For the past month or two -- pretty much since UCLA dumped forward Reeves Nelson for his continued nonsense -- yours truly has been patiently waiting for the Bruins to finally figure it out. Maybe Nelson would be addition by subtraction. Maybe they needed time to grow as a team. Maybe the young guards just needed a month or two to develop. Maybe Joshua Smith just needed to get in shape.
If any or all of these things turned out to be true, UCLA -- one of the more talented teams in its league -- had a major opportunity. The Pac-12, as you may have heard, is down. A few bounces in the right direction, a little midseason congealing, and blammo: UCLA, once ranked No. 20 in the preseason (remember that?), would be right back in the thick of this season.
As of Feb. 3, the dream, as it were, appears to be officially over. Barring a totally unforeseen late-season surge, or a Pac-12 tournament title rush, the Bruins are not going to the NCAA tournament. The Bruins aren't as bad as they were in November, to be sure, but they're still incapable of beating anything resembling a decent Pac-12 team on the road. (The only conference road win came over USC, which, sorry, doesn't count.) UCLA is 12-10 overall, 5-5 in the Pac-12. At this point, they are what they are: Not horrible, not good and not likely to change either of those facts.
Still, Thursday night's loss at Washington might hurt more than any other in recent weeks, if only because UCLA had a genuine opportunity to "upset" (ahem) the conference's co-leader on the road. Basketball Prospectus' Kevin Pelton was on hand, and he was rightfully baffled by UCLA coach Ben Howland's game management:
The Bruins’ visit to Hec Edmundson Pavilion last year was the quintessential Howland timeout game. He burned through three timeouts in the first half and had used up all five of them by the 12:57 mark of a close game. When Howland took his first timeout 2:32 into Thursday’s ballgame, it looked like we were headed for a repeat. Instead, the UCLA coach showed surprising discretion, added by his team’s ability to stem any Washington momentum with timely scores.
Howland took a pair of timeouts to the five-minute mark, then used one with 4:38 to play to set up his defense after a score, giving him one to burn. He never used it.
Remarkably, the Bruins found themselves in precisely the sort of situation for which most coaches save their timeouts. After a Terrence Ross miss, UCLA took possession down two with 26 seconds remaining. The Bruins came down and got into their offense, even after the Huskies took away any opportunities for transition or the secondary break. The resulting play was a mess. Freshmen guard Norman Powell eventually got the ball in the corner. Powell, who was in the game only because Tyler Lamb had fouled out, driving for a contested pull-up jumper with three seconds left. When he missed, time ran out before the Bruins could secure the rebound or foul.
You can't take timeouts with you. It's a hoary old chestnut, but it's true. And when your team has a chance to win the game in the final moments, a coach usually decides to not leave that potentially all-important timeout on the board. It's just sort of strange, right?
More than that, it underscores the current strife of the UCLA basketball fan, who understandably expects his or her program to look more like the one of the early Howland years, when the Bruins were a fixture in three-straight Final Fours. Since then, UCLA has seemed in a constant rebuilding limbo. NBA defections and a downtick in recruiting have been the main cause of these woes -- this team would be so much better if Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee hadn't bolted for the league last spring -- but the causes don't affect UCLA fans' reception of the end result.
If Friday's post at Bruins Nation is any indication -- titled "End of Faith: Why Howland Must Go, Even Though It Hurts" -- UCLA fans are officially ready to end the Howland era. To wit (warning, long blockquote ahoy!):
I take no joy in calling for Ben Howland's firing. I really don't. But, when you look at the numbers, it's clear that Ben hasn't gotten the job done, at least not to the level UCLA deserves. That said, it's about more than the numbers, but it's about something happened this season that made me realize, on a deep, visceral level, that Howland had to go.
I stopped believing in Ben Howland.
I no longer have the confidence that everything will turn out okay for UCLA. I no longer believe that Ben can guide us to the pinnacle of college basketball. I don't have faith in Ben, not anymore. I can't point to any particular reason, or any particular point in time where that happened: I just know it did. I lost faith. I stopped believing in Ben. The magic is gone.
I could care less about watching our basketball games, because it's just painful. It hurts to see the shell of a formerly great coach flail about with a mediocre team (that he is solely responsible for building), unable to adjust, unable to find a way to win, and unable to bear any resemblance to the outstanding coach that made UCLA a dominating force in college hoops.
When you look at schools like Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and the other elites, the fans have something we don't: a belief in their coach. Deep down in every Blue Devil, Tar Heel, Jayhawk, etc. is the belief that, even in a bad, rebuilding season (which for these guys, still always result in at least a NCAA tournament appearance), that Coach K, Williams, or Self would right the ship.
Howland, on the other hand, lost that. It's sad.
Obviously, one blog (let alone a singular post) can't speak for every UCLA fan, of which there are many. But if the comments on that post are any indication of Howland's current status among fans -- there are lots of "me toos" and "100 percent right" and "beautiful post" and so on -- UCLA fans have seen enough. The time has come, at least to them. Of course, impassioned blog comments don't have the power to fire Howland, and he is almost certain to survive this season and perhaps even another one, depending on how his latest surge in recruiting (specifically the pursuit of top-ranked recruit Shabazz Muhammad) plays out.
Either way, the Bruins' proud program finds itself at another crossroads. After another disappointing loss, UCLA fans aren't asking when this team will get better, when it will congeal, when the talent will shine through, when Joshua Smith (who is playing better) will finally become dominant. They're asking different questions now: Why isn't this team improving? Why isn't Howland doing a better job? How soon can we move on? How soon can we hire someone new?
As of February, that's where things stand in Westwood. And you thought November was ugly.