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Danger Signs: UCLA's Problems Under Ben Howland Run Deep

By BruinBlue

A good deal deeper than Nikola Dragovic, who is a terrible player, but who will mercifully be gone soon. Deeper than James Keefe, who tries, but who inexplicably got worse in four years.  Deeper than Malcolm Lee, who has flashes of talent, but who spends every day thinking of how to get out of here.  Deeper than Bobo Morgan, who is a cheerful mediocrity; or Jerime Anderson, who is actually painful to watch; or even Drew Gordon, who took off seven games into the season.

Our problems come down to two indisputable facts: We have unaccountably recruited several inadequate players in the last few years. And those few players we have recruited who have great potential, almost always vacate the program after one or two years. And it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that you absolutely cannot have an elite program with this formula. It is like the algebra problems where the reservoir is being filled with water from one hose, while it is being drained by another hose which is more powerful and faster. We recruit some players; some of them are no good; the ones who are good take off; and we have to immediately recruit some more of them. And if we should start to become unable to recruit many top players--and I think that this is going to become a real possibility--well, you can pretty easily predict the ultimate outcome.

We haven't gotten to that stage yet, but I am not at all optimistic that we are going to be able to recruit well in the next class. We've got a few players for next year. Smith is definitely a strong recruit, and Lamb is probably pretty good. And then we have a JC player who won't be here long, but who might help. Other than that, we are apparently going after Europeans (shudder), more JCs (hard to imagine it has come to that), and undersized sleeper players (smacks of desperation). Why should anyone just blithely imagine that this is going to get better next year or the year after that?

We know that Ben Howland can coach fundamentals--well, at least defensively; his offenses have never been much to marvel at. I like Howland; the fact that he is self-deprecating, takes responsibiilty, never criticizes his players in public; has great reverence for the program and for Coach Wooden. And he has had too much success to suddenly start thinking that he is not a fine coach. But a crucial part of coaching--particularly in this era--is recruiting. If you don't recruit the right players, the best fundamental coach around can't do too much with them other than what we are seeing this year. It is almost a tragedy in a basketball sense that Howland's signature, his suffocating man to man defense, had to be jettisoned, simply because he and his staff didn't recruit enough players capable of playing it. So we went to a zone, and probably got a few more wins because of it, but at what cost to future development? I guarantee you that if we keep playing that zone year after year, we are not going to beat too many good teams. it is a limited defense which is an admission of weakness, and which can almost never bring you from behind late in a game. Syracuse is the anomaly there, but Boeheim has been coaching the same zone defense for 30 years, and he recruits specifically for it. No other elite or semi-elite team plays a zone most of the game, like we are doing.

If Lee stays, we should actually be pretty good next year, except that we don't have a creditable point guard--unless Lazeric Jones is a real find. But Lee obviously wants out, and maybe some NBA team will draft him on the second round. If Lee stays, then we have to realize that he is certainly gone after next year, and that Honeycutt, our absolute best prospect, will likely be gone, too. And then where are we? Smith for his final year here; Nelson; Lane, who has real potential, though we haven't seen much of it yet; Stover, who may be a four-year project; Moser, who may be a bust, or not; Anderson (heaven help us); Morgan (see Anderson); Lamb, and Jones for a final year.. And then whomever else we manage to get this year (Euros, JCs, sleepers), and whomever we can manage to recruit next year. It isn't too appealing a future, as I see it. I do wish I could be more optimistic about this, but outside of just hope, or blind faith, I don't see how a rational perspective can warrant it.

And recruiting is going to get tougher now, because unfairly or not, Howland has a somewhat negative reputation as a players' coach, or as someone who plays a style that the kids want to play. He really doesn't deserve this, but it is there. And with all the big-time schools out there--Kansas, Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio State, et al--and with Arizona now poised to contest us for L.A. players, it is really hard to believe that our recruiting future is bright.

So do we need a new coach? Well, we would be unlikely to get a coach as good as Howland, but we could get one who might inject a desperately needed new energy in this program, and who could recruit more effectively. But it is essentially academic, because Howland is not leaving anytime soon. So our only hope is that he is chastened enough and perceptive enough to completely revamp his coaching staff. I would hope that he gets rid of all three of them, or at least Duncan and Garson, and brings in people who can teach, and people who can recruit, and perhaps act as a buffer between some of the more sensitive players and him. Without this, I could well see us mired at a level where we are somewhere in the top 40 teams, and occasionally have a team which is top twenty, but that's it. Howland will coach them up, such as they are, but the teams with the better and more experienced athletes will usually prevail.

I'm not writing this because of Saturday's loss, although it is easier to express such sentiments after losses. We had our little blip upward this year, where we turned from an absolutely embarrassing team to one which at least was competitive in the weak Pac-10. We'll probably finish 9-9 in league, end up with a losing season, and no postseason anywhere. Next year, I could actually see top 20 if Lee stays and if Jones can actually be a real factor. But after that, I could see a regression, if Lee and Honeycutt go. And how many of these kind of years can we just pass off as "a slight down cycle, to ultimately be followed by a return to elite status?" You can't be elite if you don't have very good and very coachable players, at least some of whom stay more than one or two years.  It is a sobering reality that we have to face, but it is better to face it than to ignore or whitewash it, if we are to have any hope of avoiding that fate.