Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ben Howland: The Tragedy Of Success In The Pac-12

I like UCLA Basketball Coach Ben Howland. In fact, I would say that I am a huge fan of his philosophy. I love that he employs man-to-man defense as the basis for his entire strategy. The depth of his playbook on the DEFENSIVE end has proved time and again to take marginally successful basketball players (Luc Richard Mbah A Moute) and turn them into valuable NBA assets.

Howland came in like a hurricane. He took over a program that had seen highly touted recruits and basketball players (Baron Davis, Earl Watson) languishing under Steve Lavin (Lavin’s defensive philosophy was him yelling “Hands up!” repetitively at players). Now of course, languishing is relative as Lavin’s players continued to manage their way into the Sweet-16 in spite of his ineptitude (big, non USC word there). His first years on the job were categorized by strong recruiting classes filled with athletic-tough players. By 2005, the Bruins completed one of the most magnificent and gratifying runs in the NCAA tournament of recent memory. I can still vividly remember being a freshman in college in Washington state when the Bruins did the unthinkable, in beating that mustachioed (now 2-time world champion) Adam Morrison. Howland’s tenacious defenders led by Aaron Afflalo and Jordan Farmer literally made a man cry like a little girl on national television.

The beauty of those early years, for a large part, was because of the unbelievable level of success. Going to the Final Four three times in four years, while beating storied programs like Kansas, felt right. There is something natural about UCLA being dominant in college basketball. Ever since the days of Wooden, excellence in programs like UNC, Duke, and Kansas became the norm. Fans in Westwood consistently opined for the good old days where a Pac-10 title was assured, almost like a birthright, for the program that hoisted 10 National Championship banners under Coach. Having such great success under Howland, especially with a system that required strong fundamentals, just felt right.

Another beauty of Howland was that his players weren’t superstars; they were college athletes who graduated (albeit sometimes after a summer of finishing up once in the league). Jordan Farmer, though now an NBA point guard, did not get to the league because of his unbelievable athletic talents. But when Jordan did get to the league, he carried a UCLA education with him. The same can be said of Afflalo, Josh Shipp, and Darren Collison. Call me a purist, but I like it when college athletes you know, graduate college.

That’s when the problems started.

With great success comes greater recruiting. Howland, always known for having a solid staff of assistant coaches who can recruit, broke open the national scene and was allowed access to talent the likes of which he had never seen before. Suddenly, the cupboard is being stocked with players like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Jrue Holiday. The first signs of tension arose when KLove and Howland bucked heads over the lack of touches going to the double-double beast in the low post.

The KLove team, like the ones before it, went to the Final Four, but it brought Howland into a bold new territory he had never seen before. His star player left for the NBA well before graduating. He also lost Westbrook and Mbah A Moute to the league in one of the most impressive showings by UCLA in the NBA draft since the 70’s (two top 5 picks). All would be well though, because a top notch recruiting class was coming in to save the day…

Enter J’Mison Morgan, Drew Gordon, Jrue Holiday, and Jerime Anderson. Each highly touted, each expected to plug in immediately to continue a re-load and not a re-build. Bruins fans relaxed knowing we had once again reached the elite level of competition witnessed each year at other college basketball powerhouses. And then, all was lost.

Howland teaches an intricate system that requires years of development. In the Big East this kind of long term approach works perfectly. Young, yet athletic local recruits attend schools like Pitt, Cincinnati, or DePaul and learn over time how to effectively play fundamental basketball. The first few recruiting classes that Howland had at UCLA adhered to this philosophy. Players stayed long enough to learn the system and buy in to what Howland had to say. This made players better and even created a feeling among NBA coaches that UCLA players came better prepared for the rigors of an NBA season than other draftees.

It’s easy to tell a Prince from Cameroon to rebound and hedge ball screens. Hell, Alfred Aboya had only been playing basketball for less than a decade before he moved to the US to work under Howland. I am pretty sure Aboya would have done ANYTHING asked of him so long as he got to continue nailing co-eds in Westwood.

The new talent that came to UCLA did not buy into the defense first philosophy. These guys were all and Rivals top 10 players. They were told their whole lives that their shit didn’t stink and that if they don’t have the ball in their hands, their teams would never succeed. Add all these egos of offensive minded youngsters and the formula for success became stretched. Howland, in a testament to his prior work, still made the tournament led by Darren Collison and Mustafa Abdul-Hamid (just take a look at the names on that roster, unbelievably awesome to have a team with an Aboya, Diefenbach, and Dragovic for entertainments sake).

Howland has had problems figuring out how to address these prima-donnas. Currently, the Pac-12 is in a down year, but look around the West Coast and you will find former UCLA players leading tournament ready teams at UNLV, San Diego State, and BYU. This issue with buying in couldn’t have been on greater display than with the ever tattooed and talented Reeves Nelson.

Often described as the ideal Howland recruit, Reeves had UCLA in the AP top 25 to begin the year. A banger on the glass, a lock down defender, and a player who on offense always seemed to find the bottom of the net regularly, Reeves was the perfect Big-East-Ben-Howland player. However, he is crazy. Bat-shit crazy. Howland wasted most of his season trying to figure out what to do with a player who didn’t go hard in practice and pouted on the bench during games. He tried suspending him indefinitely. Then he did that AGAIN. And finally, Howland found his balls and sent Reeves to Lithuania.

Throughout the process we saw exactly why Howland needs the boot. As much as he stresses discipline and fundamentals, Howland has compromised the very foundation that made his teams great. He himself altered the rules for a superstar. Most frustrating of all is that while Howland has compromised his fundamentals when it comes to dealing with superstars, Howland has not altered his game plan at all.

Teams early on learned that the best way to beat the Bruins is with a zone defense. If you watch tape of any of the Bruins teams since Howland took over, you can see strong man-to-man motion offense when they are defended man-to-man. Players rotate and find spacing on the floor even though the offensive scheme is quite basic and lacks imagination. However, once defended by a zone, the Bruins literally stop moving. They stand around. This was so evident during the recent collapse against UW that I thought the announcers were going to break the microphones screaming about the lack of a presence in the middle of the floor.

This collapse was the final straw for me as a Bruin fan. I have defended Howland for years while many others have thrown him under the bus. I have always pointed out that it isn’t his fault the NBA has too many teams allowing unprepared players to find work (looking at you Tyler Honeycutt). But at the end of the day, teams have learned how to beat Howland. He looks flustered on the sideline and still hasn’t learned to adapt to the game plans of athletic Pac-12 teams.

Maybe it was losing in the Final Four with KLove and Westbrook that changed him. Maybe it was losing his top assistant coaches to UW, WSU, and other Pac-12 schools. Maybe it was having huge gaps at the point guard position after Jru Holiday dipped early to the NBA. It could even be that the rest of the Pac-12 has figured out how to beat UCLA (here’s a hint, ZONE DEFENSE). Whatever the cause, Howland hasn’t learned the correct formula to once again take UCLA to the Promised Land.
Queue self-righteous UCLA rant now…

At other schools, Howland would be commended for his initial success and allowed a huge leash. At UCLA, coaches are expected to win championships. His remarkable run is certainly worth something but not being allowed to dance during March Madness for TWO YEARS IN A ROW is unacceptable. It is time to move Howland along. He will most certainly find a school in the Big East ready to take him back. He will once again coach athletic mid-westerners who hedge ball screens and buy in to a defense first concept. He will recruit players who will stay all four years to learn the intricacies of his system and he will launch the careers of many assistant coaches just like he did at Pitt and UCLA.
Currently, Pauley Pavilion is undergoing the finishing touches of an almost $200 Million renovation. When the Bruins take the floor in their newly painted arena, I want them to be led by a coach who can assure we reload every year. Even though Howland has a great recruiting class coming in for next year I believe the time to let him go is now. He has proven before that big name high schoolers haven’t been the answer to what ails his program.

What’s missing in Westwood is a sense of pride. Bruins never forget where they came from when they look down on the floor at Pauley and see the names Nell and John Wooden staring back at them. To have hope again we don’t need a reminder of the past. We don’t need a coach who has taken us as far as his scheme allows. What we need now is a coach who can remind us of where we need to be and teach our players how to get there.

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