Marching to Vegas: How Can UCLA Find It’s Way?Posted by AMurawa on October 19th, 2012
From the moment it was first rumored, the relocation of the conference tournament to Las Vegas has created quite a buzz among Pac-12 basketball fans. Adam Butler (@pachoopsAB) of PacHoops will be here every week as he offers his unique perspective along our March to Vegas.
Midnight’s madness has come and gone and so it begins. Or something like that. There still aren’t games or standings but there’s optimism and the knowing that those eternally glorious things are soon to come. And with season’s beginning there’s new dialogue. From transfers to healed wounds to recruiting classes and seniors, the Pac-12 dialogue hasn’t necessarily centered on last season’s monstrosity but rather the potential for a return to glory. Or at least something resembling such.
The unfortunate twist is the immense questioning of the prognosticated success in Westwood. Here is a program that needs no introduction but gross amounts of explanation and dissection when examining their current state. I could rattle off the tribulations of the recent past but that’d feel like piling on which I’d feel is unfair considering the optimism surrounding this program in light of their 2012 recruiting haul.
[Enter: ominous cloud]
But that’s right, we’re all too familiar with the investigative cloud hovering over new Pauley and the once glowing forecast of the 2012-13 Bruins. Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson continue to be investigated by the NCAA. You don’t need me to tell you that this is not good news considering much of UCLA’s projected success was centering on these young talents, particularly Muhammad. As the investigation drags on (ask Jahii Carson about timelines on such matters), the ominous cloud grows darker. How long will Anderson (he who faces the less stiff allegations) be held out? Is Muhammad done for the year? How big of a distraction is this to the team? Then of course we could question just how good the current, confirmed roster is. Has Larry Drew II matured? Will Josh Smith ever realize his potential? What sort of progress have Tyler Lamb (now injured) and Norman Powell made? Are the twins capable of being difference makers or are they role players?
Many a question circling about in the ominous cloud but frankly there’s going to be a solid lineup regardless of NCAA findings. And while solid generally doesn’t hack it at UCLA, it could be all they got. Leading to my real head scratcher: What the hell is going on? The roster – albeit talented – is nothing resembling a Ben Howland team of days gone and there doesn’t appear to be even a skeleton of the type of teams that have made Howland squads great in the past. And it’s not the current team questions or Sports Illustrated exposes or Reeves Nelson that concerns me.
It’s the complete deviation from the formula.
Ben Howland plays a specific and deliberate style of basketball. It takes a special type of player to be successful in his program and it’s no surprise he puts people into the NBA. It’s no surprise that when he’s filling his program with the right types of players, they’re good – nay! – they’re great. Ask Aaron Afflalo about it. The 2007 Pac-10 POY and key to the UCLA-post-Lavin-turnaround explained the success of Howland players in the League, “Coach Howland has done a great job of at least preparing us to be mentally tough and to play defense.” Toughness, right? Not the fighting teammates kind of tough, but a collective mentality that we are going to grind through this and beat you at what we do best. Howland teams were tough. I mean, what piece of Lorenzo Mata did you want?
And sure, the current roster touts seven former McDonald’s All-Americans but just because I talked to the pretty girl at the bar doesn’t mean I found a keeper. Ben’s finding talented players, just not his players. The tough one’s that do things like… well… play defense. Since their last Final Four in 2008 these are the Bruins’ adjusted defensive efficiency numbers: 93.1, 99.2, 93.2, 93.0. Some context? They dropped from a top three defense to the 138th “best” in two seasons. They now hover in the mid-30s; solid, but come on, this is UCLA we’re talking about. It reads like a failure of Jimmy’s, Joe’s, X’s, and O’s. A Ben Howland fail.
Need an analogy? The Puppy Who Lost His Way and in this case, Howland is the little boy who lost Happy, the puppy (his program). The lost puppy is only sought after for an hour before resigning to the porch. A resignation that upsets Billy Madison. In the case of basketball, Howland’s porch sitting, hoping for the best, parallels the hiring of coach Korey McCray. A move that was quickly proven fruitful with the top recruiting class in the country, right? The well connected AAU coach once led Tony Parker (now a Bruin) and undoubtedly played a role in the relationship building surrounding the successful recruitment of two of the dirtiest signees of the past decade. Look, short cuts can be great but they aren’t always going to get you home and when you’re a purveyor of all things toughness and defense, short cuts definitely don’t get you there.
So, again, I propose my head scratcher: what is going on? Right now, there’s a lost puppy – the missing identity of UCLA basketball and Ben Howland’s brand – and as Billy Madison encouraged, I’d recommend getting off the porch and you get out there and you find that…
Well, I’ll leave the verbiage to Adam Sandler.