I like UCLA Basketball Coach Ben Howland. In fact, I would say that I am a huge fan of his philosophy. I love that he employs man-to-man defense as the basis for his entire strategy. The depth of his playbook on the DEFENSIVE end has proved time and again to take marginally successful basketball players (Luc Richard Mbah A Moute) and turn them into valuable NBA assets.
Howland came in like a hurricane. He took over a program that had seen highly touted recruits and basketball players (Baron Davis, Earl Watson) languishing under Steve Lavin (Lavin’s defensive philosophy was him yelling “Hands up!” repetitively at players). Now of course, languishing is relative as Lavin’s players continued to manage their way into the Sweet-16 in spite of his ineptitude (big, non USC word there). His first years on the job were categorized by strong recruiting classes filled with athletic-tough players. By 2005, the Bruins completed one of the most magnificent and gratifying runs in the NCAA tournament of recent memory. I can still vividly remember being a freshman in college in Washington state when the Bruins did the unthinkable, in beating that mustachioed (now 2-time world champion) Adam Morrison. Howland’s tenacious defenders led by Aaron Afflalo and Jordan Farmer literally made a man cry like a little girl on national television.
The beauty of those early years, for a large part, was because of the unbelievable level of success. Going to the Final Four three times in four years, while beating storied programs like Kansas, felt right. There is something natural about UCLA being dominant in college basketball. Ever since the days of Wooden, excellence in programs like UNC, Duke, and Kansas became the norm. Fans in Westwood consistently opined for the good old days where a Pac-10 title was assured, almost like a birthright, for the program that hoisted 10 National Championship banners under Coach. Having such great success under Howland, especially with a system that required strong fundamentals, just felt right.
Another beauty of Howland was that his players weren’t superstars; they were college athletes who graduated (albeit sometimes after a summer of finishing up once in the league). Jordan Farmer, though now an NBA point guard, did not get to the league because of his unbelievable athletic talents. But when Jordan did get to the league, he carried a UCLA education with him. The same can be said of Afflalo, Josh Shipp, and Darren Collison. Call me a purist, but I like it when college athletes you know, graduate college.
That’s when the problems started.
With great success comes greater recruiting. Howland, always known for having a solid staff of assistant coaches who can recruit, broke open the national scene and was allowed access to talent the likes of which he had never seen before. Suddenly, the cupboard is being stocked with players like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Jrue Holiday. The first signs of tension arose when KLove and Howland bucked heads over the lack of touches going to the double-double beast in the low post.
The KLove team, like the ones before it, went to the Final Four, but it brought Howland into a bold new territory he had never seen before. His star player left for the NBA well before graduating. He also lost Westbrook and Mbah A Moute to the league in one of the most impressive showings by UCLA in the NBA draft since the 70’s (two top 5 picks). All would be well though, because a top notch recruiting class was coming in to save the day…
Enter J’Mison Morgan, Drew Gordon, Jrue Holiday, and Jerime And… Read more...