In the wake of Wednesday's release of George Dohrmann's report for Sports Illustrated on the recent fall of UCLA Basketball, the lack of discipline inside the basketball program has come into public view. With this airing of a series of actions - and the general sense of conduct displayed by a number of players over the last 4 years - beyond the smaller subset of Bruin followers that have keyed in on these and other issues in the program and throughout the athletic department over the last several months, one of the thoughts coming to mind is the manner of Coach Howland’s inconsistent treatment and discipline of his players.
As DCBruins noted in his post yesterday, Howland has taken a short-term view of success in coaching the Bruins over the last 3 or 4 years. In focusing primarily on achieving immediate gains, sacrifices that may have a long-term impact often occur. One of those factors that have made an extended impact is the lack of control and discipline exercised in the program, particularly as (not) applied to star, or "key" players on a particular UCLA team of recent years. The treatment of Reeves Nelson over his first two years in Westwood that the SI piece touched on is just one example of a star player - or a player who was counted on by Howland to play significant minutes - either not being disciplined or receiving a weakened form of discipline in the face of egregious conduct among teammates as well as irresponsibility off the court, up to and including conduct which led to criminal charges.
The SI story as well as our posts from Wednesday delve pretty deeply into the allegations and reports of Reeves' issues. As has been noted, Reeves' attorney is challenging the accuracy of some of the specific incidents in the report, though the gist of his conduct while a member of the UCLA Basketball team is pretty well known by this point. The lack of accountability demanded by Howland and of consequences for Reeves In failing to live up to his responsibilities and poor conduct as a UCLA Bruin, including bullying on the court and the locker room was a failure by Howland that even Nelson's parents could not fail to note. As DCBruins noted, the timing of Howland's pushing back on Reeves and the (late) beginning of his discipline is pretty interesting, and points at the presence of the Wear's as the main reason why Howland felt free to finally take action. With the twins on campus and now eligible and ready to play (and produce) at the 4, Reeves became expendable. The misconduct of the previous two years no longer had to be tolerated for Howland to have enough productive bodies ready to play. While Reeves may have been the most egregious case, he is not the only player whose misconduct has been tolerated by Ben Howland in the face of an otherwise unfavorable depth chart and recruiting.
Jerime Anderson was another of the Bruin players featured in the SI story. As DC summarized:
Let's not beat around the bush. Jerime is/was a partying idiot who has disgraced the four letters multiple times. According to the SI article he was a drunken/stoned idiot his freshman year who did not try in practice which we have heard for years. By any stretch he was a terrible player his sophomore year. And after his "good" campaign his junior year he found
stolean "unattended laptop" and was still planning to host a party until the bad publicity forced him to back out.
Jerime did not play much during his freshman season, though his lack of playing time can be traced to the presence of Darren Collison starting at the point, as well as having more advanced freshmen - Jrue Holiday and Malcolm Lee - ahead of him rather than being due to disapproval of his off-court lifestyle - though the side effects of that lifestyle did affect the team. With the departure of Collison and Holiday, Jerime was thrust into a significant role on the 2009-10 team despite the effect that the party lifestyle had on his preparation and level of play. While things got better for him during the 2010-11 season, his offseason arrest for stealing another student's laptop was an offense that should easily seen his dismissal from the basketball team if not the university.
Former football coach Rick Neuheisel - though he ran a clean program during his time leading UCLA, was not the strictest disciplinarian of his profession, kicked three highly regarded incoming players off of his team after an arrest for stealing a fellow student's backpack. Neu let his players get away with a lot - and was enabled by lax oversight and policies from Morgan Center - but at that point of his coaching career, he knew that there is a line that a student-athlete at UCLA - anywhere really - cannot cross and remain an active member of the community.
From the point of view of Coach Howland, at least a severe punishment and time off of the court for Jerime should have been warranted for his breach of trust of the UCLA community. Instead, he was suspended for one exhibition game and for one regular season game. Howland's problem: a shortage of players in the backcourt without Jerime on the roster. With Matt Carlino's transfer the previous winter, the only other point guard on the roster coming into this season was Lazeric Jones. Tyler Lamb and the freshman Norman Powell were available to play on the wing, as well as DeEnd Parker (who played 2 games before injury and family issues led to his leaving UCLA) and some unfortunate Wear time at the 3. Given Howland's reluctance to trust freshmen with significant time or responsibility outside of overwhelming talent or sheer necessity, and the unknown quantity that was Parker, Jerime's presence and ability to play a significant amount of minutes was critical for his hopes for and vision of this season. Kicking him off the team, or holding him out of action for a significant number of games - including the Bruins' nationally televised series of games in Maui - would have forced him to compromise the short term performance of the Bruin team in favor of upholding the ethical standards that we hold dear.
The first real clue to this aspect of Ben Howland's approach to accountability and ethics in basketball was Nicola Dragovic. Anyone that was around this site during Drago's playing days in Westwood knows that BN was not a fan of his playing ability - he had a couple of lights-out shooting games, but the bulk of his UCLA playing career followed a pattern of taking a high number of shots, making a low percentage of them and playing remarkably bad defense. Despite these major flaws, Howland gave him significant minutes and a total of 48 starts in his Junior and Senior seasons. Given the minutes he played and the number of starts he was given, Howland saw him as a critical cog on those teams despite his deficiancies on the court.
Far greater than his problems on the court, Drago had a pattern of off the court problems which included arrests and criminal charges leading into his Junior and Senior seasons. Just before UCLA's final exhibition game of the 2008-09 season, he was arrested for suspicion of misdemeanor battery following an altercation with his ex-girlfriend. Dragovic sat out one game, and the domestic violence-related charge was later dropped. The following fall saw another date with the police, this time accompanied by a felony assault charge stemming from his involvement in a fight while attending a concert at the Wiltern. While facing his second set of criminal charges in as many seasons, Howland placed him back in the starting lineup after sitting out a pair of non-conference games while the criminal process continued. Meanwhile, Mike Moser saw a total of 70 minutes of action in 2009-10, transferring to UNLV at the end of the season while the remaining Bruins - including the youngsters that composed the problem core - were taught a lesson in "Ben Ball" nothing like that displayed by the warriors of the Final Four teams.
Along with Reeves Nelson, Ben Howland has dismissed two other players in the post-Final Four era: Drew Gordon and J'mison Morgan. Gordon "butted heads" with Howland early on, with his conduct during his closing days in the program edging close to insubordinate. Asking Gordon to leave the program was the right call given what was going on with him in the program. As the LA Times noted at the time, the impact on the court was to be blunted by - of all people - Reeves Nelson, who had impressed at that point in his freshman season. Morgan was one of the players that was called out in the SI article as part of the freshman party posse of 2008, and supposedly continued in those ways through a sophomore season in which the 6'10 center averaged 2 points and 1.3 rebounds in the 18 games in which he played. Factoring in the lack of demonstrated improvement and apparent motivation on Morgan's part, together with the impending arrival of Joshua Smith, there was little need for Howland to continue to put up with any problems that he was causing inside the team.
Joshua Smith may be another case where Ben Howland is failing to hold a star player to account. He is not a problem child for the program in the way that Drew Gordon and Reeves Nelson were, but in his two years at UCLA we are seeing the same kind of indulgences granted to him by Howland that hampered team cohesiveness and morale in previous years. His level of physical fitness during this sophomore campaign has been an obvious problem, but an unidentified player told Dohrmann that Howland is reverting back to an old habit.
Smith, UCLA's most gifted player, was a disappointment. He has admitted to a lack of motivation, but players say that Howland also has babied him, allowing him to miss meetings and arrive late or unprepared for workouts. "Same thing as before," says a player. "Josh is a star and so [Howland] isn't holding him accountable." (Howland declined to discuss his handling of Smith.)
Looking to the future, there is no obvious sign that this pattern will end. Tomorrow, I'll talk more about what UCLA Basketball has to come in that regard, as well as the administrative issues that further complicate our coaches' ability to keep full control inside their programs.