Recruiting Impact of Replacing Howland

With Ben Howland gone at UCLA, the Bruins could find themselves high on the lists of several elite prospects on the West Coast in 2014 and 2015...

As most BRO readers are well aware, recruiting in Southern California, and to a lesser extent the west in general, had become problematic under Coach Howland. The word was out that his players were unhappy playing for him and that he made the whole experience a grind. Some players transferred out, or left for the pros prematurely, because they really didn't enjoy the day to day experience. While much of this was on Coach Howland, it must be said that his staff also didn't have a close relationship with the players. There was a distance between the players and staff that, at times, led to some problems. We're aware of one current player that was telling a 2014 recruit not to come to UCLA. If we had to guess, that probably wasn't an isolated incident.

Some AAU coaches didn't want to send their kids to UCLA, either because they didn't have a good relationship with Howland or because they perceived him as "holding back" the players (nonsense, of course, but that's why they're AAU guys). More often, it was the former. There are AAU coaches in Southern California that felt they were disrespected by Howland and they vowed to never send any of their players to UCLA. Most of the time, these programs didn't have a lot of UCLA level prospects, but it was still damaging to have some people in the AAU community constantly bad-mouthing Howland and UCLA.

Howland's lack of inter-personal skills was an issue both in recruiting and in terms of dealing with his team. There were times when the assistants felt they would have a better chance of closing on a recruit if Howland spent less time with the player and his family. This is not to say that Howland came off as some kind of ogre or that he was a bad guy. It was more about a certain lack of finesse and smoothness that you find in good recruiters. Howland didn't have that and it could make for some awkward situations at times.

Up until recently the success of the three Final Four teams, along with the impressive NBA careers of Afflalo, Love, Westbrook, Holiday, etc., was enough to overcome the negativity surrounding the program. However, as the team started struggling, and the Final Fours became a distant memory, the negativity became more pronounced. Players were unhappy during the Final Four years, but winning solves a lot of problems. However, that unhappiness becomes much more pronounced when the team isn't playing well.

As the players became increasingly unhappy, there was more negativity leaking out to the Southern California basketball community. As a result, it was becoming more and more difficult for the Bruins to recruit close to home. It wasn't impossible, as there were still a lot of players listing UCLA as one of their top choices. It is, after all, UCLA and there are a number of NBA all-stars that played for Coach Howland. But the Bruins were no longer the clear leaders for the elite prospects in the 2014 or 2015 classes. In fact, there isn't a single player in the west from those two classes that we could say definitely had the Bruins as a strong leader.

So how does the firing of Coach Howland impact those next few classes? It's impossible to say with any certainty, as so much in recruiting depends on relationships. How well the next coach connects with those recruits is obviously going to be a huge consideration. Another factor will be just how big a "name" that coach has and whether or not people immediately give him credibility as an elite coach. You can probably safely assume that Billy Donovan might have an easier time than, say, Buzz Williams (and, no, I'm not saying Williams is a candidate).

But it is probably fair to say that the new coach will be in a much better position to recruit than Howland was. For one thing, he'll have the advantage of "not being Ben Howland." When Howland took over the UCLA job, he had the advantage of "not being Steve Lavin." Southern California basketball folks had become well aware that Lavin was a fraud and the general reaction when Howland got the job was "at least we know he's a real coach." The new coach at UCLA will likely be given a clean slate to start with from the AAU guys.

There's also a natural recruiting bump that typically happens at an elite school when a new coach is hired. UCLA is a place that is automatically on the list of most elite prospects in the area. The only reason that it wouldn't be at the top of most lists is some perceived problem at the program ("Lavin can't coach; Howland's no fun to play for"). Remove the problem and most people tend to assume good things about the new guy. And the new guy can sell that he is different from the old guy. So there's a honeymoon period that should result in some of the top prospects moving UCLA up on their lists.

Some of the top players from 2014 that we would expect might be receptive to a new coach at UCLA include Jordan McLaughlin, Stanley Johnson, Namon Wright and Kameron Chatman, among others. Those players have all listed UCLA at one time or another, but the Bruins have never been the clear leader with any of them. It won't be surprising if one or more of them suddenly have the Bruins at the top of their list with a new coach. It's also reasonable to expect that a new coach might make a pitch to committed players such as Shaqquan Aaron and Parker Jackson-Cartwright. It's possible that they'll be happy with the commitments they made, but it's also possible that a new coach at UCLA makes Westwood a much more appealing option that it was at the time they made their decisions.

In the 2015 class there are definitely a few names that will be open to a new coach at UCLA. Aaron Holiday, the younger brother of Jrue Holiday, would never have come to UCLA to play for Coach Howland. The Holidays were not happy, to say the least, with how Jrue's one year at UCLA went and there was no way Aaron would play for Howland. Given that the family lives in SoCal, and they just sent their daughter to play at UCLA, it's a fair assumption that the Bruins will now likely be among the finalists for Aaron. Another player that will probably be more likely to attend UCLA now is Stephen Zimmerman, the elite center from Las Vegas. Zimmerman's mother went to UCLA and a few years ago the Bruins were thought to be the strong leader. However, we've heard from a few sources that the family had soured on Coach Howland and Zimmerman might go elsewhere. Again, much will depend on the relationship with the new coach, but it would seem that a potential roadblock has been removed with the firing of Howland. Ivan Raab, one of the top sophomores in the country, was probably not going to consider UCLA since he plays for the Oakland Soldiers club team. That program hasn't sent anyone to UCLA since Drew Gordon and it will be interesting to see if a new coach can gain traction with them. Tyler Dorsey, a talented shooting guard from St. John Bosco, is another 2015 prospect that is more likely to be in play now for the Bruins. His AAU coach wasn't a fan of Howland and it's far more likely now that he'd be willing to advise Dorsey to attend UCLA. Finally, in a similar situation to Aaron Holiday, promising freshman center Trevor Stanback may now be an option for the Bruins. Stanback's older brother Chace wasn't happy with his experience at UCLA prior to transferring to UNLV. With a new coach in place UCLA will likely have a much better chance of landing Trevor Stanback.

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