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Has "Ben Ball" Taken UCLA as Far as It Can Go?

A guest post from "Bruin Blue" which raises a good question. There is not necessarily any correct answer to this question. We are looking for reflective and well thought out responses to this post. If you have an extensive response with data and citations, we recommend sharing that as a fanpost. - BN

This is not being written as a reaction to the loss at Washington. Or the fact that we have lost in Seattle seven times in a row. Or that we have lost three out of five to Arizona since Sean Miller got there. Or that we now virtually never win as an underdog, or against any nonconference team with athletic offensive firepower. But all of these things seem to tend toward the conclusion that the style of play which we might call "Ben Ball" has already achieved its best results for us, and that we are now potentially locked into a situation which is not at all the most conducive for reattaining elite status.

The style of play Ben Howland favors is what he learned at Weber State, from the coaching tree of Dick Motta, and at UCSB under Jerry Pimm. It relies on tough man-to-man defense, and an offense which is setting picks and screens, continually trying to work for a matchup advantage, or a close-in shot. It is an old-fashioned style. Not that old-fashioned styles can't work, but there is a reason that they are out of fashion. I suppose that Bo Ryan and Tom Izzo play comparable styles, but that is in the Big 10, with blue-collar athletes; and against other conference teams which play similarly. Most top coaches either play uptempo out of nature, or (like Coach K) have adapted a new style to fit the demands of the current game, with the three-point shot, and quicker athletes.

When Howland came here, he revitalized UCLA basketball. He taught defense, such as we hadn't played for a long time. His offenses were always unexciting and unexplosive. But he caught the Pac-10 in a down cycle where with Lute's downward trend, there really were no other good coaches, certainly none which could match Howland's defenses. So we thrived. And we pulled those two great upsets against Memphis and Kansas (though in the latter case we were only a one-point underdog). And we made those three straight final fours, though we were beaten by double digits each trip there, where our offense simply couldn't manufacture enough points to match the firepower of those opponents.

Now, three years later, we are at a stage where the offensive shortcomings of this system are easily apparent. We always struggle to score points. Sometimes it is absolutely excruciating. We start almost every game the same way; dribbling around, looking for an opening, taking the ball back out. We average about ten points in the first ten minutes of a game. Eventually, against teams we are better than, we find the seams in their defense, and slowly pull away. But against teams with firepower, we usually don't win, because we are too offensively challenged. They have more ways to score than we do. Eventually they hit some shots, and we fall behind and lose. Last night, Washington, which is not a particularly good team right now, was 7 for 33 in the first half. We should have been up by ten or fifteen points, but because of our slow-paced and ineffective offense, we were up by one. And eventually they hit some shots, and we didn't hit enough, and we lost.

This analogy is not perfect, but it is useful: Imagine a football team which runs the ball off tackle most of the time, looking for a flaw in the opponent's run defense, or maybe just trying to wear them down. When they play an athletically inferior team, this club usually wins, slowly and methodically. But when it plays a more explosive team, one which can score quickly, it has real problems. The college football game is not the same as it was in 1953. That is why RIck Neuheisel's punting on 4th and short, playing it safe was so pathetic, because eventually the more explosive teams would hit some big plays, and all our conservatism would have no value. College football is about offense, and you have to be able to keep up. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't be fundamentally sound, and stress defense, but you have to be able to score, and hit big plays. In college basketball, you have to score points, because most athletic opponents you face, will eventually do so.

I've seen enough of our style over the last few years, to have concluded that it is not sufficiently effective to beat many top teams, in the regular season, or in the tournament. Maybe an upset here and there, but not enough of them. It takes us so long to score, that every turnover is magnified. Maybe if Howland had a team which played impeccably, very few mistakes, maximizing each possession, his offense could be extremely effective. But as you know, we never keep players long enough to get the benefit of that court savvy and experience. And I don't think that too many L.A. players like playing this style, anyway, which may be part of the reason why they don't stay long enough. For whatever, reason, we seem to be swimming against the tide.

Maybe we'll win on Saturday, and I do think we can win the conference tourney; so maybe I should have waited until the season is over to have written this. But this is hard to watch, even many of the wins, where we grind it out. I can take grinder games, if the end result is an elite team and a national title or two. But I'm willing to speculate now that Coach Howland will not win a national title here in the next 10-15 years, and that he'll make one more final four at best. Continuous turnover of players, an offensive style which always struggles to score points, which almost never takes control early, is not a recipe for elite success. The Final Fours were a great achievement. Do remember, though, that each time, we almost lost in the second round, with two of the games coming down to the last shot, against much lower-seeded teams, because our poor offense kept the games low-scoring and close. Had we lost to Alabama or Texas A&M in those games, this would be more obvious. It is doubtful that a Ben Howland  offense, particularly one which will inevitably have at least a couple of underclassmen starting,  could ever take us through six games in the tournament.. We may well have many years ahead of us where this becomes more abundantly clear.

- Bruin Blue