Friday, March 2, 2012

UCLA SI fallout, Beats down WSU

The SI article was painful to read for Bruin fans.  The good news is that the talk the few days before the article was more about drug use so I'm glad there wasn't a major revelation about that.  And I'm glad it wasn't about any other major NCAA violations or widespread conspiracies or coverups.  Ultimately, for the outside sports fan, it was simply a detailed expose about partying college students and the failures of a struggling basketball program and coach.  Does anyone think this article would have been written if we were a top 10 team?  Was the hoopla really worth the actual content within it?  After all that we've seen the past year starting at OSU, then worse allegations at Miami, then the unbelievably horrific and sordid news out of Penn State, is this really worth the national coverage its been given?  I say, no, no and no.  SI would've been better off putting Jeremy Lin on the cover for a third straight time.

But for Bruin fans, the allegations that came from the article was hard to read.  True, the sort of events documented here are commonplace in just about every major program, but the fact that it happened to John Wooden's program makes it a big deal to us.  UCLA sees itself as above the riff-raff, such as those rule-breaking scum at $c, and strives to do things the Wooden way: noble, principled and honorable.  Ben Howland, the most popular coach in Westwood since Wooden, was venerated as a man of principle, but now will always be stained by the events and his inaction of the last 4 years.  As said in many other places, he lost his way.

After Nelson's dismissal back in December, I began to realize what a cancer he had been.  I also knew that Howland had given him a lot of chances, but no one knew the details.  Howland was supposed to be a committed disciplinarian.  If he's no longer what he purports to be AND also has never been a player's coach in the first place, he can't be an effective coach or recruiter.

Knowing what we know now, the history of the past 4 years of UCLA basketball takes on a different spin altogether.  Our last Final Four run was with Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook back in 2008 but we haven't been close since.

The Darren Collison-led team fell one game short of the Pac-10 title and lost in the 2nd round of the tourney (as a #6 seed to #3 seed Villanova).  That was the year the "fab five" freshmen (Holiday, Anderson, Lee, Gordon, Morgan) came in and essentially began to destroy our program from within.  I have been killling Jrue Holiday for jumping ship after the 2009 season, but its possible that he saw the havoc Drew Gordon was creating and/or the Dragovic situation and didn't like how Howland was handling it.

Dragovic, a player whom I disliked and whose name I vowed never to type again, was also a starter that season.  I am typing his name now because Reeves easily takes over his role as program enemy #1 but also because of Howland's role in this mess - essentially an inconsistency in dealing with Dragovic.  He was clearly more skilled than James Keefe but was lazy on defense, undisciplined on offense and had a propensity for violence in his personal life (twice arrested by cops).  Still, I couldn't understand why he was given the pass by Howland time after time, and didn't seem to be held accountable for his poor decisions, both on the court and off.

Looking back now, this was perhaps the start of a damaging pattern by Howland - overlooking a player's problems because of their perceived production on the court.  Dragovic's 2 year stint at starter overlapped with Gordon and Nelson, and that's no coincidence to me.  It can be argued that perhaps this pattern began the year before with Westbrook and maybe even Love, not that we have any evidence of poor behavior, but it could be that Howland began showing preferential treatment to his stars then.  Remember, before Love, Howland had recruited a roster of underrated, hard-working recruits, such as Afflalo, Collison, Mbah a Moute, etc.  They weren't anointed ones coming into school.  And Howland, being new to the job, was probably equally strict with everyone.

We all knew Drew Gordon was insubordinate and now we know his predilection to party, which is not surprising.  However, when he was kicked off the team early in his sophomore year, we all thought that Howland was simply being the consistent disciplinarian that he was.  Looking back now at the freshmen's antics, including Bobo and Jerime, Howland should have taken a much more heavy-handed role in keeping them in line in 2009.  Perhaps Gordon wouldn't have been so insubordinate to coaching by his 2nd year.  And perhaps had Gordon witnessed Dragovic being dealt with properly, he wouldn't thought to get away with so much.

Freshmen Reeves Nelson benefited from Drew Gordon's removal by starting immediately.  Apparently, his unchecked violent behavior in practices and off the court led to Mike Moser's transfer after the season.  I remember not really understanding why Moser would want to leave after just one year.  We only had one SF on the roster and Moser was a highly recruited player.  Now we know that it was to get away from Nelson.  By the way, Moser is now averaging a double double for UNLV.

Jerime Anderson was supposed to be our starter at PG and Bobo was our hope at C, but their undisciplined ways sabotaged their seasons.  Howland had to go out and recruit a JC PG for the first time in UCLA history.  Bobo was also banished after that season, leaving just Anderson and Lee from the "fab five".  The fact remains that our roster that year was dominated by underclassmen, the two recruiting classes that are responsible for the mess that we are in today.  We finished an embarrassing 14-18 but I chalked it up to the loss of our veteran players and allowed 1 rebuilding season.

Our team played much better and outwardly seemed to be building toward something special.  After returning to the NCAAs however, the program began to fall apart.  Matt Carlino, the Nelson victim this season, was the inexplicable transfer, this time to BYU where he is flourishing.  Honeycutt, who had an eye on the NBA anyway, was supposedly bullied by Nelson as well which made the pros that much more enticing.  Malcolm's defection to the NBA also could not be explained until perhaps now.  A program dominated by an uncontrolled and violent personality is not worth it.  The NBDL at least pays you.

So with 2012 being the year that UCLA was supposed to be contending for a national title with Josh Smith, Nelson, Honeycutt and Malcolm leading the way, we were left with an overweight and undisciplined Smith and a furious Nelson, who was unhappy with the emergence of two capable and highly-recruited PFs in the Wears.

The cynical side of me would say that Howland now has frontcourt options with the Wears and no longer needs to put up with Reeves' antics, which led to his dismissal.  Or perhaps Reeves REALLY started to act up.  Either way, his expulsion was too late and it left our team without the practice time or the talent to compete for even the conference this season.

One could say that Josh Smith is really our only problematic player left.  I think Howland should've suspended him for not making weight.  That's what all other coaches do to get their message across.  Only this offseason will tell whether Smith got the point.

In the end, I think the most important thing people can say about their superior's behavior, isn't how nice or how mean he is.  What's most important is how FAIR they think he is.  Howland's mistakes weren't merely in recruiting or character evaluation, though those errors were clear.  No, his biggest mistake was in the inequitable treatment of players from the stars on down.  His means of effective coaching was never through friendly player relationships, it was always going to be through being tough and instilling discipline on and off the court.  Once he lost the players' respect there by holding them to different standards, he lost control as the primary influence on the team.  The short term gain for not disciplining Nelson (or Gordon or Dragovic) earlier on is clearly not worth the long term consequences, as I'm sure he understands now.  This could stick with Howland's reputation forever.  The stain on UCLA basketball program is already embarrassing enough.

Again, the SI article was only news now since we're about to miss the tournament for the 2nd time in 3 years.  The issues that have plagued us the last 3 years are probably already gone.  I think that now the Wears, Lazeric Jones, Tyler Lamb, Norman Powell, and the rest of the team, even the reformed Jerime Anderson, are a pretty cohesive unit who are coachable.  Josh Smith is in prime position to receive some tough love anyway.  Unless SI scares our recruits away, we seem to be back on track recruiting.  I love Jordan Adams' quote: "the media can write bad stuff about UCLA all they want i still cant wait to go there and turn it AROUND."

This offseason, Howland has a chance to start over and re-establish the kind of program we all loved when he came in.  Hopefully this humbles him enough to also try and build meaningful relationships with players and staff around him (you know, Coach Wooden style).  I hope he reinvents himself as a result of this fallout.

Putting Howland's character flaw aside, I think the lack of on-court success in the last few seasons - no Pac-10 title in 4 years, only 1 tourney appearance in last 3 - and all the recruiting mistakes and personnel mistakes are reasons enough to fire him.  As emotionally connected to those Final Fours as we all are, I still think he should be gone.  This is UCLA.  We need to act like an elite program.  Remember, Lavin was fired the moment he missed a tournament the first time, not that Lavin is in any way Howland's coaching equal.

However, there's little chance Guerrero would pull the trigger now.  Who would we get to replace him anyway?  So Howland will be extended at least another year.  For me, its not enough just to make the tournament.  I want to be a contender.  We should be like Kansas, UNC, Duke and Kentucky, competing in the top 10 with a chance to win it all every year.  We should be in the Final Four every few years and win at least once a decade.  That's where we should be.  But right now, I'm not so sure Howland is the coach that can take us there anymore.

(Can you imagine if Jeremy Lin had accepted Howland's offer to walk-on?  If Reeves is willing to step all over the great grandson of John Wooden, what do you think he would've tried to do to Lin?)


I took the family and a couple other friends to our last UCLA game of this season (since I can't make Sat's senior day).  I was curious just to see what kind of support the program would get after SI and also how the team would respond.  Inexplicably, our game wasn't even on TV (can you imagine a KU or UNC game not being on TV?!?!)!  About 5,000 showed and the energy level felt slightly subdued.  We beat WSU 78-46, which my son enjoyed thoroughly.  Ahh, thats what its all about.  Good bye to the Sports Arena.  I don't think I'll miss you.

Lazeric Jones, whose heart and toughness I will miss, was on fire this game.  He shot 8-10 en route to 18 points.  UCLA also shot well from downtown, going 11-16 (Jones 2-2, Lamb 4-6, Powell 2-3, Wears 2-3).  I liked that we showed a lot of fight.  Hopefully they close it out with a victory over Pac-12 champs, Washington, on Saturday.  Since we're hoping, here's hoping we reel off 6 straight and make the Sweet 16.

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