March Sadness

Our basketball columnist, Kennedy Cosgrove, returns in almost a stunned state, capturing how it feels to be a UCLA fan this March while the Bruins sit out the NCAA Tournament...

Selection Sunday should be the best day of the sports calendar for UCLA and its fans, a day of contentment, and of anticipation for the next three weeks. It's a day to enjoy the good life in the VIP high-seed section with fellow blue bloods North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, and watch the commoners on the wrong side of the velvet ropes scratching and clawing for a 12-seed, or rallying at an OccupyOnTheBubble protest or whatever, and to be glad that Bruin Nation doesn't live in that world.

Come Selection Sunday, UCLA fans should be analyzing whom the Bruins might get in the Sweet 16, projecting Elite Eight match-ups, and plotting a navigable course to the Final Four. They should be in constant communication with their Bruin peeps, figuring out plane tickets and hotels to regional sites, or arranging roadies and crash pads, and just generally reveling in it. In all of it.

This is why you follow this beautiful and maddening sport. This is when you dream about your guys cutting down some twine three weeks from now and hanging another banner if things break right. This should be the fun part.

But instead, Selection Sunday 2012 was radio silence in my Bruin world. No phone calls from any of my UCLA gang, no texts, just... nothing. Too painful for everyone, I suppose.

A few days have elapsed since another dispiriting loss ended another disillusioning season, only this one was punctuated with the Sports Illustrated expose shaming Coach Ben Howland and his program in a national forum.

And given what Selection Sunday should have been, juxtaposed with the reality of what it actually was for UCLA's program right now, it's getting increasingly difficult to envision how the Howland Era will continue on.

Five years ago, as Coach Howland's Bruins Ben-balled the proud Kansas Jayhawks to make their second of three straight Final Fours it representing to me the no-nonsense pinnacle of the Howland Era, in which talent, toughness, will and defense were perfectly married. A future that looked like this – what we have begotten -- was simply not imaginable.

I wrote a BRO column the morning after the Kansas win proclaiming this was UCLA's "New Golden Era" and how I "couldn't be more proud" to root for this team and its coach. My visions of Howland's future in Westwood included many conference titles, frequent runs to the Final Four a la Coach K or North Carolina, and at least one championship (and maybe two or three) before he retired in glory as UCLA's second-best coach ever. None of it seemed far-fetched. Seemed like the smart bet, actually.

I haven't written a BRO column in three years, however. Perhaps I've been stunned at the turn in the program's direction.

Yes, there were signs that things weren't completely perfect, even in the Blue and Gold glow of 2007: the blowout Ls to Florida, the weird losses in Seattle every year (maybe they just bothered me?), Howland's tacit acceptance that certain guys could cut certain corners (Josh Shipp routinely launching 25-foot treys in what seemed like a pseudo-audition for real or imagined NBA scouts comes to mind)....but, well, this was picking nits. No one was perfect, right?

But from that "Golden Era" column to five years later....This?

I won't rehash the trail of tears that landed the Bruins here. The list of mistakes is long, and bitter.

But a quick bottom line: No NCAA tournament berth in two of the past three seasons. Players in legal trouble, getting thrown off the team, or bolting from UCLA at the earliest opportunity. Strange and seemingly delusional recruiting decisions. Horrendous body language by the players and coaches during the games. All culminating in a mind-numbing string of listless on-court performances, and coaching that could be characterized as shortsighted and tense that I feel like some UCLA hater just dreamt it all up to torture Bruin fans.

And a last twist of the knife: watching so many players who transferred from UCLA or who never got the time of day from Howland in recruiting succeeding so well on other teams. It borders on astounding, especially as we trotted out this season's brutally talent-bereft squad.

[A sad observation was made by my buddy Gip while watching the recent UNLV vs. New Mexico game: "it's painful watching Mike Moser, Chace Stanback, Drew Gordon and Kendall Williams.... they would be our four best players right now." ]

Yes, Coach Howland's staff has changed. His players, of course, are all different (on so many levels) from the warriors on his early squads.

But it can't be denied that Howland is the common thread.

There's a cliched defense of losing coaches by apologists desperate to dismiss the complaints: "Hey, he won all those games a few years ago. It's not like he suddenly forgot how to coach."

My response: Are we sure? Because maybe that's exactly what happened. At the very least, maybe he forgot what made him so successful. Maybe moments like the Gonzaga miracle, or the Memphis shutdown, or eking a few minutes out of a lineup that included Janou Rubin, Lorenzo Mata, and three freshmen in a national semifinal against LSU (and still blowing them out!) just seeped in and made him feel like the rules of rational coaching didn't apply, or something. Tracy Pierson has consistently written that the UCLA program under Howland has lost its identity.

It could be that old demon hubris got the better of another human, as it's been known to do throughout history.

I don't know. I'm open to explanations for this fall off a cliff. Back in '06 and '07 it seemed like Howland just couldn't take a misstep. But lately (and when I say lately I mean in the last four years), where are the inspired moves? The seemingly clairvoyant recruiting choices, like with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook? The sound strategy? The sense that the coach at the head of the Bruin bench is flat out better than the other guy?

And looking to the immediate future, is there a chance he could recapture it?

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "there are no second acts in American life." But how about second acts for American basketball coaches? I've tried to find a precedent for a potential Howland comeback by looking at contemporaries who've endured rough patches after dizzying highs.

Some examples:

Tom Izzo? Like Howland, had early success by making three straight Final Fours (1999-2001). Unlike him, won a championship (2000). After a relative valley of seven years without a Big Ten title, more peaks: in both 2009 & 2010 won the Big Ten and made the Final Four. Won the Big Ten again this year and nabbed a one seed on Sunday. In the last 15 seasons, Izzo never missed the tournament and never had a losing record. The verdict: Izzo. Not close, really.

• Jim Calhoun? Well, there are the three national championships. I think we can stop there. Verdict: Calhoun in a landslide.

• Mike Mongtomery? Built up Stanford from hoops purgatory, and once he got it rolling, made the tournament in each of his last 10 seasons on The Farm, squeezed in an Elite Eight and a Final Four berth, and most impressively finished either first or second in the Pac-10 in each of his last eight years at Stanford (1997-2004). Unlike Howland, he suffered no huge downturns. Advantage: Monty, though it's closer.

• Jim Boeheim? This is the interesting one to me. After finishing as national runner-up in 1987, went nine years until he made another Final Four (1996), and another seven years until the next one -- but he won it all that season (2003). Since then, hasn't made the Final Four again, but this season Boeheim's Orange (despite its own internal problems and scandal) have gone 31-2, won the Big East, and garnered a #1 seed. The verdict: Boeheim. Yes, much bigger sample size, but he won that banner. Plus in 33 seasons at Syracuse never had a losing record.

Keeping in mind that America is the land of second chances, and that there's no perfect comparison, I have to say the findings are grim for Coach Howland.

Despite all this, I was still in his corner, barely. Even a few weeks ago, I was roughly 51-49 in favor of giving Howland another year, simply because of the potentially monster recruiting class coming in.

But then came Pulitzer-prize winner George Dohrmann's expose in Sports Illustrated, "Not the UCLA Way." The SI article changed things for me. It might not have necessarily tipped the balance the other way, but it was teetering. And it's easy to see that the majority of Bruin Nation feels the same way. The telling details were just too telling, painted too toxic a picture. The tepid -- very tepid -- defense of Howland by a few former players on Twitter damned him with faint praise. And Howland's robotic and slightly testy response, followed by more bureau-speak by UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. And now recently, there's the almost-bizarre interview the coach gave with Los Angeles Times mixer T.J. Simers. Perhaps Howland will also chalk that one up to being mis-characterized by the evil press, but in that interview he has come off the semi-remorseful stance we heard immediately after the release of the SI article and is now saying "Screw you, I did nothing wrong except for a couple of recruiting mistakes."

It all just seems too broken to me.

And as I compared the mess in Westwood with the overall vibe and level of play in recent elite games like UNC vs. Duke, or Kansas vs. Missouri, it really feels like UCLA can't get there from here.

The Bruins may yet ink Shabazz Muhammad and Tony Parker, and hold onto Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, but I fear it won't ultimately matter. Because what evidence of the past three seasons points to anything other than disappointment and underachievement as being the end result, no matter who is on the team?

Whether it's with or without Howland, UCLA needs a fresh start. The question is: Can it be done with Howland? But there is one thing for certain: UCLA basketball needs to matter again, for the right reasons. So that future Selection Sundays aren't something that Bruin fans try to ignore.

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