Whether you think that final blowout loss to Minnesota was a fitting end to the Ben Howland era depends entirely on how you feel, or will feel, about the last ten years. If you put more weight on the last five years as Howland's real stamp on the program, then it was altogether fitting and right that the end should come in blowout fashion to a bad Big Ten team due to a lack of depth and defense.
If you're like me, though, and you can't really shake the memories of those three straight Final Fours, then it seems somehow wrong that the Howland era—which began with so much promise based on an arcane concept called "defense"—should end this way, with a wholly mediocre Gophers team enjoying a dunk party to the tune of 83-63.
The game itself was an exclamation point to cap off what has been, overall, a miserable five year slog. Through the first ten minutes of the game, the Bruins were ice cold, with the starters going 1 of 16 from the field, and it affected their play on both ends of the court. If one thing has been true about this team (and in direct contrast to Howland's first five years) it's that their offense has fueled their defense. When UCLA's shots have fallen this year, it's given them more defensive intensity; when they've gone cold, games have often turned into routs.
The game itself was over as soon as Travis Wear and Tony Parker each got their third fouls, forcing an already shallow UCLA team into a desperate situation that was unrecoverable. Down ten at the half, the Bruins actually did make a run, with a three pointer by Norman Powell cutting the lead to five at 44-39. From there, though, it was all Gophers, as the thin Bruins ran out of gas.
It was fitting, in a way, that Minnesota's zone defense was what stifled the Bruins' offensively throughout much of the first half. After all, in Howland's ten years at UCLA, the Bruins have almost always struggled against zone defenses, often looking lost. What was strange about Friday's game is that the Bruins actually didn't have a half-bad plan against the zone, with Kyle Anderson frequently getting the ball in the middle of the zone looking to shoot or facilitate. Unfortunately, Anderson couldn't hit anything from the field.
Give credit to Tubby Smith as well, who blended defenses in the first half very well to keep UCLA on its toes. Instead of going wholly to the zone, he worked back and forth with various man defense concepts so that UCLA's offense really couldn't get into a rhythm. Larry Drew finally just started trying to run, even off of made baskets, at the beginning of the second half to try to keep Minnesota's defense from getting set. By that point, though, UCLA's players were already getting fatigued.
Shabazz Muhammad played another very inefficient game, shooting 33% from the field, 0% from three on six shots, but went way above his season average by recording one assist. It's a shame, really, but if there's an indelible image of the Muhammad year at UCLA, it's going to be that final missed layup, where he had Powell under the basket for an easy dunk but elected to try to get his on a contested shot.
Drew had one of his worst games of the year, turning the ball over five times, shooting poorly, and recording just three assists. The Bruins turned the ball over 14 times, well above their season average, and Minnesota took advantage, getting much of its scoring in transition. There were some adjustment that UCLA's players may not have been comfortable with, like Drew playing off the ball more in this game, that could have caused some of the turnovers.
You have to like what Powell brings to the table defensively, because even on plays where he's beaten he plays with intensity. However, offensively, he's going to need to spend the offseason either relearning to shoot or learning what his role needs to be. He has no consistency on his three point shot, drifting forward, backward, or sideways depending on how he catches the ball. Just anecdotally, he should almost never run into a three pointer, or dribble into a three—he seems to be marginally better in catch and shoot situations where his feet are set, but even then, he has a tendency to jump into the shot.
Tony Parker and David Wear both gave UCLA effective minutes off the bench, but I'd like to focus on Parker since he's, potentially, a big part of the Bruins' future. Offensively, this year, he's actually been a pretty positive force for UCLA this year, shooting 54% from the field and showing a pretty nice touch around the basket. He clearly never got comfortable with the speed of the game (which, you know, can come from averaging six minutes per game), but it's interesting, if also maddening, to project where he'd be right now if he'd averaged even 12 minutes per game this season. His foul rate is through the roof, almost reaching first three years of Alfred Aboya levels, but fouls will assuredly come down as he gets more comfortable with the minutes he receives. If he can continue to work on his body, and uses the offseason to refine his game, he could be, and will possibly need to be, a big contributor next season.
If there was a need for further evidence that Jordan Adams was a good amount of the glue that was holding this team together, this game was it. Adams' mid-range game, and ability to score points in a hurry, could have kept UCLA alive, and the addition of an extra body might have allowed the Bruins to make a more considerable run in the second half. What's more, he had become so good at forcing turnovers throughout the year, that you know he would have forced a few against the turnover-prone Gophers that could have led to momentum-changing run outs. If there's one thing to look forward to over the next several months, aside from who the next coach will be, it's the development of Adams. If he can continue to work on reshaping his body, he could be a force next season.
For Ben Howland, this game was nothing more than a reflection of what's gone on in the program over the last few years. The Bruins had only seven players on scholarship suited up for the game, due to faulty roster management, only one of whom was really committed to playing defense. That the game ended so emphatically with a blowout was incidental—UCLA was not poised to make a deep tournament run no matter how this game turned out. The Bruins just didn't have the bodies.
So the Howland era ends at UCLA—the past decade somehow combining the best post-Wooden run of Tournament success with, arguably, the worst-ever run of mediocrity. There were many extraordinary highs, including the last three minutes of the Gonzaga game, the 50-30 soul-crushing of Washington State, the 50-45 rematch against Memphis, the 2007 Elite 8 matchup with Kansas, and even this past weekend against Arizona.
Unfortunately, there were also the bottomless lows, and those are what ultimately will close the book on the last decade. Whether you want to point to the ignominious losses to Cal Poly and Minnesota, or you want to point to the bad roster management that has led to double digit transfers, players leaving the program, or players leaving too early for the NBA, there have been more than enough lows to outweigh the highs. It's a tragic end, really, to what had such a promising start.
In any case, that's a wrap on the 2012 season. Now begins the most important offseason for UCLA basketball in recent memory, as the UCLA administration looks to find a new coach who can carry the basketball program back over the hump and maintain it once it arrives there. As we've learned over the last five years, the second part of that statement may be more difficult than the first.