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The Diseased Culture of Ben Howland’s UCLA Program

Tracy Pierson's observations following the dispiriting loss against California Bears (excerpting here as it was a free article):

The Bad-Effort Bruins, kind of like Mr. Hyde, hadn't manifested lately. They made quite a few appearances in the first half of the season, but less in the last month. In fact, it's probably been five games in a row without an appearance, not since the ASU game.

But like a case of herpes, there it was again Sunday, flaring up. It really is so similar to herpes - with its sufferer thinking and hoping that it really has gone away for good, only to manifest once more.

It would have been nice to look back at the effort given during Cal game as something out of the ordinary. Sadly Bruins followed that half-hearted effort with another against Arizona State at home. In that game we found ourselves down by 13 points against an awful Sun Devils squad at Pauley. We then blew another winnable game against a Husky squad in Seattle, and then got incredibly lucky in a lack-luster effort against the Washington State Cougars who were playing without their best player due to an ill timed mistake (for them).

Bruins have played one perfect game during the entire season - that was against Arizona under very special circumstances at Pauley. They put together another full game against USC at Pauley. Other than those two complete game efforts, Bruins' performance has been inconsistent and haphazard all throughout the season. The truly frightening thing about the prior paragraph is that if this blog had existed 10 years ago [give or take] we could have written precisely the same thing about almost any of Steve Lavin's seasons. And that is truly the definition of a program in serious trouble.

As I said last night, I don't think there was anything surprising about last night's outcome. We have been playing with fire all season long and sooner or later it was going to catch up with us. This team has been very much like Karl Dorrell's "10-2" team from 2005 season, which put together a string of "stirring comebacks" but was doing it after getting off to horrendously poor starts and scrambling through a number of dramatic comebacks.

I am confident that Ben Howland is a good tactician. He probably runs some of the most efficient practices in college basketball. What is unclear to me is whether he has the ability to consistently inspire and motivate his players to give their best effort and make an attempt to play up to their potential.

I found it very striking that it took some accurate observations from Greg Hicks of Bruin Report Online to get Reeves Nelson fired up for the Arizona game. Many Nelson fans ate up that story. To me it raised more troubling questions. Why did it take an prolific scout's candid commentary to get Reeves fired up. Kids like Arron Afflalo, Luc Richard, Lorenzo Matta, Kevin Love did not need that kind of inspiration. Those guys were hard workers and they always prepared to give their best.

We have celebrated the idea of "Ben Ball Warriors" here on Bruins Nation. The more I look at last seven years I am left wondering whether kids like Afflalo, Lorenza Mata Real, Luc Richard, Russell Westbrook, Alfred Aboya and Kevin Love just came in with a predisposed going "balls out" mindset.  I give immense credit to Howland for leveraging the dedication of those ball players and guiding UCLA to success. What is not clear to me is whether Howland has figured out how to motivate those players who don't possess the natural born ambitions of those "Ben Ball warriors."

The result from last three years have not been encouraging and they leave open lot of maddening questions whether Howland is someone who can reestablish a hard-nosed culture of defense and fundamentals, who are essential to his style of basketball.

Ben Howland's style of basketball can achieve elite level success if his players are truly committed to playing great defense. Without tenacious defense, no matter how much Howland talks about "pushing it" Bruins will not go far. If Howland cannot get instilled into his players an understanding -  that success in his program starts with defense - and not manage and teach them based on that principle, his program will keep baffling us for the foreseeable future.

I also have concerns about Howland's offense, which I will get to another day. For now I will leave you this from Tracy's article I linked above:

With just four games remaining in the Pac-10 regular season, and then the Pac-10 tournament and almost certainly the NCAA tournament, the season has now become this: UCLA fans will go to bed fearful they're going to wake up and the Bad-Effort Bruins will have manifested once again. The symptoms, over the last month, have presented themselves far less frequently, so, if you want to be relentlessly optimistic, you can certainly hope that we won't see them again.

Unfortunately for us our program is still diseased.

I am not seeing an effective cure unless we see a true commitment to culture change, resulting in a Pac-10 championship season next year.