On the heels of Sports Illustrated’s piercing exposé into Ben Howland’s loosening grip over UCLA hoops program last March, Kentucky’s one-and-done philosophy manifested itself into the program’s eighth national championship. Likewise, in a depleted Pac-12, UCLA failed to even earn an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. As a result, Howland borrowed from John Calipari’s playbook.
Prior to UCLA, Howland’s resume at a major conference program was shorter than Chris Webber’s R&B career. Howland has solid coaching acumen, but lacks the gregarious personality and gift of gab that has given Calipari the ability to reel in recruits and excitement around the program. Consequently, for the last few years, Howland has been taking body shots from the UCLA fam. As time has gone on, these jabs have gradually been building to thunderous uppercuts.
In the Wizard of Westwood’s shadow, UCLA’s sideline overseers are expected to maintain a firm stranglehold over the Pac-12. There haven’t been many moments of tranquility for Howland at UCLA. Howland is mired in a quandary similar to the one that had Tubby Smith fleeing Kentucky with a frustrated pitchfork-carrying mob in pursuit. At a football school, like Texas, for example, Howland’s three Final Fours would bless him with a substantial grace period. At a hoops cathedral like UCLA, Howland’s leash has been shorter than a Catholic priest during Lent.
Thursday night’s buzzer-beating win over Washington should have given Howland the opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, the next day’s top storyline was Muhammad huffing and puffing off the court after not getting the final shot.
During the broadcast, ESPN hoops philosopher/analyst and UCLA legend Bill Walton cracked on the Bruins’ sorry attendance, style of play and compared the atmosphere in Pauley Pavilion to a dentist appointment. The team, in recent years, has become a haven of dysfunction, where insubordination and reckless abandon have become the norm. Simply put, Howland’s UCLA bandwagon is driving along an icy cliff on two donuts and a pair of tireless rims.
UCLA’s second win was a one-point overtime victory over UC Irvine. The Bruins were also toppled by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo after blowing an 18-point lead at home. Improving to 9-3 didn’t prevent rumors from swirling that a loss to No. 7 Missouri would spell the immediate end for Howland in Westwood. After rattling off 10 wins in a row, UCLA dropped three losses in four games.
Howland’s early coaching was defined by his success in molding Pittsburgh’s blue collar program into a Big East powerhouse. In nine seasons at Northern Arizona and Pitt, Howland never landed a single future NBA pro. To maintain UCLA’s lead in total national championships over Kentucky, and his job, Howland’s recruiting philosophy has undergone a more drastic alteration than Lil’ Kim’s face.
Before UCLA’s current freshman crop, 2009 represented the last time they collected a recruiting class ranked among Rivals’ top 18. Ironically, the ’09 class was an unpinned grenade in the hand. Four out of Howland’s five recruits were dismissed or transferred, while Tyler Honeycutt became a second round pick after his sophomore season.
Howland netted Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker and Jordan Adams as part of a 2012 class considered an equal to Kentucky’s.
Anderson is UCLA’s 6-9 glue guy and point forward, but would probably be more productive as the permanent point guard if senior Larry Drew II weren’t one of the nation’s best distributors. Adams was the Bruins leading scorer while Muhammad served his penance for accepting impermissible benefits. Unfortunately, UCLA has not taken the form of a national championship contender as expected. Not only have they underachieved as a national title contender, the Bruins may end up dateless for The Big Dance.
While Calipari’s Kentucky and Memphis teams thrived on high-flying offenses, Howland’s signature has been his man-to-man pressure defense. In Howland’s three forays into the Final Four, UCLA’s smothering defense has ranked among the nation’s top three in defensive efficiency.
Unfortunately, defense is a discipline freshmen not named Nerlens Noel, Anthony Davis or Russell Westbrook are slow to adapt to. Last season, Howland began incorporating a zone defense and a free flowing offense to account for their defensive inadequacies. UCLA’s weak defense has allowed its opponent’s defensive field goal percentage to rise every year since 2009 and is currently ranked 77th in the nation.
Just as The Brow, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquise Teague raised the already lofty bar for one-and-done projects, Muhammad, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2012, has been a victim of his own grand expectations. He’s not putting a lid on the rim a la Anthony Davis or filling highlight reels with Ben McClemore’s proficiency, even though Muhammad has silently been one of the best freshmen in the nation. Before taking his game to the pros, he may have to deliver a game-changing performance or two down the stretch for UCLA to sneak into the tournament.
This season, Kentucky has plummeted back to Earth. The difference is that unlike Howland, Calipari is guaranteed to return his Wildcats to the summit. Even now, the True Blue faithful are eyeing the sky in next season’s top-ranked recruiting class. By contrast, UCLA’s is ranked 21st. In a few months, half of Howland’s roster may be eyeballing NBA paychecks, Gucci shopping sprees and UCLA’s exits. Barring a deep March Madness run, Howland should be the first one out the door.