie Mac was saying the same during broadcast), yet all of us watching the game, the players - everyone except Ben Howland - seemed to know what Ragovic was going to do at the time. Somehow Howland seemed to be in total denial with an expression as if that was the first time Dragovic has jacked up an ill advised three this season.

As we have said all along, the problems we have had this season is well beyond Nikola Dragovic. We have zeroed in on Dragovic a lot because he is the poster child of Howland's stubbornness and hard-headed mentality that has put his program in a funk in last two seasons.  As shared in the comment section yesterday Nikola Ragovic is just part of a complex set of issues that Howland is solely responsible for bringing upon himself in Westwood.  Before I go into it a bit, I will reiterate once again, we are not calling for firing of Ben Howland (people without basic reading comprehension abilities don't seem to understand it). All we are doing is raising legitimate questions about how the head coach is managing this program and why he has kept pursuing the same fruitless game strategies that are resulting in an underachieving season.

This season if it stays on its current course will be an underachieving one. The excuses of early NBA defections and being young is not going to suffice, when Ben Howland essentially wasted overwhelming majority of the season by building a rotation around scrubs like Nikola Ragovic (who never cared about playing "Ben Ball"), at the expense of valuable developmental opportunities for Brendan Lane (who in his brief appearances showed he is more talented and defensively tenacious (doesn't take much) than Ragvoc), Bobo Morgan and Mike Moser.  The excuses of early NBA defections and being young is not going to suffice, when Ben Howland didn't have the courage to trust the leadership and basketball IQ of a hard working senior such as Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, who has outplayed Jerime Anderson the entire season. So Howland has nowhere to go except taking full responsibility for an unacceptable (losing) season, and also realize this year will be a permanent stain on his record in Westwood.

Unfortunately, from his post game comments, it sounds like Ben Howland is in denial and it's not comforting. Here is what he had to say about jacking up 3s to start the game:

The Bruins, meanwhile, made 20 of 25 shots from inside the three-point line, but were only eight for 26 beyond it. Eight of their first nine shots were three-point tries.

"That shows how much we were hurting for an inside presence," Howland said.

Somehow Howland forgot to mention, he had some kid named Bobo toiling on the bench, who could have provided him with some size down low. Somehow Howland forgot to mention how he could have inserted Lane for Ragovic much earlier in the game, who with a gimpy ankle was more effective and more tenacious than Ragovic. Howland than had the following funny about the waning moments in second half:

"It's inexplicable," Coach Ben Howland said. "I don't know if it was fatigue. I have no answers for that."

Howland seems to be in denial that Abdul-Hamid could have been a more reliable option that Jerime Anderson, who hasn't shown any signs of maintain his composure during crunch time (unless you count that bank in Hass Pavilion).

With regards to Jerime Anderson, I am not giving up on him (or any of our sophomores) yet. What he and his fellow sophomores need is positive feedback, intense coaching who will motivate them to come back stronger and (finally) humbled next season, so they are ready to compete every day during practices and game days. When I feel like counting Anderson out, I am reminded how lost and confused CB (another blue chip pg from the OC) looked until his senior season when he completely dedicated himself to defense. When I see Bobo struggling to grab boards, I remind myself of how George Zidek looked in his first three seasons in Westwood, until he became a pivotal cog for that magical team from 1995.

I also think Malcolm Lee could end up having a decent career at UCLA, if he dedicates himself this off-season in working on his jump shot and polishing his defensive skills at 2G. With Tyler Honeycutt in the picture and a starting unit which might include team-minded players such as Brendan Lane, Lee has the potential to have an above average season, if he comes back for his junior season (Yes, I used the word "if" because we are still hearing rumbling about Lee thinking about the NBA (yes, don't LOL, apparently he is really thinking about it)).

As for rest of this, I am really searching for reasons to remain interested (even though I will be watching all the games like a train wreck). It is clear Howland is intent on wasting it on Ragovic, as he couldn't have sent a clearer signal yesterday by giving only 2 combined mins to Morgan and Moser, while giving 34 minutes to Ragovic despite his sour shoulder and injured ankle (apparently tripping over during layup drills).

As discussed ad nausea Howland had a great opportunity to reignite the fanbase and re-establish the ethos of defense, hustle and effort which built his earlier success in Westwood earlier in the season, by giving minutes to players such as Abdul-Hamid, Lane, Morgan, and Moser, who have given everything they have when they got on the court. Yet, inexplicably Howland has kept going back to same characters in his rotation, who have established an unmistakable track record of laziness, lack of effort, and all around low basketball IQ.

If people are feeling uncomfortable with discussing these issues, then they need to get used it. No one here was expecting a Pac-10 championship or a deep run in the Big Dance. However, given the personnel that were available on this team, it was not unreasonable to expect a winning season as a bare minimum and a team that would play with fire and passion and "bring it" every game. Howland has completely failed in all accounts this season and right now seems in denial about how it was him, who brought it upon himself with his poor game and personnel management and lack of coherent strategies on the recruiting trail.

As we are poised to lose rest of our regular season games and strike out with elite recruits this spring and possibly for the class of 2011, expect the scrutiny on Howland to get even stronger. It is not going to come just from us; it will come from all corners of UCLA basketball, except for the select few "trust in head coach crowd," who are never willing to brace the reality.

For Howland's sake, we really hope he actively looks to bring in someone in his coaching staff, who can provide some much needed confident strategic feedback, that is necessary to get his faltering program back on track.