Editorial: UCLA is at a Crossroads

UCLA is clearly in the midst of a poor season, but it hasn't necessarily been the losing that's been the most troubling, but the seeming departure of the program and Ben Howland away from the fundamentals of defense and playing hard. UCLA needs to restore its image to sustain the program...

The UCLA basketball program is at critical time in the tenure of Coach Ben Howland.

We're not ones to be too alarmist at Bruin Report Online (we're talking about the contributors, not the message board posters).

But after analyzing every dimension of the program, you can conservatively say that the UCLA program is going through a very critical period, one that could conceivably make or break it under Howland.

Sounds a bit alarmist? After all, this is a program that is just 16 months removed from its last Final Four, which was one of three in a row.

And we're not saying that Howland is in any way on the coaching hot seat. He's not. With what he's done at UCLA he has quite a bit of credit on his account, so to speak. With three consecutive Final Fours under his belt, he would probably have to go through at least a couple of losing seasons, if not several, before he'd even feel warmth in his seat.

But where the program is now might very well be a crossroads in determining the direction of Howland's program – either going down one road toward continued success, competing for Pac-10 championships and possible Final Fours, or heading down the other road toward the precipice.

And it's not so much that UCLA is losing this season that creates the crossroads. Of course, losing makes everything worse and it's the catalyst to all of this. If UCLA were winning we probably wouldn't be writing this article. But while losing is the catalyst, it's not the problem. It's the match, but not the kindling that created this fire.

What we feel is the kindling is how it seems that Howland has gotten a bit off course in what he made the UCLA program to be about.

Because when it comes down to it, with every coach and every program, your identity is really all you have to ultimately save you.

Howland built the UCLA program by emphasizing a few simple concepts – play tough defense, play hard and rebound.

Right now, this team doesn't embody any of those Howland staples.

It was, and is, a great methodology. For one, on the court, it will help you win. While other teams and programs can run and gun every year, they don't necessarily win. They might have a style of play that appeals to recruits, but Howland's philosophy is that, when it comes down to it, kids will opt to win more than they'll opt to play in a style they like better.

It set apart Howland. If you were a recruit and looking at different programs, you could say, "Hey, I really like the way they run on every possession and shoot the ball quickly at Oregon, or Arizona, but UCLA, playing tough defense and playing hard, wins."

Right now, again, you can't say that about this team.

Secondly, it set apart Howland from the running-and-gunning masses. There are plenty of programs out there that choose to play a style that recruits will like. In fact, many choose the style because they know it's an easier sell to recruits. And there's no denying it definitely helps in recruiting. But Howland, with his style of play, had proven that playing hard and playing defense wins, and he had set himself up as the antithesis of the running-and-gunning masses. It gave Howland an identity in the college basketball world. When television announcers needed to define UCLA's program under Howland in a short sound bite it always went something like: "Howland's Bruins always play hard and play tough defense." It was what set apart Howland, and worked to be the thing that made him appeal to recruits. Heck, a guy who was even so ill-suited to play under Howland like Drew Gordon originally chose UCLA because he thought it'd add the dimensions to his game that he didn't have.

When you're taught good man defense and it's demanded that you play hard, and you learn some advanced, detailed offensive sets, it also prepares you better to play in the NBA. It was definitely another big advantage to Howland's approach and philosophy – it prepares college players better for the NBA than most other programs. Don't forget: high school players these days care very little about college basketball, and only see it as a stepping stone to the NBA. Even most of the ones who have no chance of ever playing in the NBA. So, Howland's program had that going for it – that recruits perceived it as superior preparation for the NBA, as opposed to the more free-wheeling, run-and-gun programs. It was all true, too. So many NBA scouts and general managers have made comments that Howland's UCLA players come to the league far better versed on basketball fundamentals and ready to play. The proof is easily in the pudding in all the guys that you might not have even thought would have a great shot at a sustained NBA career – like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo, or Jordan Farmar. And there there are guys like Russell Westbrook or Kevin Love who did have NBA-level talent to begin with, and Howland's fundamentals honed those talents to make them top 5 picks in the NBA Draft.

So, all in all, it was Howland's identity. His calling card. It's what set him apart, his niche that made his teams win and recruits want to play for him.

As we've said, the program has seemed to get away from that.

It definitely has gotten away from the winning. And while winning is everything, and can make everything okay and mask all your warts, it's also very precarious. Sometimes you can do everything exactly perfect as a coach and you still don't win.

The secret is to have the cornerstones in place so that, when you don't win, there is still something holding up the building. It's so when you do have that occasional poor season, the inevitable wart or two that every program has doesn't envelope the entire body of the program.

For Howland, as with all college coaches, it's almost inevitable that you're going to experience a season where some factors come together and you aren't as successful as you usually are. There are some things that, perhaps, are your own fault. But many times an unsuccessful season can be caused by factors that predominantly aren't a coach's fault. Most of the time it's a combination of both, like it is with UCLA's current season. It's absolutely certain that Howland would take culpability himself for many of the reasons UCLA isn't winning this season. But there are also other reasons – like players leaving to the NBA, some recruits who every college coach in the country coveted not developing, etc. – that might be beyond a coach's control.

Again, what gets you through such a valley is that, through it all, your program still embodies the fundamentals that got you there, that established the standard of the winning seasons.

For Howland it would be if, through a losing season such as the current one, the team could still be perceived as, at least, playing hard, and looking like it, at least, is making a big effort on defense and rebounding. Even if it, per se, didn't have the talent to be successful, if the players were giving a huge effort every time on the floor and playing as hard as they possible could on defense then there would be something redeemable. The pillars and foundation of the house would still be there after the hurricane.

That's what's wrong with this season. Right now, in the middle of the hurricane, there's nothing to cling to.

There have been very few instances so far this season where it appears the team is playing hard and dedicated to defense like past Howland teams. It's been by far the exception rather than the rule.

Of course it's the fault of the players.

But the blame also has to be laid at the feet of the coach, too.

Howland, through his first five seasons, sent a pretty clear message, both through his use of his personnel and in the media, that if you didn't play hard and didn't attempt to play hard on defense, you wouldn't see the floor at UCLA.

That message has been garbled, beginning last season and now fully this season.

There are players on the UCLA roster who clearly don't embody Howland's philosophies, but they remain on the court. In fact, there aren't many who don't fit that description this season.

This is what has garbled the message and sullied the image of UCLA under Howland and has left UCLA fans – and, more than likely, UCLA recruits – a bit dumbfounded this season. It contradicts everything Howland preached in his first five seasons, and it undermines the image that Howland built for the program.

With the blow-out loss against Arizona Saturday, and the outlook of the team, there really isn't much to play for during the remainder of the season. UCLA will not be able to get an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament. The only way UCLA is going to the NCAA Tournament would be to win the Pac-10 regular season championship or the conference tournament championship. And, of course, UCLA is currently 1-1 in the conference and anything can happen. But more than likely, it's farfetched to think that this Bruin team will suddently start playing well enough to win the conference or the conference tournament.

So, maybe Howland should go about restoring his image, and the program's image under his coaching. To rebuild the foundation and the pillars.

To do that, Howland would have to start benching the players that aren't putting in the effort, regardless of whom it is.

It would be highly more acceptable for UCLA to lose, say, 58-50, having played fairly strong defense while giving up some scoring.

It would restore Howland's image as a taskmaster of effort and defense. It would project an image of him being about fundamentals and not losing his core values, even in the middle of a losing season.

You could hear college basketball analysts saying, "Ben Howland is opting to stick with his values and is benching players who aren't putting out the effort." If there's anything that could redeem this season that would be it.

It would repair UCLA's reputation in college basketball and potentially in recruiting circles. It would be the thing that best helped to sustain the program in the long run.

It would be the thing that would get UCLA through this crossroads and down the road to recovery.

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