The Bruins have been in scramble mode almost since the day athletic director Dan Guerrero announced Steve Alford as the coach to replace Ben Howland, and the latest incident came over the weekend, when Guerrero issued a puzzling statementin response to an L.A. Times article about Alford.
That statement is just the latest incident during hectic two-month stretch in which question after question about Alford, his past and how and why he was hired have dominated discussions about UCLA basketball. About the only way to silence all of this, of course, would be to redirect attention to the team and its potential.
Unfortunately for Alford and UCLA, there are plenty of questions and issues surrounding those aspects of the program, too. Here, we look at five of the biggest questions surrounding the UCLA program as it transitions into the Steve Alford era:
1. Can Alford win over the UCLA fan base?
While this certainly is the biggest issue du jour, it’s also the most easily addressed. All Alford needs to do is land a couple of top-notch recruits and then get the team winning.
Sounds simple enough, but Alford started out behind in the recruiting race and would now need to pull off some magic in order to land a player who can impact next season’s team.
Let’s face it: Alford was not the top choice for UCLA fans. UCLA showed interest in Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth and Brad Stevens of Butler before turning to Alford and his hire came as a surprise to the Bruins faithful.
His name had not previously come up in lists of potential candidates for the job, and some have been slow to fully accept him as a worthy leader for this proud program.
Alford still has a shot, but the real answer to this question won’t come until next March. The only way to truly impress UCLA fans is to win in the NCAA Tournament. Conference titles and tournaments mean little. Sweet 16s, Elite Eights and Final Fours speak volumes.
2. Does UCLA have enough depth?
Alford inherits a team with only six scholarship players returning and only one of them -- Jordan Adams -- averaged more than 11 points per game last season.
Three freshmen are slated to arrive in late June, so the Bruins will have nine scholarship players to start next season and the good news is that is one more than they played with for much of last season.
The Bruins managed to survive with limited numbers and won the Pac-12 regular-season title in 2012-13, but they also got pretty lucky on the injury front. A few players missed a game or two here and there, but not until Adams broke his foot in the Pac-12 tournament did a Bruin suffer a significant injury.
Sophomores Kyle Anderson and Adams and seniors Travis Wear and David Wear will bring plenty of game experience and junior Norman Powell should be ready to take a step forward in his development, but Tony Parker played sparingly last season and the other three players on the team will be true freshmen.
There is talent there. Incoming recruits Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine were named to the Parade Magazine All-American high school team while Anderson earned second team All Pac-12 honors last season and Adams was UCLA’s second-leading scorer. Still, the lack of bodies is a concern -- a fact brought to the attention of Alford and his staff during offseason workouts. They had only five healthy scholarship players present because Adams is still recovering from his broken foot. Relying on similar injury luck as last season is a risky proposition so Alford will probably be looking to recruit a preferred walk-on or an immediately eligible transfer.
3. Who will play the point?
Larry Drew II played a team-high 35.5 minutes per game last season mostly because he was the only true point guard the team had. He earned all-conference honors and now is gone, having exhausted his eligibility.
The success of last year’s team was in large part due to the phenomenal freshman class, but without Drew there is no way the Bruins win the Pac-12 title or even make the NCAA tournament. Now that he’s gone, the chances of repeating either of those accomplishments depend on finding a suitable replacement.
Drew was fourth in the nation with 7.3 assists per game and also brought senior leadership from a position where experience matters most, so it won’t be easy. The leading candidates now are Anderson, a non-traditional, 6-9 point forward who played power forward most of last season, and Alford, the sharp-shooting coach’s son who has played some point guard in high school but will be a true freshman.
Incoming freshman LaVine can also play some point in a pinch, but he’s more suited to shooting guard. The same goes for Noah Allen, another incoming freshman. Don’t be surprised if Alford starts out as the point guard with Anderson filling the same spot-duty role he played last season.
The Bruins could also mix and match lineups based on matchups and use a big lineup with Anderson running the point or a small, four-guard lineup where Anderson plays the post.
4. Who will play the post?
The obvious answer here is Tony Parker because he is the only true post player on the team. But Parker had a rough go of it last season and was considering transferring away from UCLA. All indications are that he will be back next season, though he has not yet made an official announcement.
Even if he does come back, Parker didn’t exactly impress last season. He played his way out of the regular rotation with erratic performances and played his way out of favor of a coaching staff that had questions about his approach.
The coaching change should rejuvenate Parker, who was a high school All American his senior year and was among the most coveted big men coming out of high school last year. He showed some flashes of his talent with his size and strength during his limited action with the Bruins, but most of the time looked lost and disinterested on the court.
He racked up 54 fouls in 207 minutes (that’s one foul every 3.8 minutes) and played only 6.3 minutes per game. He will have to take a significant step forward in order to become the type of impact player the Bruins need at center.
The other options are Travis and David Wear. The Travis Wear played the post position most of last season, but he’s more of a face-up forward and his true position is power forward. David Wear, Travis’ twin, has a similar game.
The Bruins can get by without a true post player—they won the Pac-12 title last season doing so—but it’s a long shot to think they can make any kind of post-season run without some meaningful contributions from inside the paint.
5. Can Steve Alford recruit California?
Although the immediate concern in an instant-gratification world is next season, Alford’s long-term success will hinge on his ability to recruit. Specifically, he needs to re-establish UCLA as a coveted destination for local talent -- something that tailed off in Ben Howland’s past few seasons.
Howland built his successful teams around Southern California recruits such as Arron Afflalo, Josh Shipp, Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook. His last class, while outstanding, had no Southern California players and local kids seemed to be picking Arizona, Cal, Colorado, Stanford, UNLA and San Diego State over the Bruins.
The class of 2014 is pivotal for Alford. Six of the players in the ESPN 60 for that class are from Southern California, including highly-regarded forward Stanley Johnson of Mater Dei and coveted point guard Jordan McLaughlin of Etiwanda High in Rancho Cucamonga.
Clearly recruiting these top-tier players comes with the risk that they will be one-and-done, so Alford needs to balance the scales with some three-start type of players who are willing to grow with the program.
There are plenty of those in California as well, so Alford will need to hit the recruiting trail hard and build quality relationships with high school and AAU coaches in the area to make sure he gets some of them to stay home.
“I believe that this is the right time for me to move to the next level,” Muhammad said in a statement. It’s the right time for Muhammad because waiting any longer carries too much risk. His NBA draft stock has been falling since the season started so he has to get out while the getting is still good.
The only surprise about Muhammad’s decision to leave school and enter the NBA draft was that he took so long to make it official. He should have been running for the NBA as soon as UCLA’s season ended three weeks ago.
The more NBA scouts saw of him, the less they thought of him. He’s still projected to be drafted at the back end of the lottery, but that’s a significant drop from his top-three projection when the season began.
Another year in college certainly could help raise his appeal, but the risk of it turning into another season like this one is too great. There were several highly publicized incidents that gave some pause, but the bigger issue was his generally underwhelming performance considering the amount of hype that followed him to UCLA.
He led the Bruins with 17.9 points per game and his scoring ability is unquestioned. Still, this was not the dominant, flashy offensive player expected when he signed. Instead of slashing, getting to the rim and finishing highlight-reel dunks, Muhammad scored more on awkward, lumbering floaters, mid-range jump shots and 3-pointers.
And for a guy who professed to raise his level under the bright lights of big games, Muhammad faltered in the postseason. He shot 39.7 percent (23-for-58) and averaged 15.25 points in four postseason games. He was 0-for-10 on 3-point attempts in those games and made only three of his last 23 attempts from behind the arc.
Those downward scoring and shooting trends are a concern for Muhammad’s draft prospects because he offers little in other areas of the game. While he improved defensively throughout the season, he was never very good and played as though he has a disdain for defense. His 23 steals and four blocked shots in 32 games were downright paltry.
The mural, designed by renowned sports artist Mike Sullivan, will run along the first-base concourse of the stadium named after Robinson. UCLA coach John Savage and former UCLA pitcher Tim Leary, representing the Dodgers, are expected to speak during the pregame ceremony.
Jackie Robinson Day takes place across the major leagues on April 15, the anniversary of the date Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. UCLA does not play Monday, so the school is celebrating on Sunday.
Or, perhaps more accurately, firing Ben Howland did.
UCLA guard Norman Powell said Tuesday he was staying at UCLA after considering transferring, and the main reason for his decision was because coach Howland was fired. Powell, a sophomore from San Diego, said he would have looked into playing at San Diego State next season had Howland returned, but reconsidered after UCLA fired Howland last week and hired Steve Alford away from New Mexico on Saturday.
The 6-foot-4 athletic wing player began this season as a starter, but soon found himself coming off the bench, and his minutes dropped from 28.4 the first seven games to 19 for the next 26 games. He played 37 minutes per game when recalled to the starting lineup to replace an injured Jordan Adams.
"Hiring a new coach leaves open a chance, an opportunity for me to come in with a fresh start basically because we're under a new coach and see what he has to offer and see what he wants me to do," Powell said. "Now I'm just really excited to see where this program is headed. ... I was just optimistic about being able to play under a new coach."
It also helped that Powell is familiar with Alford, who tried to recruit Powell to New Mexico. Also, an assistant coach from Powell's high school team once played under Alford at Iowa.
"He's a good coach," Powell said. "He knows what he's doing and he expects a lot out of his players and that's what it's going to be. I expect for practice to be intense and for it to be up tempo and see how strict he is. I'm excited to see what he wants to do with this program."
While Powell is back on the team, there are still questions remaining about some other returning players. Shabazz Muhmmad is expected to leave for the NBA but hasn't officially announced his decision. Tony Parker is also thought to be a transfer candidate and Kyle Anderson is also a candidate to leave for the NBA.
Anderson was at Tuesday's news conference but did not speak with reporters. Muhammad and Parker did not attend. Parker has enrolled in classes and is expected to finish the school year, a school spokesperson said.
"I'm sure everybody is coming back," Powell said. "I haven't heard any news or rumors going around about everybody transferring."
The ceremony is closed to the public, but will be carried live on the Pac-12 Networks and streamed live at Pac-12.com. Andy Katz of ESPN.com got a sneak preview when he caught up with Alford Monday on Katz Korner.
Bruins around the country wanted someone that would deliver ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ make them shout for joy and allow them to walk with pride. Instead, they got someone who delivered question marks and puzzled looks.
Fans of this proud program wanted to land one of the country’s big names. Brad Stevens of Butler, Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth, two of the most highly-sought up-and-comers, sat high on the wish lists. Billy Donovan of Florida, Rick Pitino of Louisville and Bill Self held a regular spot on the dream lists.
Alford appeared on no lists.
That’s not to say he’s a bad coach. He’s been on lists before, but not this time. Nobody mentioned him as a possible candidate for the job, but that had more to do with him agreeing to a 10-year contract with New Mexico just 10 days ago.
Heck, even UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero didn’t know Alford was available until Guerrero reached out to Alford earlier this week and discovered that Alford’s new contract doesn’t take effect until April 1.
“We weren’t sure whether he was available just in a general sense, but we made the contact and began the discussion,” Guerrero said. “We both realized that this was something that could be possible.”
The contract gave Guerrero the cover he needed to make this stealthy move. UCLA made overtures toward Stevens and Smart, but talks with Stevens broke off when it became apparent he wasn’t interested in leaving his current job, and Smart politely declined to be considered for the job.
At that point, Alford became the primary target, and Guerrero made it sound like there were no others.
“We kind of knew where we were focused,” Guerrero said. “Obviously, once you have a certain candidate in mind and you have an opportunity to engage and there is reciprocity of interest then you keep going down that path until you see if something can happen."
Although the hire is surprising, it’s not exactly out of left field. Had Alford not signed that deal 10 days ago, his name surely would have come up as a candidate.
After helping lead Indiana to a national title as a player and a brief, nondescript NBA career, he turned into a rising star in the coaching world. He led Manchester to the Division II national title game in 1995, then moved to Southwest Missouri State and took the Bears to the Sweet 16 in 1999.
After that, Iowa came calling, and while he didn’t have much success there, New Mexico still wanted him to come and help rebuild its program. He did exactly that, taking a team that finished eighth in the Mountain West the season before he got there to one that finished third, first and first during Alford’s first three years.
Thanks in part to Alford’s New Mexico teams, the Mountain West Conference has been on the rise for the past three or four years, and Alford has been coach of the year in the conference three times in five seasons. This is a coach who has worked his way up the ranks and appears to be on the precipice of making the jump to an elite level. UCLA is the place where he can do exactly that.
“I’ve known Steve and his capabilities for a long time,” Guerrero said. “I’ve certainly watched his teams play when I was a member of the NCAA committee. I watched a lot of games. I enjoy his style, I think the players will enjoy his style, and I just think he’s the right guy for us.”
Alford’s lack of success in his only major conference job might be a red flag for some, however. His lack of postseason success might be a turnoff for others. He went 61-67 in Big Ten games during his eight seasons at Iowa and has won only five NCAA Tournament games in 18 seasons coaching at the Division I level.
Just last week, in fact, his No. 3-seeded Lobos lost to No. 14 Harvard in the Round of 64 of the NCAA tournament. But Alford had New Mexico ranked 10th in the nation. His team won the Mountain West Conference in four of the past five seasons and won 30, 22, 28 and 29 games the past four seasons.
“I’m 23 years into this now,” Alford said. “The experience of building programs and sustaining programs -- I think I’ve got the experience that has really helped me at each stop. Each stop, I would hope that we bettered and not just [earning] wins.”
Alford will bring the reputation of a good recruiter with ties to some of the hotbeds in California. He’s also known as a players’ coach. Those are two areas in which Howland was lacking during the latter part of his tenure, so in that sense Alford will be a change of pace.
But he’s also a defensive-minded coach who isn’t known for lighting up scoreboards. New Mexico was No. 172 in the nation in scoring this season with 67.4 points per game, so if it’s an entertaining, wide-open style you’re looking for, Alford won’t be bringing it.
But he is bringing a résumé filled with wins during his six years at New Mexico, having averaged about 26 wins per season. More importantly, he wants to be at UCLA. He said he’s been under pressure since he was 16 and knows about the demands of a basketball powerhouse from his days at Indiana and welcomes the challenge.
There is no other school, he said, that would have gotten him to seriously consider leaving New Mexico after agreeing to a 10-year deal and a team that had all five starters returning after ending the season ranked 10th in the nation.
“It goes back to the four letters,” Alford said. “It’s UCLA. I think if it’s anywhere else, this is not a decision that would have been made.”
Saying things like that will help win the hearts of UCLA fans, but winning will do more. Alford will have to continue with the on-court success he had at New Mexico, and he’ll have to take it a step farther and improve upon his postseason résumé.
If he takes the Bruins to Sweet 16s, Final Fours and national championship games, nobody will remember that he wasn’t the flashy, sexy big-name hire. He’ll be adopted by the Bruins and take his spot in Bruin lore.
And if he doesn’t?
Well, they’ll say a lot more than ‘meh.’
Billy Donovan? Phil Jackson?
Why on Earth would UCLA want to hire one of those guys?
OK, they are all proven winners who have shown they know how to run a program with consistent success. On that level, it makes sense. Those guys are legends and maybe you want to go after the best in the business.
Those other guys are already stars for things they did somewhere else. The stories for those coaches and others in their class have already been written. Bringing them to the Bruins would be a mercenary hire. UCLA shouldn't be looking at coaches who cemented their legacies at some other job; UCLA should be looking for someone who will cement his legacy in Westwood. UCLA should be looking for a guy who will eventually go to the Hall of Fame and there will be no doubt about what hat he chooses to wear.
Ask yourself: Is Pitino the Louisville guy or the Kentucky guy? Is Jackson better known as the former Lakers coach or the former Bulls coach? That's what you'd be asking about Donovan if he came to UCLA and won a couple of national titles the way he already has at Florida.
The coach is the face of the program, but when you see Pitino or Donovan or Jackson, you're going to see many different teams or programs. That's not something you should be seeing when you see the coach of UCLA, one of the Mount Rushmore programs in college basketball. UCLA should be looking for the guy who will become known only for leading the program back to the national elite. UCLA should be looking for the next Pitino, the next Donovan, the next Jackson.
That's why coaches like Brad Stevens of Butler and Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth make so much more sense. Guys like that have cut their teeth and shown they can coach. They've taken their respective schools to unprecedented heights but haven't yet reached the pinnacle. If a coach like that came to UCLA and won a national title, they would become college basketball royalty.
Stevens or Smart have been the top two candidates on any coaching list the past couple of years, but it doesn't have to be one of them. They have in the past spurned the advances of bigger schools because of their love of small-college life. Smart looks as if he’s done it again, and if Stevens does, too, Bruins fans shouldn't fret.
Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer and a three-time national champion as a member of the UCLA basketball team, said on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" on Tuesday night that he'd like to be the next UCLA coach.
On the show to promote the reality show "Splash" in which Abdul-Jabbar is matching skills against other celebrities in a high-diving competition, the 7-foot-2 former center with no Division I coaching experience said he'd welcome the opportunity to return to Westwood as coach.
"I certainly would be interested in coaching the team," he said. "It would be great to have an opportunity to restore the program to what it was. Not in terms necessarily of winning, but just having the guys get their degrees and learn about how to play the game of basketball. UCLA is still putting out fine scholars but the basketball program is suffering a little bit."
Abdul-Jabbar has worked as a special assistant for the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers. He has also coached a high school team and led the Oklahoma Storm to the U.S. Basketball League title in 2002. His manager, Deborah Morales, said Abdul-Jabbar has been receiving a lot of support from alumni.
"They are saying that they are behind him in any way possible including financially," Morales said. "At the highest level."
Asked if Abdul-Jabbar had actually had any contact with the UCLA administration or any indication if he was a candidate for the job, Morales said to check with UCLA.
A UCLA spokesperson referred to a general statement by athletic Dan Guerrero that the school would "not comment on the process, the candidates or provide status updates."
Some are probably legitimate candidates and others are simply rumors floated for one purpose or another. The one thing we know for sure is that UCLA will not comment on any candidate, rumored or real. Athletic director Dan Guerrero wrote the following in his weekly Word from Westwood newsletter on Tuesday:
"We certainly understand that many of our fans will want to stay up to date on the latest happenings. That said, in the best interest of the search itself, as well as everyone involved, we will not comment on the process, the candidates, or provide status updates. This is the same policy we used when we hired Jim Mora. Just know that we are hard at work to bring a coach to Westwood who we can all be excited about."
When asked for comment about various rumored candidates, a department spokesperson said Guerrero's newsletter statement would be the only comment the school would have on any coaching search inquiries until a hire is officially made.
Jones, the Gatorade national high school player of the year in 2009, played sparingly as a freshman and sophomore and, after getting only three carries in UCLA's season opener at Rice last season, announced he would transfer. After the season and after UCLA's Holiday Bowl game, Jones approached Mora and asked if he could return this season.
"He came in and said 'I think I made a mistake and I was hasty in my judgment and I’d like to return to the team,'" Mora said. "Our focus was on recruiting and I told him we didn’t have a scholarship but we’d welcome him back as a walk-on"
Jones rushed for 255 yards in 55 carries as a freshman and had 103 yards rushing in 25 carries as a sophomore. He had high hopes for more playing time going into last season after the graduation of Derrick Coleman, but felt that his power running game didn't fit very well with UCLA's new spread offense. He made it through training camp, but left after the first game.
"He’s a good kid," Mora said. "He’s a good football player. Sometimes you get derailed when you’re a kid and I don’t think any of us wanted to hold the fact that he left the team against him. We all wanted to give him that second chance because of the type of kid he is and because we believe in someone earning a second chance."
Jones will participate in spring practice beginning next week and will be in the mix at running back. The Bruins have big shoes to fill with the graduation of all-time leading rusher Johnathan Franklin and the competition for those carries will be among the most closely watched during spring and fall camps. Jordon James, Steven Manfro and Paul Perkins are also among the group competing.
"I have not made him any promises," Mora said about Jones. "I kind of feel like Malcolm is going to have a renewed sense of intensity and urgency in the things that I was talking about and I’d love to see it. I’m excited to see it. I’m excited to see him play."
Mora also said the school would inquire with the NCAA about getting Jones another year of eligibility because he played so sparingly in that one game last season. He played only on the final drive of UCLA's 49-24 season-opening victory over Rice.
"I think there are some special circumstances there and hopefully they’ll take them into account but we haven’t started that process yet," Mora said.
In other roster news, Mora announced that receivers Ricky Marvray and Jerry Rice Jr. have graduated from UCLA and will transfer to other schools as graduate students. They will be allowed to play immediately under the NCAA transfer rules regarding graduate students. Marvray had three catches for 18 yards in an injury-marred season last year. Rice, son of the NFL's all-time leading receiver, caught seven passes for 52 yards last year.
Ben Howland and Dan Guerrero have said their piece to each other and to the public through press conferences and now a job thought to be among the most prestigious in all of college sports is open.
Just how prestigious the job really is, we're about to find out. Guerrero, UCLA's athletic director, and his search team will no doubt scour the nation and make runs at some of the top coaches in the country. They are armed with plenty of money thanks to the Pac-12 Networks deal, so if they strike out, it will be an indication that the UCLA job isn't as elite as it once was.
The Bruis will need to act quickly. The National signing period for basketball begins April 17. Not only does UCLA need to fill some roster spots, but the three players who signed in the early period need to see who the new coach is and decide whether or not UCLA is still for them. The Bruins hope to have a coach in place by the Final Four weekend, April 6-7.
Whoever gets the job won't have to worry about administrative support. Howland, fired Sunday after 10 years, received plenty of votes of confidence over the years in terms of contract extensions. He signed a seven-year deal in 2008 then signed one-year extensions in 2009, 2010 and 2011 meaning he was under contract through 2018.
Howland received one-year extensions after finishing second in the Pac-10 and losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2008-09, got another extension after going 14-18 in 2009-10 and then another after finishing second in the Pac-10 and losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2010-11.
This year, after winning the Pac-12, he got fired. Don't worry about him, though. He'll land on his feet and is a good enough coach to quickly get another job. Plus, he'll receive $3.5 million as a parting gift thanks to the buyout clause in his contract and those extensions. Howland receives $300,000 for each remaining year on his contract plus the guaranteed $2 million fee he was going to make next year.
Without those extensions after posting substandard results, UCLA could have saved $900,000. Knowing how generous UCLA can be with coaches may help lure one of the top targets to Westwood. Associate athletic director Mark Harlan, who heads up department development, is surely working overtime to get the support of UCLA's boosters as the program gears up to make what it hopes will be the kind of splashy hire that will excite the fan base.
And just who are those targets? Speculation has already begun, on Twitter and message boards and in the media. And while this is by no means intended to represent an actual coaching search list, here are some of the names you're likely to hear:
Coach: Mark Few
Current position: Gonzaga
Why he's a no-brainer: A long-established power coach on the West Coast, Few has maintained an elite-level program at Gonzaga for 14 years. He's made four Sweet 16 appearances and this season had the Bulldogs ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Fast fact: Despite the collegiate success, only seven Gonzaga players from the Few era have made the NBA and none has averaged more than 7.5 points or 3.6 rebounds in their NBA career.
Coach: Shaka Smart
Current position: Virginia Commonwealth
Why he's a no-brainer: He's one of the hottest up-and-coming coaches after taking VCU to the Final Four in 2011-12 and building a nationally relevant program at a mid-major. His "havoc" style of play adds entertainment value and helps recruit players who enjoy the up-tempo pace.
Fast fact: Despite his success on the national level, he has not won a conference title in four years as a head coach.
Coach: Brad Stevens
Current position: Butler
Why he's a no-brainer: Considered perhaps the top young coach in the college game, Stevens took tiny Butler to the national championship game in 2009-10 and again in 2010-11. He's among the brightest students of the game and an expert at game planning and adjusting.
Fast fact: He's a rising star in the coaching world from a mid-major school in Indiana. The last time UCLA hired someone with that description, he went on to win 10 national championships with the Bruins.
Guerrero, after talking it over with university chancellor Gene Block, said he met with Howland on Sunday afternoon at UCLA and delivered the news.
"As I looked at the entire program and where we were -- especially headed into the next year which is obviously where we need to look at this point in time, I felt that now was the appropriate time to make the decision to make a change and to get a fresh start," Guerrero said.
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Ben Howland made it way too easy.
The embattled UCLA coach was supposed to scratch, claw and fight for the remaining years on his contract and, perhaps, have his team -- a group of players assembled with the most hype this side of Kentucky -- ready to play, rather than resigned to play, in the NCAA tournament. But instead of playing like they were backed into a corner, the coach and his sixth-seeded Bruins decided to exit stage left, losing rather haphazardly to No. 11 seed Minnesota 83-63 in the round of 64 on Friday at the Erwin Center. Now the wonder around Westwood is whether Howland will be shown the door after 10 seasons.
That's been the speculation. Howland has certainly provided enough kindling to fuel the rumors with less-than-stellar NCAA showings since 2008, the last of three consecutive Final Four runs -- and this season, less-than-stellar results with what was the nation's second-rated recruiting class.
"I'm not in charge. If I were, things would be different,'' Walton said on air when asked by partner Dave Pasch about the program's laundry list of ills.
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has remained out of the fray, with a department spokesman telling ESPNLosAngeles.com earlier this week that Guerrero's schedule was packed ahead of the team's trip to Austin.
Now it has come to this. UCLA (25-10) is out of the NCAA tournament at the hands of a Minnesota team that had lost 11 of its previous 17 games. It's an embarrassing end for a Bruins program that made the tournament for only the second time in four seasons, and advanced to the round of 32 once in those two trips. Butler, VCU and the Ivys -- among many others -- have far surpassed that. In that time, Gonzaga has staked a firm claim as the West Coast's marquee program, a title once unquestionably UCLA's.
"No comment,'' Howland said Friday when asked about his future.
That future appeared to be on the minds of many, as the smattering of UCLA fans behind the Bruins bench gave Howland a longer-than-normal round of applause following the loss to the Golden Gophers (21-12). Howland said he didn't hear or notice the moment.
One Friday moment he did appear to notice, over and over, were the missed shots and opportunities.
"It kind of just snowballed,'' Howland said.
And now it appears that Howland has a snowball's chance in … well, Southern California. His contract runs through the 2017 season, and there's a $3.2 million buyout -- no small consideration for a cash-strapped public university. But attendance at the newly renovated Pauley Pavilion topped 10,000 five times this season, so the basketball program at least appears to have the potential to raise substantial revenue.
Dollars and cents were the furthest things from Howland's mind following the loss. Instead, the coach worked to pay homage to his team.
"I am really proud of this group of kids and really indebted to them,'' he said. "So coachable.''
Now UCLA just has to figure out who that coach will be.