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Friday, March 2, 2012
Where does UCLA go from here?

By Eamonn Brennan

Ben Howland
Coach Ben Howland has come under fire following a recent embarrassing report on UCLA's program.

Thanks to George Dohrmann's exhaustive reporting in the pages of this week's Sports Illustrated, the UCLA Bruins -- a forgotten team mired in another disappointing season -- were, during the final week of their irrelevant regular season, thrust unwittingly into the national spotlight. In the world of college hoops, this was the Week of UCLA, when a legendary program was turned inside out and exposed for the whole world to see.

You know most of the details by now, but just in case, let's quickly recap: Dohrmann's well-reported story recounted the sudden and precipitous decline of UCLA in recent seasons, and counted the following points among the (always-corroborated) reasons for said decline:
Taken as a whole, there were two common reactions to Dohrmann's story. One was that of outrage and disgust, which seems primarily prevalent among UCLA fans, many of whom believe Howland needed to be fired for missing two NCAA tournaments in three seasons. To them, the peek at the reasons why only confirmed that belief.

The other reaction is slightly more measured. Sure, this is poorly timed, but it happens at programs across the country. Howland made mistakes in recruiting, but a guy who took teams to three straight Final Fours does not suddenly become a bad coach overnight. UCLA doesn't even have a home arena this season.

To yours truly, the story did a bit of both: It pulled the curtain back on a coach that had long since placed short-term gains over long-term program needs (q.v.: Bruce Weber), for reasons I really can't quite fathom. (It's not like Howland needed to take risks in recruiting to save his job; he just went to three Final Fours!) It also revealed the significant challenges college basketball coaches must confront on and off the court in 2012. How coaches handle said challenges away from the shiny lights and TV cameras can, perhaps even more than talent or X's and O's, be the biggest difference between success and failure in this sport. (Though talent and a few decent baseline out of bounds plays never hurt, either.)

Regardless of your reaction, the pertinent question now is: Where does UCLA go from here?

If you read Bruins Nation with any regularity, you'll know that UCLA fans -- or at least UCLA fans that write and comment on Bruins Nation -- have already made up their minds: Howland needs to go. But so does athletic director Dan Guerrero. Orange County Register columnist Scott M. Reid made this argument Thursday:
No, the real question isn't whether Howland should be fired (he shouldn't). The much more important question is whether Dan Guerrero should be allowed to continue making major decisions about the direction of UCLA's athletic department? [...] Guerrero should have [seen Nelson's problems], and overrode his coach and sent Nelson back to Modesto. That Guerrero didn't is one of the reasons he found himself with Block trying to answer reporters' questions Wednesday afternoon. That Guerrero himself hasn't been sent packing as well of course is thanks to [UCLA chancellor Gene] Block's lack of oversight and direction.

Culture change came up again on Wednesday, and Guerrero was quick to jump on the need for change within the basketball program. "Yeah, there's no is no question about that," he said. But if UCLA is really serious about changing the culture of the athletic department, instead of focusing on Howland, shouldn't Block be at least asking himself this question: Doesn't change start at the top?

The conference call Guerrero staged Wednesday was interesting even in its structure. Howland staged his own and answered questions from the media by himself, but Guerrero appeared alongside Block. As Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote:
Hey, Guerrero is no dummy. This accountability configuration was far more damning to Howland's job security than the story. And what Guerrero said didn't help. Asked about Howland's future, even though there are probably only a handful of games left in the season, Guerrero had no answer.

''We'll go through the rest of the season. … we'll see what happens relative to postseason play … then we'll sit down and talk about the situation like we always do,'' Guerrero said, adding, "Certainly, the article raises some issues. But believe me, we were aware of many issues as well. We'll put our arms around those issues at the end of the season.''

That's essentially the message Guerrero delivered to Fox Sports Radio's "Petros and Money" Thursday. He defended Howland and the program to a point, but stopped short of offering anything that could be interpreted as a vote of confidence. It's all platitudes: We'll "talk things through" at the end of the season to achieve an "alignment of vision" and "correct what's wrong." Naturally, this is not going to calm UCLA fans, who were already getting fed up with Guerrero before this week's mess arrived in Westwood.

In other words, things remain up in the air. Some hope was on hand on Thursday night, when UCLA beat Washington State 78-46. As ESPNLosAngeles.com's Peter Yoon writes, the program, which has noticeably stockpiled high-character guys in recent seasons, "seems to be headed in the right direction."
Tyler Lamb had one of his best games as a Bruin with 16 points and five assists. He is a sophomore. Twins David and Travis Wear, also sophomores, continued their solid play with a combined 21 points and 10 rebounds. Freshman Norman Powell made two of three 3-point shots and finished with eight points.

Those guys are the future of UCLA basketball, the guys who will be asked to carry the Bruins out of the current mess they are in, and that's a good thing because they showed that not only can they play, but all are high-character people. They are the type of low-ego, hard-working players coach Ben Howland built his three consecutive Final Four teams around, but were scarce as an influx of prima donna attitudes took over and the program took a nose dive over the past three seasons.
Joshua Smith
Coach Howland was accused in the SI report of babying forward Joshua Smith.
There are still questions about this year's team, of course. Chief among them is forward Joshua Smith, whose incredible talent and potential has been hampered by his immaturity and unwillingness to get serious about shedding weight. Smith came in to his sophomore season in even worse shape than he did as a freshman, when all anyone could say about him was how good he would be if he just dropped a few (OK, more than a few) pounds. Howland's treatment of Smith was even mentioned in Dohrmann's report:
Smith, UCLA's most gifted player, was a disappointment. He has admitted to a lack of motivation, but players say that Howland also has babied him, allowing him to miss meetings and arrive late or unprepared for workouts. "Same thing as before," says a player. "Josh is a star and so [Howland] isn't holding him accountable." (Howland declined to discuss his handling of Smith.)

Smith's issues aside, though, it's hard to read Yoon's report from Thursday night's win and not sense a certain level of optimism about the program's direction going forward. The players believe they have what it takes to get back to the much-ballyhooed "UCLA way," and with reportedly high-character recruits leading next year's potential top-five class, perhaps that transition -- a fresh start after three years of dismay -- won't be as difficult as many imagine.

But will Howland have the opportunity to fix it? Should he? And where does Guerrero's leadership fit into all this?

Before this legendary program can move forward, before it can erase one of the uglier periods in program history, before it can return to a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, before it can get back to the business of being UCLA, it must first answer these key questions. Stay tuned.