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Latest Drama in Howland’s Joyless "Soft" UCLA Program

I realize many here will not be very happy with the title of the post. It's a bit jarring. It seems out of place especially after we are coming off a road victory which gave us a much needed split in the Arizona road trip to keep our tourney hopes alive.  But if you read through the game threads of last 2.5 seasons, you will find that is exactly how you would describe the state of our collective minds when it comes to following this program.

Except for one game - BYU - UCLA basketball has been excruciating to watch this season. Last year was a total disaster. The year before the team fell apart during second half after Jrue Holiday all but tuned out Ben Howland following the implosion against Washington State at Pauley. Watching this team game after game has become a chore.

Watching basketball for me is almost like going to a jazz concert. It is beautiful stuff when a conductor strings together different parts of a band to strike up melodious tunes. That is how Coach's team were during the 70s. That is how the Lakers were during show time. That is how the Lakers have been during the Kobe era when they haven't bored during regular season. We got a glimpse of it during Ed'Obannon's senior year in Westwood.

When Howland came to Westwood we knew we were getting a defensive stalwart. We all managed to fall in love with that mindset with guys like Afflalo, Farmar, Luc Richard, Lorenzo Mata, and Alfredo Aboya leading the way. The offense was not anything like we had seen under Jim Harrick or during the Laker's "Showtime" era. But all that was okay because watching brutal and punishing team defense from a well drilled, fundamentally sound squad had its charm.

Somewhere along the way Howland managed to lose all of that via Kerry Keating's departure, horrific recruiting, poor communication between players and staff, and a general lack of discipline in his program. The identity has been shattered and it has been sad to watch Howland flail away to recapture that magic. It is not pretty. It has become a joyless venture for all of us which may be explains why except for the very hardcore (BNers, BRO etc) not a lot of Bruins are bothering to show up at Pauley on a regular basis.

Yesterday was a must win game against horrific Arizona State team. It was a team Bruins should have pounded by double digit margin. They were on their way to doing so despite the usual questionable officiating from Pac-10 officials. At the end of the first half once again there was a huge opportunity for Howland's team to make a collective statement, which they whiffed on doing in previous opportunities against Oregon State and California with first half leads.

Instead we just sat back and watched a Howland team lose its focus in predictable fashion and hang on for dear life. The situation crystallized in an ugly sequence when Josh Smith went up for an unsuccessful "soft" layup attempt. He missed, complained about officiating and then jogged back to the other end of the court to see his team gave up a wide open 3 in a virtual "power play." Jon Gold reported:

It did not help Smith's cause that after he got caught complaining to the referees after a no-call on the offensive end, McMillan got a quick 3-pointer for Arizona State, cutting the UCLA lead to 49-44.

"I just felt like the guys who were in there were better for us defensively," Howland said. "He thought he got fouled on that one play, and he's not hustling back and they hit a three because we're playing five-on-four. That just can't happen."

I appreciate Howland's attempt to "discipline" his big freshman. Really do. The question becomes though where was that discipline for Reeves Nelson when he had been jogging back on transition defense game after game? Where was that discipline for Tyler Honeycutt when he was giving milquetoast effort on the defensive side in numerous games throughout this season? Why single out Josh? Even if Howland had singled out Josh was it really necessary to extend that punishment into double OT?

Why wasn't there any discipline for Reeve Nelson's behavior in Tucson? All that happened after Smith lost his cool during the game against the Trojans at Galen Center? There is also the mess of entire last season when a certain player from Serbia was able to skate through entire season without expending any effort on defense?

The questions do not present any comforting answers. I suppose if UCLA can keep winning (as the Bruins are now starting at two potential program defining games for Ben Howland which will also have impact on this year's tourney chances) and can get into the tournament, there will be some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn't cover up the elephant in the room. Howland's "Ben Ball Softies" are not fun to watch.  UCLA basketball has become a joyless enterprise.