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Trust, Ben Howland & UCLA Basketball

Howland coaching his Ben Ball Warriors to a suffocating defensive throttling of LSU in his First Final-4  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Howland coaching his Ben Ball Warriors to a suffocating defensive throttling of LSU in his First Final-4 (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Let's start this hoops posts with three quick notes:

If you are following the national conversation around hoops, it will become pretty clear that we have already become kind of a joke. We know that is going to hurt the feelings of few coach worshipping loyalists, but that is the reality. So like it or not after two historic losses against mid-major programs, as Tracy Pierson put it his post game wrap dubbed "Wow, Part 2," it's officially "panic time" in Westwood. Perhaps there is still time for Howland to get us out of this train wreck, but time is short at this point. Howland needs to take some dramatic steps to get back to his roots, with a total commitment to defense, to bring UCLA basketball out of the malaise that has held back this program for last three years. Extended thoughts after the jump.

Heading into this season there were lot of high expectations around the hoops team. Pac-12 media picked us to win the conference. We were ranked in top-20 in most of national polls. Now I didn't necessarily think we had a top-15 team but I do think we have enough talent on this squad to put together a borderline top-25 program, contend for the conference, and improve upon the aggregate performance of last year (which was a barely average year per the normal standards of UCLA basketball). Instead we are now facing a disastrous start and the worst one since Lavin's last year in Westwood. I still think there is a chance for Howland to save this season and close it with a strong recruiting class, but the window is getting narrower.

We have been concerned for the status of Howland's basketball program for a while here on BruinsNation. If folks need to refresher, I'd recommend revisiting this post f rom February of 2010, when we laid out 5 factors Ben Howland needed to address to get UCLA basketball team back on track. They were:

  • 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

Well I will say Howland at least made some moves to address the "missing link" in assistant ranks by bringing in Phill Matthews and Kory McCray. He also brought in Tyus Edney in his staff (not officially as a coach). It is unclear whether any of them will turn out to be the recruiting ace/mentor role Kerry Keating played over the years. We will see how UCLA closes during spring recruiting signining period and how the team chemistry is managed this year before making any final conclusions.

As for other factors, suffice to say not much has changed. Our back-court, even after two years, remains a discombobulated mess.  We don't have any viable point guards to run our offense. It is telling when UCLA fans were longingly looking at Jerime Anderson as a possible solution to first game debacle. Anderson IMO is a better pg than Jones then again that is saying Kevin Prince is more serviceable than Nick Crissman at QB.

We thought we were deep up front. Yet after two years the roles remain unclear and confusing. I thought the Wear Twins would provide decent depth for the team. I didn't anticipate that they would emerge as Howland's primary options. It's only two games but their inability to play "Ben Ball defense," to block out or provide help on defense, is becoming a huge concern.  

It's going to take a while to figure our Reeves Nelson issues and frankly it's not a surprise that we are to this point given Howland hasn't done much in last two years to hold him accountable. It is also problematic to see how Howland continues to treat guys like Brendan Lane, who has shown patience and maturity through three years of our program. I was dumbfounded to see how he got 26 seconds in each half as he was pulled after he made mistakes that Wears were making all night long.

I don't think I need repeat the concerns about inflexibility in Howland's approach. It is stunning to me how a guy like Howland didn't anticipate that with his slow footed front court, there would be a need to play zone this season. Howland conceded in his post game presser that he may try out zone now, but the question folks should be asking why did it take a disastrous result for him to him consider this obvious option? Why didn't he have his team prepared during the pre-season by practicing some basic zone defense concepts.

Speaking of unprepared there is not much to say about Josh Smith's conditioning. I just feel sad for all parties involved that he hasn't been properly motivated or taken it upon himself to take advantage of the God given talent with which he has been blessed. It's a sad situation and I guess that goes for the entire team.

So after two years we haven't seen much progress. Yes, the team made the Dance but that hid the fact that the team put together number of humiliating losses that was peppered through the season.

Back in March of 2010, the frontpagers also collectively observed this:

From our vantage point, Howland encountered what we see as a "perfect storm" of early NBA defections, injuries, and recruiting malcontents.  Given how it was Howland's staff that failed to foresee and prepare for some of these developments (many that were anticipated by almost everyone else, i.e. Jrue Holiday's early departure), how long it took for Howland to make obvious adjustments and the way he developed personnel on his roster, the season didn't even live up to bare minimum of expectations of putting together a winning record in Westwood.  Ironically, and make no mistake, this season still has been an underachieving disaster, because, despite all the problems, we still have a better team on paper than some of the teams that beat us.  Even with all the roster problems this team managed to underachieve.

However, while we have lobbed heavy criticism in how he has managed this program, we still think he is the right guy to be in charge of our program at this snap shot in time.  Yet our support doesn't mean we have complete trust in him given what we have seen on the court.  It means that he has to earn back the trust which was lost this season.

Needless to say Howland is making it very difficult to earn back that trust. We have already noted extensively how a losing basketball season will not be acceptable at UCLA. From another post in January of 2010:

I realize Ben Howland's first year was a losing one. However, I never counted that record on Howland because it was a result of the total decimation of the program under the previous "poser" of a head coach. However, if this year results in a losing record, Howland will be solely responsible for it. He will have to fix it without making any kind of excuses and taking definitive measures to ensure that it never happens under his watch in Westwood.

Now, note very carefully. There is no way I am suggesting that UCLA should be firing Ben Howland if we end up suffering a losing season in 2009-10. That is not the case. However, what I am arguing is that if this season ends up being a losing one, there will be no excuse for it and should end up putting Howland under pressure to not only produce a 20+ win season and a tourney run next season, but he also needs to instill confidence that a losing season in 2009-10 was nothing short of an aberration.

Suffice to say lots of questions now whether that 2009-10 was an aberration.

All this said, I think Howland still has a way out. I am hoping he and Nelson will communicate with each other effectively and put that drama behind them (maybe there is still some hope on that front). More importantly, what I want to see from Howland is a true commitment to go back to his roots - defense and fundamentals - by having that reflected through personnel on the court.

This means I would like to see Howland go with a rotation something like this:

Starter Anderson Powell Lamb D Wear Smith
Reserves Jones Anderson Parker Lane Stover
          T Wear

If Nelson comes back with a total commitment to program, I'd eventually consider starting him over David Wear and make D. Wear the first forward of the bench. I'd ensure that Lane gets at least 15-20 mins a game depending on the needs at 4 and 5 spot. Also, wrt to A

I think it's key to have Anderson, Powell and Lamb play together as much as possible because together I think they can give us the best combination of defense around the perimeter. Lamb is struggling with his shooting but I think he will get it back. As for Powell, Howland must find a way in himself to trust freshman talent and enable him to grow through mistakes. He can't make the same mistakes with him as he has with numerous other youngsters documented over the years.

Most importantly, the team on the court should be the extension of Howland's original personality: a fierce competitor who brought UCLA basketball back through fundamentals and defense. He has lost that vision in last three years. If he wants to regain the trust back of this community, he needs to get back to his roots. Despite my harsh observations, I am still rooting for Howland. Really hope he will not let us down like what we have experienced with Rick Neuheisel and UCLA football.