Is Ben Howland’s Job in Jeopardy?Posted by AMurawa on November 18th, 2011
The UCLA basketball program is 0-2 for the first time since Steve Lavin’s final disastrous year in Westwood. An 0-2 record isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but the Bruins haven’t exactly come by their record in the same way that Belmont did (with losses to college hoops powers Duke and Memphis). The Bruins have lost their opening two games to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State – and not in particularly compelling fashion either. Along the way, last year’s leading scorer and Sports Illustrated cover boy Reeves Nelson was suspended for behavioral problems, sophomore center Joshua Smith tweeted out an immature response following the LMU loss and senior point guard Jerime Anderson served the last half of his very light punishment for stealing a laptop over the summer with a suspension against LMU before coming back to underwhelm against MTSU. In short, the UCLA basketball program is a hot mess right now, a dumpster fire, a train wreck. Worse yet, it is all of those things for the second time in three years.
All of which begs the question, does head coach Ben Howland have reason to fear for his job? It’s not all that long ago that such a question would have been absurd. Remember, Howland had his Bruins in the Final Four three straight times between 2006 and 2008. Between the 2005-06 season and the 2008-09 season, he posted an astounding 123-26 (82.6%) record, with a 65-16 (80.2%) record in the Pac-10, including conference tournament games. Furthermore, Howland was absolutely killing it on the recruiting trail.
After a two-man 2007 recruiting class ranked #10 in the nation by ESPNU, largely on the strength of Kevin Love, the #1 recruit in the nation (the class also included current UNLV senior Chace Stanback), Howland had then inked the #1 class in the nation for 2008, highlighted by point guard Jrue Holiday, with guys like Drew Gordon, J’Mison Morgan, Malcolm Lee and Anderson expected to make major impacts during their time in Westwood. The following year Howland added another five players (Tyler Honeycutt, Mike Moser, Brendan Lane, Nelson and Anthony Stover) for the #13 class in the nation. Of those 12 players in those three classes, six played either one season at UCLA or left the program prior to completing a second season. Four of them transferred out to other Division I schools with varying degress of success at their new destinations. The 2008 class goes down in history as a strong contender for the most disappointing recruiting class ever, with only Lee and Anderson making significant extended contributions to the program, and even those two players considered as serious underachievers compared to their incoming reputations.
Howland has seen bumps on the recruiting road here and there since then. The Bruins have had to take the rare step of mining the junior college ranks over the past couple of seasons for help at point guard (Lazeric Jones in 2010) and at the wing (De’End Parker in 2011), patching over early departures whose replacements were never secured. But the 2012 class is shaping up to be a strong class, with point forward Kyle Anderson already signed, along with wing Jordan Adams, and the Bruins rumored to be a slight favorite for the #1 player in the class, Shabazz Muhammad.
Regardless of recruiting failures, the biggest problem around the program seems to be one of institutional personality. The great Bruin teams of the back end of the last decade were built around defense. In the three Final Four seasons, UCLA never finished the season ranked lower than third in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rating. Sure, those were still good offensive teams (their offensive efficiency rankings were 28th, 23rd and seventh in those three seasons), but it was defense that drove them. Since then, UCLA’s dominance on the defensive end has disappeared. In the 2008-09 season, the Bruins dipped to 44th in those numbers before slipping all the way to 138th in the nation during a disastrous 14-18 season in 2009-10. Even last year, which was seen as something of a bounce-back season, the Bruins were a good, not great, defensive squad (37th). After two games this year, those same defensive woes have resurfaced again, with no perimeter defender apparently capable of being a stopper, and with a frontcourt consisting of big, slow, relatively unathletic players who don’t seem capable of guarding elite athletes.
The offensive numbers aren’t a whole lot better the last two years (104th in offensive efficiency in 2009-10, 79th last year), and Howland in recent years has taken plenty of heat from media, fans and alumni over his slow-it-down, grind-it-out halfcourt offense which has consistently ranked in the bottom half of Division I teams in terms of tempo. The argument has been made that this type of rigid offense hurts recruiting, although as detailed above, Howland hasn’t exactly struggled getting the players he wants. It has also been suggested that the methodical style of play has been behind the decisions of guys like Stanback, Gordon and Moser to transfer elsewhere.
The fact is, at UCLA, losing basketball teams aren’t put up with very long. In order for Howland to feel fairly comfortable in his position, he needs to start winning, and soon. Given the weaknesses on his current roster in terms of both talent and leadership, compounded by the Bruins’ season on the road in the midst of Pauley Pavilion renovations, turning this team around appears to be a tall task. In 2009-10, the Bruins improved as the season went on. After losing early games to Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and Portland (by 27 points, mind you, in a game that wasn’t even remotely that close), the Bruins scratched and clawed to an 8-10 conference record with a win over conference champ California mixed in there, a win that wasn’t hinted at the way the team played at the start of the season. Still, at the end of the day, there was a 14-18 record to explain and no amount of excuses could make up for that. If the 2011-12 season turns into a repeat of that year, UCLA fans will be right in wondering whether Howland is the right coach for the future. It is likely that he would still receive another year to turn things around, but he would go into that season undoubtedly a man in the hot seat.
What does this version of the Bruins need to do to turn things around this season? First and foremost, defend somebody. With a host of slow-footed bigs up front, UCLA will likely have to turn to the zone, at least at times, in order to shore up the defensive end. If Howland continues to try to get away with playing David Wear at the small forward position, a healthy dose of zone is a must. The other option is to get athletic newcomers like Norman Powell and Parker on the floor more often, perhaps in concert with sophomore wing Tyler Lamb. None of those players is close to being a finished offensive product, and none of them is going to make the other team’s defense respect UCLA’s perimeter offense (UCLA’s other major weakness), but if they continue to let the opposition score at will, the offensive side of things won’t matter at all.
So, back to the original question: does Ben Howland have reason to fear for his job? Yes, he certainly does. It may not be in immediate peril, but he has started down a path that could ultimately end in the unemployment line. It would still take quite a collapse for UCLA to be looking for a new head basketball coach next offseason (a collapse that the unlucky viewer of UCLA’s first two games could certainly envision), but if 2011-12 is anything like 2009-10, his leash will tighten up considerably. There still seems to be a feeling around the athletic department and around fans of the program that Howland is in fact the right man for the job, but continued failures in one of the most storied basketball programs in the land will not be tolerated much longer.