For what it's worth, we all know that Lavin and Coach K are the only two coaches in the country to make the Sweet 16 5 times in the last 6 years. Many Lavin critics dismiss this fact as misleading or unimportant, but I can't understand why. It's just as valid of a positive stat as the legitimate negative stats. Lavin also has an Elite 8 appearance to his credit. Lavin's overall NCAA Tournament record is 11-6 (.647), one of the top 10 in the country among active coaches. On the negative side, Lavin has yet to make a Final 4. Two of Lavin's Sweet 16 appearances were blowout losses to Kentucky and Iowa State, respectively. Lavin has only won one Pac-10 title in Lavin's tenure, and has only finished higher than 3rd that. His recent 6th place finish was the lowest ever for the Bruins since the formation of the Pac-10, Pac-8, and even the AAWU (Even though Caddy Works once took 4th in the South Division of the PCC by going 0-12).
More importantly than the wins and losses (maybe "more subjectively" is the accurate phrase), many Bruin fans and I have been extremely frustrated by what we view as a lack of consistency, motivation, discipline on the floor and fundamentals under Lavin. Of course, I've had the same complaint about every coach at UCLA after Gary Cunningham and none more so than Jim Harrick except for his '95 championship year. So, maybe it's the quality and character of high school athletes these days. I've certainly heard coaches like Roy Williams, Lute Olson, Mike Montgomery, Bob Huggins, Billy Donovan, Tubby Smith and Quin Snyder make those criticisms about their own players recently. But, apart from FT shooting, Coach K doesn't seem to have these problems with players at Duke. Well, apart from FT shooting and defense (Oh, heck, I guess nobody's perfect). Maybe it's not the character of players, but the coaching at UCLA since Gary Cunningham. Who knows?
Generally, Lavin has run a clean program. In the last four years, the most serious problem with Lavin's program was the well-publicized and self-inflicted failings of Jaron Rush. Lavin has been found guilty of exactly two NCAA violations in six seasons: A phone call made by Kevin Malone to a high school player who had already committed to another school (allegedly, the call was the result of a wrong number) and the visit to the UCLA campus by an AAU team during a no-contact period (notwithstanding which, the NCAA allowed Lavin to sign a player, Matt McKinney, from said AAU team). There have been other allegations that weren't subsequently proven. Compared to past UCLA coaches, he generally runs a clean program, but I think a much stricter policy and practice of overlooking the major programs by UCLA's Athletic Department probably explains a lot of that. Perhaps Lavin ought to be violating the rules more often so he can get even better players into school…
In Lavin's six seasons, UCLA had only one player suspended for academics, Matt Barnes, who got a "D" in a Music Appreciation class despite scoring Bs on the both the midterm and final because 60% of his grade came from classroom participation, a fact that no one apparently bothered to explain to Mr. Barnes, who was often found napping that summer when class was in session. All four schools in the Final 4 this year have had players flunk out. Of course, like many schools that produce NBA-level athletes, UCLA has a low graduation rate. Players like C. O'Bannon, Bailey, Henderson, Watson and, I suspect, Barnes and Gadzuric, will often stop taking classes as soon as the season ends in their SR years to focus on preparing themselves for the NBA. OTOH, Billy Knight and Rico Hines already have their degrees. Moose Bailey and Jason Flowers are working on theirs. The key factor in academics is whether the players make "satisfactory progress" towards a degree while they are in school. Of the Bruins' current 13 scholarship players, 5 did not meet this criteria in the Fall Quarter. The administration required Lavin to design a plan to correct this lack of "satisfactory progress". As I understand it, the administration is satisfied with his response and the academic progress of the student-athletes involved. At many D-1 schools, and at UCLA prior to Lavin's tenure, coaches wouldn't be required to even bother themselves with such issues. Whether fans care or not, I have no idea.
Lavin has weathered criticism on the recruiting front. He has signed some McDonald's All-Americans (Baron Davis, Jaron Rush, Ray Young, Dan Gadzuric, Jason Kapono and Ced Bozeman). Some schools have signed more (actually, only two other programs have actually signed more McDonald's Aas during Lavin's tenure – Duke and North Carolina). Many schools have signed less. Some teams who have recruited better than Lavin have not played as well as Lavin's teams, but some schools with fewer former All-Americans have been better (Gonzaga is an outstanding example, Stanford another, and how many high school All-Americans did Oregon, USC or Arizona have this season?). Obviously, talent alone, at least as measured by former high school All-Americans, doesn't explain a whole lot.
Lavin's recruiting strategy can be summed up as follows:
Focus on elite players, regardless of position. If you can't get an elite player, get the best players you can in spring. Since this often means the Bruins are taking players in April when their top targets sign elsewhere, the best guys available might not be much to look at and probably aren't even second-tier guys.
Now, some of us, including moi, have questioned if this is a great strategy. It's been a great strategy for Duke, but Coach K and Duke are readily accepted as being on a completely different level in terms of recruiting capability than anyone else in the country.
Lute Olson has a different strategy: Recruit some elite guys, and recruit some guys who in 2-3 years could develop into very solid guys. Some of Olson's recruits can play man d, some have to play zone, but all of them can play in the 3-2 "quick shot" motion offense that Olson has used since time immemorial.
I'd prefer the Olson approach, since I think it gives you a better chance at continuity of quality. While Luke Walton and Ricky Anderson were rated top 100 players in high school, they were not actively pursued by national powers, yet you can see how well they've developed. One is the son of arguably the most talented college C of all-time and the other is the son of a long-time coach, so Olson probably did a good job of hedging his bets that these guys would develop. OTOH, if Lavin can start recruiting like Coach K I'll shut up.
As far as fitting players to a style, I think that Lavin's approach to recruiting has led to the tail wagging the dog to a certain extent, which is not a good thing. If you're Coach K or Roy Williams or Tubby Smith or Billy Donovan, it seems you can recruit who you want more often. Bob Huggins is able to do the same at Cincy, but he signs a lot of JC guys. If you're a more ordinary mortal like Lute Olson or Mike Montgomery or Mark Few, you have to pick a system and recruit accordingly. Lavin has been trying to recruit like Coach K, but hasn't succeeded, so he's had to alter his systems to fit his personnel. The extent of his changes has often been wildly exaggerated. He used a 3-2 motion for 3 years, and then a 1-4 for 3 years (this past season, he introduced a 4-1 motion in February, which I admit was bizarre). He played mainly man d with selective 1-2-2 matchup zone for 5 years; this year, he played mainly 1-2-2 matchup zone with selective man. He used a lot of man press his first 4 years, a lot of zone press last year, and only selectively pressed this year.
More importantly, the team has sometimes seemed to have a mix of players who don't blend well together. The team has seemingly been caught short at key positions, which limits a coach's options and a team's versatility. This happened to programs like Kentucky and Florida this year and in the past, but they have always had some star players in their program and UCLA, apart from Baron Davis, hasn't and doesn't (at least, they're not stars yet). If Lavin is going to insist on planning on having a team that is going to be as good as Duke, he better start recruiting players as good as Duke gets. Otherwise, he might be better advised to start recruiting like Lute Olson.
A case in point would be Billy Knight. Billy didn't get any calls from the national powers when he was a h.s. SR, but he turned out to be a pretty good player. Not a star, a role player, but a very valuable role player who could light someone up for 20 points. But I'm not sure that was Lavin's plan when he signed Billy. I think the only "role" players deliberately signed by Lavin were Ryan Walcott and Josiah Johnson in previous years and maybe Matt McKinney (but Matt is also a star volleyball player and that might really be why Lavin signed him). Both Johnson and Walcott signed so late that they fall into Lavin's "whoever's left in spring" category instead of "this guy could actually help us in a couple of years."
Until Lavin signs a Jason Williams and a Carlos Boozer in a single recruiting class, his recruiting strategy will always be subject to doubt.
Lavin, unlike most of the other coaches at top schools around the country, has to deal with more stringent academic requirements for his recruits than NCAA minimums. Also, a number of schools are succeeding with JC and h.s. players from California whom Lavin simply couldn't sign for academic reasons. Then again, Lavin should consider himself lucky that he doesn't have to deal with Mike Montgomery's academic restrictions at Stanford, so Lavin really has nothing to complain about on the recruiting restrictions. He has been criticized on message boards and elsewhere specifically for not signing or recruiting some players. Oh, well. But there are certainly plenty of talented players out there who could sign with UCLA if they wanted to. So Lavin has no excuses, only explanations. I think Lavin's recruiting strategy to primarily go after elite talent and the failure of that strategy is a strong and powerful argument against him. He must improve his recruiting or he will not have a long career at UCLA.
I suspect that Rick Pitino, Lute Olson and other great coaches would have done better than Lavin had they been at UCLA for the last six years. Call me crazy, but I can't help feeling this way. On the other hand, when I look at the overall records and accomplishments of some of other coaches in the country and compare them to Lavin's, I'm skeptical that UCLA could go out and hire "any really good coach" and expect substantial improvement, as I've heard so many people tell me. Perhaps it's true that Steve Lavin is "learning on the job." He's had some success (don't want to keep citing it because it gets old, but the five Sweet 16s, and the one Elite Eight) while he's learning. What will he accomplish when he's actually "learned"? Most human beings learn as they do and learn most of all from their mistakes. I guess that means Lavin learned a hell of a lot this season, if many Bruin fans are right in their assessment of his coaching. In my opinion, he has done a good job considering his lack of prior experience. I think he has really good talent and he's a good coach, so his teams play well to a certain point. He'll have to get great talent and become a great coach to win a NC. If he doesn't do either, he won't ever win a NC. Each season, his experience increases substantially. One day soon, I believe, he will be a terrific coach who doesn't cheat and who provides a strong, positive role model for his players, and UCLA won't be able to find a better coach in the context of the school's environment. And it would really piss me off if Lavin becomes that terrific coach at Purdue while UCLA starts over with another coach.
In addition, every top coach receives major assistance from their staffs. Without in any way criticizing Lavin's current or past assistants, it's possible that Lavin will not make substantial improvement in his coaching until he makes substantial upgrades in his staff. It's possible that this process already began this past season, when two new assistants, Gerald Madkins and Patrick Sandle, joined the team (plus graduate assistant Brandon Loyd). Or maybe this was a downgrade. How can we tell? Since we're prohibited from attending practices and since players never (repeat, never) tell the truth about their coaches to outsiders, there's no way for any of us to fairly evaluate Lavin's staff. We can go by factors such as experience, but we have no way of knowing how important such factors truly are on a case by case basis. Certainly, one assumes that experience is helpful as an abstract principle.
Finally, I must add that I was under the impression that UCLA and Lavin had turned a corner last season. Lavin was named Pac-10 COY by a vote of Lute Olson and the brothers, and his team exceeded my expectations and those of many other people last year. Lavin signed a really good recruiting class and returned all of his top talent, including part-time starter Ray Young and redshirt Spencer Gloger. The Bruins had cut down their turnovers substantially from prior seasons, played a disciplined 1-4 offense and an entertaining fullcourt press. The Bruins' performance this season frankly made me doubt all those positive thoughts. Although he lacked the depth we all thought he would have, with Ray redshirting, Gloger sailing off to sea and Mike Fey not qualifying, he certainly seemed to have enough talent on hand, but didn't utilize it well. After finally appearing to settle on an offensive and defensive system, Lavin changed both once more. So, mark me down as confused and distressed, but always still hopeful. I believe Lavin will be a better coach next season, and still better the year after that. If not, we can always string him up later…
Next up: Next season and the future…