Monday, March 25, 2013

2012-13 UCLA Basketball Season Review, Howland Fired

Coach Howland Fired

Ben Howland was relieved of his duties two days after UCLA's pitiful performance in the 1st round of the NCAA tournament.  It was really the only major disappointment of this season.  I still think that if we had Jordan Adams, we beat Minnesota probably 7 out of 10 times.  But the way our team is constructed, a poor offensive shooting night coupled with the constant of mediocre defense will lead to occasional blowouts (think about our game at Cal).  Too bad it came on the biggest stage.  I would have loved to get another shot at Florida in the 2nd round.  Just getting through our Gator nemesis to reach the Sweet Sixteen would have been glorious.  On the other hand, if were eliminated by UF for the fourth time in our last 6 appearances, it would have been unbearable.

But overall, though he was on the hot seat all year long, the reality is that Howland had a good season.  He reeled in one of the top classes in the country and they produced on the court.  Howland had 4 new starters from last year, 3 of them were freshmen.  He lost 2 rotational contributors to transfer and 1 to dismissal, giving him almost no depth.  (We'll get into this more later).  As a result, our team played poor interior defense and was out-rebounded nearly every game.  He changed the style of play to suit the team, which is something he hasn't done before at UCLA.  With all those obstacles, he still managed to win his first Pac-12 regular season conference title since 2008.

Howland didn't deserve to be fired for the job he did this season.  I believed that it was justifiable after last season (2 missed tourneys in 3 years), but not now.  That said, after the last 3 years, he probably needed an extraordinary, meteoric, Elite8/Final4 type year to make up for it.  A good season wasn't going to cut it with the boosters.  And it didn't.

If you look at Howland's 10 year tenure on the whole as national pundits have done in questioning his firing, he's had an outstanding run.  After a 8 year Lavin-induced drought, Howland won 3 straight Pac-10 titles, before adding a 4th this year to give him 4 in the last 8 years.  It is the most conference titles won by any Bruins coach besides Wooden.  Obviously he took UCLA back to the Final Four after 11 seasons of Lavin-induced mediocrity, then returned the 2 following seasons.  He put an outstanding number of players into solid careers in the NBA - Farmar, Afflalo, Hollins, Westbrook, Love, Mbah a Moute, Collison (and I didn't even mention Ariza, Holiday, Malcolm Lee, Honeycutt).  And he ran a clean program, never being questioned by the NCAA.  Lastly, I love that he respected and revered Coach Wooden and the UCLA program the way that he did.  He said it was his dream job, and nobody has doubted him for a minute.  For all those things, Howland should always have a place in our hearts, especially after suffering through the Lavin reign.

I think its fair to say that Howland is the 2nd or 3rd best coach we've ever had at UCLA.  He finished with a 233-107 record, more wins than anyone besides Wooden.  Only Jim Harrick has an argument, as he won 3 conference championships in 8 years, never missed a NCAA tourney, and of course won UCLA's lone title since Wooden.

What the national pundits don't understand is the failures of the last 5 seasons.  They see the meteoric success of his first 5 seasons but they fail to understand the enormous problems since then.  What national powerhouse (Duke, UNC, KU, UK) misses the NCAA tournament twice in 4 years?  Howland hasn't made the Sweet Sixteen the last 5 years, the longest UCLA streak since a 9 year stretch from 1981-89.  He has only captured 1 conference title in the last 5 seasons.  As glorious as his 3 year Final 4 run was, it would have been better to make periodic Final Four runs like a Tom Izzo does.  It shows consistency in his coaching.  It shows the ability to replicate success over the years with different rosters.

Speaking of rosters, a big part of the reason for his recent failures is his player management.  Perhaps something changed after Howland's Final 4 seasons.  Perhaps he started compromising his recruiting, looking for the kind of athletes that could get him over the top at the cost of those who fit his system.  Or perhaps his ego grew and his treatment of players and staff suffered.  Or he began overlooking player behavior issues as long as they produced on the court.  Whatever it is, these are the facts, and they are not in dispute.

Howland's program was destroyed by the following headache players.  Nikola Dragovic was perhaps the first mishandled problem player - a screwup off the court (and a subpar player on it) but was favored by Howland for reasons still unknown to us.  Next, the 2008 Fab Five class contained several problem players, led by the insubordinate Drew Gordon who had to be dismissed midseason, Bobo Morgan who was also dismissed later and Jerime Anderson.  The worst of all was 2009 recruit, Reeves Nelson, an out of control maniac who enjoyed bullying others.  He eventually had to be dismissed midseason, though Howland tried to keep him around as long as possible, since he was our best player.  Before this season, the last of the party players, Anthony Stover, was finally dismissed - unfortunately he was our best defensive big man.

The amount of outgoing transfers in the last 5 years is another indictment on Howland's player management.  It seemed that many players who weren't starting were very interested in getting away from his team.  Perhaps they saw how out of control Howland had allowed his program and those problem players to get.  Perhaps they felt like they never received a fair chance with Howland.  Perhaps they felt mistreated.  Either way, Howland's transfers depleted our depth, one of the issues that AD Guerrero alluded to.  SF Chace Stanback left us for UNLV after our last Final Four season, becoming an important contributor.  SF Mike Moser also escaped to and starred at UNLV even though we had little depth at his position.  G Matt Carlino has been productive double-digit scorer for BYU.  This season, junior G Tyler Lamb, who was a starter for us last year, walked away instead of fighting for his spot and C Josh Smith opted to fight his weight problem at Georgetown instead.

With all those player dismissals and defections, it didn't help that our best remaining players would choose to leave the program earlier than they should have.  In 2009, Jrue Holiday cost himself millions by not being drafted in the lottery as he would have been if he stayed to run the team and showcase his skills.  Not coincidentally, we missed the tournament the following year.  In 2011, Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt both left early, dropped to the NBA 2nd round, and we missed the tournament again in 2012.  Howland couldn't get his best players to buy into his system, while losing control of the problem players that stayed.

Lastly, it seems that Howland's poor relationships or poor reputation with SoCal connections led to an inability to recruit at home in recent years.  Either that or it was pure incompetence.  Think about our recruits this year.  Shabazz is from Vegas.  Kyle is from New Jersey.  Jordan and Tony are both from Georgia.  This is UCLA.  We should be able to pluck the best players every single year from the Southland.  And yet, the last 5 star recruit we got from LA was Jrue Holiday in '08 or Honeycutt in '09, depending on what recruiting site you visit.  Why did we not offer LA native and current Pac-12 player of the year Allen Crabbe?  Why did we not offer LA native Derrick Williams, the #2 player of the 2011 NBA draft?  Why did Klay Thompson not get a sniff?  UCLA should be able to put together national championship contenders just from recruiting in California alone.  I'm not saying we should limit ourselves to that since I'd like to be in the mix for every player that Duke, UNC, KU and UK are looking at, but we don't even have a hometown advantage anymore.

Howland had a great run back from 2006-08.  He took Lavin's 10-19 team, rebuilt it and led it to the national championship game in his 3rd year.  Perhaps the most memorable game of Howland's tenure came in the Sweet Sixteen vs Gonzaga that season.  Then with my three favorite Howland players who represented his ideals, Afflalo, Mbah a Moute and Collison, we went back again.  The biggest disappointment came on our 3rd and final run to the F4, when we were the best team all season, armed with Love, Westbrook and Collison, but were badly out-coached by Calipari's Memphis team.  That 2008 game was the beginning of the end for Howland.  Since then, he's only won 2 tournament games.  Ultimately, I'm just glad that he finished his tenure here with one last conference title.

Next coach

My personal preference in Brad Stevens from Butler.  He took them to back-to-back national championship games.  He does seem like the type to enjoy the Indiana low-key lifestyle however, so Guerrero better make him a solid pitch.  The way I see it, there isn't much more he can accomplish at Butler.  Shaka Smart seems like Guerrero's favorite candidate - with his high tempo offense and havoc defense.  He seems to be the ambitious type who would want to try his hand at a national program.  Ideally we would get one of those two coaches to make a name for themselves here at UCLA with championships.  However, though I don't prefer it, I also see the benefit of proven guys like Pitino or Donovan.  We know what we'd get.  Even if they're coming in like a mercenary (and we'd have to pay them exorbitant amounts not including buyouts), its still worth it in the end if they can get us to the top.  Hanging another banner is all that we want.

2012-13 Season Review

I've talked all season about how Howland changed his team style to an offensive-oriented, high tempo attack.  Maybe the change to a more attractive style was made to save his job or attract better players in the future.  But it certainly paid off in a conference title.  Did our season turn out better or worse than I expected before our first tip-off?  The answer is both.

Preseason, I thought we should finish somewhere around 25-7, win a Pac 12 title, and make a push for the Elite 8.  Well, we finished 25-10, won a Pac-12 title, and lost in the NCAA first round.  But it doesn't tell the story between.  We started with a team that had depth both in the front and backcourt.  We ended our last game with 7 healthy scholarship players.

Josh Smith immediately showed that he didn't lose much weight, and possibly gained some, and was a liability on the court.  Ideally, had he been in shape, Smith would have dominated the paint in just about every game we played.  The Wear twins are perfect college complements to a player like Smith because they can stretch the interior defense with their outside shooting.  Their inability to rebound or defend would have been mitigated by Josh, if only he lived up to even half his potential.  With Smith's defection and Stover's dismissal, we now only had the Wears and freshman Parker, who just wasn't ready.  Anderson ended up being our best rebounder by far, and that is a major indictment on the Wears, who are taller and 3 years older.

David Wear has played 130 less minutes than Travis, but has actually grabbed more rebounds on the season.  I'm also upset about both Wears' predilection for shooting jumpers with one foot on the 3 point line.  Who taught them that that is a good shot?  It is literally the worst shot in basketball.  Step back 8 inches!!!  Defense and rebounding ought to be the major focus, this offseason.  Being outrebounded by Anderson should be embarrassing.  5 rebounds in 30 minutes of play at C is just flat-out subpar.

Jordan Adams was major revelation, starting the season with 4 straight 20 point games.  We all thought he was merely a good outside jump shooter, but he showed that he had the moves and guile to also get to the hoop.  Even with Shabazz gone next year, Jordan will be our go-to-scorer, toughest defender and best all around player.  I'm expecting close to 20ppg for him.  This season, it was clear that his bball instinct would relegate Tyler Lamb to the bench, which is why Lamb left us the same week as Smith.  I thought it was a cowardly act for a junior who was starting just last year.  Especially given our defensive liabilities early on, Tyler easily could make a case for considerable playing time.  I wonder if Howland had made it clear that he wasn't going to play.  His defection especially hurt us in our last two games when Jordan went down.

Larry Drew II was an afterthought given our incoming freshman stars, but his play this season had pundits like Jay Bilas calling him the conference player of the year.  The 5th year senior broke Pooh Richardson's (236) single season assists record at UCLA with a final tally of 256.  Given the shadiness of his midseason departure at UNC 2 years ago, I was certainly down on his ability to lead our team.  But he undoubtedly proved me wrong.  His play also made it clear to Kyle Anderson that he wasn't going to play point.

Kyle Anderson realized this immediately and transformed himself into the most versatile player on the team.  He worked hard at PF to grab boards (his 302 boards was 131 more than 2nd place David Wear), played defense even while throwing out the 2nd most assists on the team (122).  In many ways, he reminds me of a Mbah a Moute with court vision and handles.  Anderson's only true downside is his lack of raw athleticism.

Of course, the biggest name at UCLA this year was Shabazz Muhammad.  Many have labeled him as overrated, given the hype coming out of high school, but he did lead the nation's freshmen in scoring at 17.9 ppg and won a conference title.  True, he didn't show up in the NCAA tournament, as his crazy trojan father was planning on.  And yes, he came in as an iron-clad one and done mercenary.  But given the 5 star recruits of the last 5 years - Holiday, Honeycutt, Smith - Shabazz accomplished the most.  He won't ever be loved or revered here, but he should at least be appreciated.

As for his NBA prospects, I'm not so sure another year in college won't serve him well.  He doesn't have an elite explosive level of athleticism and his offense moves are predicated on strength (think about all those charges) instead of skill, which won't work at the next level.  He's a much better spot-up shooter than off the dribble and his defense, while improved, is still mediocre.  But I'm not holding my breath that he'll come back.

Norman Powell had a solid start to the season, but his minutes and confidence began to wane when we started conference play.  Perhaps our freshman really began to come on, but someone with Powell's athleticism should be able to force his way onto the court.  He'll get a chance next season with Bazz' departure, if he can hold off our incoming freshmen, all of whom are guards.

Tony Parker didn't get much playing time and spent most of the time that he did get committing stupid fouls.  It seems that he wants to transfer, but I'm amazed that he doesn't take one look at the Wears and believe that he is in the best possible place.  You are at UCLA.  We have no true talent at PF or C.  Why in the world would you transfer?  Hopefully the new coach can get him to come to his senses.  Hopefully he'll hit the gym hard this summer.

Ultimately, Howland was able to coax a Pac-12 title out of basically a new group of players.  He incorporated 5 new players to an 8 man rotation - including 4 new starters.  He managed to beat the Pac-12 favorite, Arizona, 3 times.  No, we didn't contend for a championship or even make a deep tourney run, but considering his personnel, it was as good as we could expect.  We ought to be proud of this accomplishment.

Projected Starting Lineup 2013-14

G: Allerik Freeman (Fr)
G: Jordan Adams (So)
SF: Kyle Anderson (So)
PF: Travis Wear (Rd Sr)
C: Tony Parker (So)

Bench: PF David Wear (Rd Sr), SG, Norman Powell (Jr), SG Zach LaVine (Fr), SF Noah Allen (Fr)

Next year is difficult to predict, first because of the coaching change.  Will Kyle Anderson shock everyone and declare for the draft?  Will our incoming recruits, LaVine and Freeman renege and re-open their recruitment?  If everyone listed above is on the roster next November, then we'll be 9 deep.  Not bad.

- Without a true point guard, I'm guessing Kyle will play as point forward unless one of the freshmen Freeman or LaVine shows some playmaking skill.

- Jordan is an easy auto-starter.

- Travis is also slated in because he's started all season, but my personal preference is David, who is a better 3 point shooter and rebounder.

- I'm banking on Parker to come back stronger, more confident and more skilled.  On potential alone, he should start.

- I've got Allerik Freeman starting over Zach LaVine even though LaVine seems to be the better athlete and is rated higher by both Scout and Rivals.  Its for one simple reason: Duke and KU both offered Freeman too.  They must see something in him.  Adams wasn't rated that high and look how he turned out.

Next year, I expect another conference title and a minimum Sweet 16 appearance.  That's the goal.  Now, sign on the dotted line, Brad Stevens!

Games I attended:

11/13/12 - W 80-79 UC Irvine
11/15/12 - W 100-70 James Madison
11/25/12 - L 70-68 Cal Poly
12/4/12 - W 83-60 Cal State San Marcos (Exhibition)
1/5/13 - W 68-60 Stanford
1/17/13 - W 74-64 Oregon St.
2/27/13 - W 79-74 ASU - OT game.  Sons met Bazz, Jordan, Kyle.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

UCLA wins Pac-12 Conference outright

UCLA beat UW in Washington for the first time since Howland's first season in 2004 to win the 2013 Pac-12 regular season title.  With Oregon's two losses this final week, UCLA clinched the title outright.  This is UCLA's 41st regular season conference championship in history.  However, it is only UCLA's 4th conference title since Lavin's only title in 1996 and the first since Howland won 3 straight from 2006-08.  Howland has now won more conference titles at UCLA (4) than any coach not named John Wooden (19).  This is also the first title since the conference expanded to 12 teams last season.

Howland's Bruins finished with a 13-5 Pac-12 record for the 3rd time.  The two previous times in '09 and '11, UCLA ended up in 2nd place.  His previous conf title records were 14-4 in '06, 15-3 in '07 and 16-2 in '08.

With all the criticism Howland has endured the past year, fans have no reason to complain about this season.  He has gone out and recruited some of the nation's best players.  He has installed a high tempo offense and played a more attractive style of offense.  He has withstood Josh Smith's defection and UCLA's defensive and rebounding liabilities and willed the team to a regular season title.  Obviously the NCAA tournament result matters, but I am ecstatic with the season so far.

I couldn't care less about the Pac-12 tournament.  Of course I want to win every game that we step foot in, but it is obviously a money grab (complete with ugly uniforms that Adidas hopes will generate more sales) that doesn't really determine a true conference champion.  I'd rather we play all other 11 teams home and away instead.

As for the tournament that matters, Howland hasn't been past the Round of 32 since his Final Four runs.  That's 4 straight years of major disappointment in March.  Given our team's big man deficiencies, I think a Sweet 16 appearance is a realistic goal.  An Elite Eight would be cause for euphoria.  Yes, our expectations have changed since 2008, haven't they?