Howland Gives UCLA its Best Chance

Winning a national championship is part being good and part being lucky. The key is to be good enough to put your program in the position to get lucky one year. Ben Howland, with three consecutive Final Fours, is probably the best for doing that in the country...

In the few days after UCLA lost in the national semi-final there has been so much written about the Bruins – in newspapers, on message boards, on television, on radio, etc.

There have been some who have questioned whether Ben Howland and his system can win the big one.

It's a question you, of course, could have anticipated. Howland has been to three straight Final Fours with UCLA and hasn't won a national championship. So, people who don't know what they're looking at (most national pundits, or local newspaper columnists) would invariably ask the question.

They are exactly the same people who were talking up Steve Lavin's five Sweet Sixteen.

They are basically headline writers, people who take the superficial off the top and try to draw a conclusion – because they simply don't know any more than that.

I ran into a Pac-10 assistant coach that I know pretty well here in San Antonio. He's a guy I respect, someone who also hasn't hesitated to criticize Howland when it was warranted. In talking to him Sunday, we spoke about the current Howland criticism, with many trying to make the case that Howland's system can't win the big one.

He said, paraphrased: "People saying that don't know crap. Those are non-basketball people who don't know what they're looking at. Ben has done more with less at UCLA than anyone in the nation. His system is what got under-talented teams to the Final Four. Without it, UCLA no way even sniffs a Final Four. If you plug in elite talent to UCLA's system, it would tear apart those other programs that play loose, up-and-down, run-and-gun basketball."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Fans who even slightly question whether Howland has it, or whether he's the right guy for UCLA, should go back to eating their nachos. Sorry, it might sound harsh, but heck, you're used to it from Bruin Report Online, aren't you?

Going to three Final Fours in a row is a phenomenal feat. It's an accomplishment, in itself, that should stand alone as proof that Howland is the guy. Nothing should have to be explained; it should be self-explanatory.

In my opinion, there aren't, actually, too many real UCLA fans that are questioning Howland. There are some, as we've seen on the message boards, but most UCLA fans are savvy basketball fans and recognize what they have in Howland.

No, most of it, once again, is coming from non-UCLA entities like national commentators, questioning Howland's system. And then, they have the audacity to transfer their naivete onto UCLA fans, claiming their ignorance is shared by the UCLA community. Dick Vitale, God bless him, always reverts to his old, tired adage when speaking about UCLA: "At UCLA, they only hang championship banners, baby. They aren't satisfied unless you win a national championship."

Every time I hear Dickie say that I pity him – because it's so vastly inaccurate. Are there some UCLA fans who won't accept anything but national championships? Sure, the small minority that are crazy.

Most UCLA fans, coming out of the Dark Lavin Ages, have come to a new awareness – an appreciation for how difficult it is to build a top-five power, win three Pac-10 championships and go to three Final Fours in a row.

Just because Howland has been to three Final Fours and hasn't won a national championship isn't an indication of how he's doing something wrong, but an indication of how he's doing something right.

Every good coach in the history of college basketball threatened to win national championships for a long time before they did. And they were dogged with the same label – not being able to win the big one. Oh, there was Roy Williams, Bill Self, Mike Krzyzewski, Lute Olson, Rick Pitino, Dean Smith and, oh, yeah, John Wooden.

And there were countless good coaches that approached that national championship threshold and didn't make it across. Coaches who were, probably, just as good as some of the coaches on that list above.

Because, to win a national championship, it just takes too much luck, and stars having to be aligned, as we said in the post-game analysis after the Memphis loss.

Self, when interviewed immediately after winning the national championship on the Alamodome floor, said it was a matter of this year "the stars aligning."

It's not amazingly coincidental that Self used the same phrase as we did here. It's because all coaches know it. Elite coaches, those that are just as good as most of the names on that above list (we have to say most and not all since Coach Wooden is on that list), know that they could construct one of the best programs in the country, and have it consistently among the best programs in the country for many years, and not win a national championship. They know this about their profession.

There are just too many random factors that come into play. The year you have your best team could be a year that another team has a team for the ages. Your best player could twist an ankle in the NCAA tournament.

UCLA was 4.8 seconds away from not winning the national championship in 1995. They were clearly the best team in college basketball that year, but they very well might not have won it if it weren't for Tyus Edney's length-of-the-court scamper in the tournament's second round against a Missouri team that, randomly, had put together a phenomenal game.

There is just too many parity in college basketball now. With so many teams and programs so good, and so close to each other in terms of how good they are, the championship every year comes down to, well, random luck.

If you took the four Final Four teams this season and they played in a round robin that took a few weeks and they played each other dozens of times, they'd probably all be just a few wins and losses away from each other. Memphis very easily could have won that national championship game last night. If Chris Douglas-Roberts hits his free throws, the Tigers are national champions. Memphis, in fact, was probably the best team in the nation this year and they didn't win the national championship.

How you win a national championship is to have a program that puts itself in the position to win a national championship often. That is, being good enough to have a shot at the Final Four, and then win a national championship. The years of John Wooden are over; no one can construct a team year after year that is vastly better than everyone else in college basketball – and even if they did, they could still lose because of random luck.

Florida did it for two years, and that was only because Billy Donovan had a once-in-a-lifetime situation where his lottery picks freakishly decided to return for their senior seasons.

So, really, in college basketball today, the most you can really hope for – and be satisfied with (contrary to Dickie V)-- is a program that consistently puts itself in the position to win a national championship.

Ben Howland is doing that at UCLA.

Now, can you come up with some criticism of how Howland runs his program? Of course. Nothing is immune from valid criticism. But overall, you can't argue with the result. You have to be satisfied with it.

Some fans – and national pundits – have pointed at Howland's offense as the program's weakness. Admittedly, Howland is a better defensive coach than offensive coach but, to this point in his UCLA career, he's done just about the most he could with the offensive players he's had. His strict offensive system has gotten the most out of Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Josh Shipp and Darren Collison. Afflalo's game benefited greatly from Howland's structured offense. He got so many more open looks coming off of designed screens than he ever would have trying to create for himself. And that definitely goes for Farmar, Shipp and even Collison.

Some fans have said they want UCLA's offense to be more like Memphis' or North Carolina's – more free-flowing and less structured. Then, on the other hand, when the UCLA offense resembles that – when Collison dribbles a lot and is asked to create for himself off a ball screen – everyone grumbles. That stuff – Collison over-dribbling and trying to create off a simple ball screen – is a less-structured offense. Howland, in this case, is trying to take advantage of an individual player's ability to create. It just, sometimes, doesn't work.

If anyone is advocating that UCLA, with the personnel it's had in the last few years, adopted the Memphis/Oregon offense entirely, well, then you're really eating nachos. UCLA has had so few players that could create off the dribble that offensive scheme would have been a disaster.

Then, I've heard pundits keep repeating that UCLA doesn't want to run. Of course, this is spoken only by national guys and, again, local columnists who probably watched UCLA only a couple of times this season and are still going on stereotypes UCLA earned a few years ago. UCLA definitely wanted to run this season. When Howland got Kevin Love's outlet pass in his arsenal, and more athleticism on the break, he tried to run at every opportunity.

When someone says UCLA tries to slow it down, they're also relatively incorrect. UCLA tries to run, first. But then, yes, UCLA won't come down and jack up a bad shot in the first 5 seconds of the shot clock. They'll look to get a good look at the basket. They'll also play good defense and generally not allow another team a good look for most of their shot clock.

That's what some observers are calling "slowing down."

That, really, is what should be called "good basketball."

Howland will adapt with the talent he has. He knew that the quickest way to play with the elite programs in the country is to play defense and rebound. As he's gotten the talent that is able to do more, he's done more, like running. Howland isn't stupid; If he gets the talent that is able to take defenders off the dribble, he'll exploit it.

Howland, in this day and age, is an enigma of sorts. Other coaches like Calipari, Olson and Williams have succumbed to the pressure of doing what kids today want to do – and that's run and gun. Those coaches aren't stupid; they know that taking a bad shot early in a possession is foolish. But they think it's a trade-off. If allowing their players to do that it attracts elite recruits then they'll tolerate it. Howland, on the other hand, has refused to give up good basketball. Look what it's gotten Lute Olson at this point in his career. No, Howland has held on to the notion of playing good, fundamental basketball, one that values the ball, plays good defense and rebounds, and has decided to find recruits that will want to play that way, too.

It's stubborn, yes. But Howland isn't a sell-out like the rest.

For one thing, Williams, Calipari, etal, realize that the style can only really win at the highest level if you can get the highest level of recruit. Very few programs can successfully recruit at that level and be successful in that type of system. Witness Oregon.

But, there are so many variables, too. When you run that system you are prone to more breakdowns (witness UNC getting down by 28 points against KU in the semi-final). Also, if you bring in players who only want to play in that system, you could potentially die by their equally "loose" personalities, as we've seen happen at Arizona in recent years.

Doing it Howland's way is the harder way – harder to get there because it's harder to attract elite recruits – but it's the way that keeps you there longer.

And remember, winning a national championship is all about putting your program in the position to win it most often.

How Howland can take it up a notch, though, is by finding the kids who want to play in that fundamental system and are also elite players. In his first four years, he didn't have a lottery-pick level player in his program. But he then got Kevin Love. He got Jrue Holiday, coming in next year. A kid like Drew Gordon, who has a great deal of potential, is someone we were sure would opt to play at Arizona or Washington, to want to run and gun, but he opted for UCLA. Howland's style will attract more and more elite talent. He has the #1 recruiting class in the nation for 2008.

Elite recruits, admittedly, are probably more focused on the NBA than college. Howland's program has started to attract elite recruits who, in fact, are looking toward the NBA – including Love, Holiday and Gordon – because they realize Howland, more than other coaches, can give them what they need to prepare them for the League.

Plus, it's a natural weeding-out process. If you're a kid who wants to play for Howland you're a kid who almost certainly isn't going to be problematic, who is going to be a good student, not cause any issues and be coachable. You have to be; Howland's program is demanding and relentless. Some of the players might go through the program not exactly feeling warm and fuzzy toward Howland (and not to really make the comparison, but wasn't it the same for Wooden?). But you know you're going to get a whole lot better at basketball.

So, there are trade-offs between the run-and-gun philosophy and Howland's. But Howland's, if you have essentially the same level of talent, is a system that will undoubtedly beat a run-and-gun system a majority of the time.

Howland is improving his talent, so he's improving his chances. It's, like we said -- just a matter of the stars aligning one year. Again, it might never happen because of random luck. But Howland is putting the UCLA basketball program in the position for it to happen more often than any other coach in the country.

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