At one point, UCLA basketball was a marquee Los Angeles attraction. In terms of collegiate sporting pride, the two highlights for the city were USC football and UCLA basketball.
That’s no longer the case.
USC’s football calamities notwithstanding, UCLA basketball has been absolute embarrassment for going on three years now. Forget what happened against Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State over the last week, those losses were just emblematic of everything that the team has slowly morphed into under the misguided tutelage of head coach Ben Howland.
Howland was always a jerk – everyone acknowledged this much. He was a pain to deal with on every possible level, and there wasn’t a single positive thing about his approach that could be pointed out at any time. But he won. And winning, as we’ve seen in countless sports from numerous schools, is Love Potion No. 9 between fans and reality.
From 2006-2008, inspired by three consecutive Final Fours, folks had no choice but to get on the Ben Howland bandwagon. How do you speak out against a coach who looked to be on the cusp of all-time greatness? Howland’s tyrannical, ill-advised approaches seemed somehow less egregious when you had the likes of Kevin Love, Jordan Farmar, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook spearheading miraculous comebacks, dominating the opposition, forcing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar references and making Adam Morrison cry.
But then what went up came plummeting down to earth beginning in 2009. Since that 26-win, nine-loss 2008-09 campaign when the Bruins were booted in the Round of 32, it’s been a downward spiral in the form of missed tournaments and disappointing finishes, non-stop. It finally feels as though Howland’s always-tiresome act has grated enough people on the periphery of the program for them to take notice of how truly expendable he is.
As soon as the basketball team began to lose some of its winning luster, recruits stopped flocking to the school. Howland's irksome innate nature coupled with his continuously decreasing productivity and mixed with all of the options available to high school kids these days manifested itself into disappointing recruiting returns in back-to-back offseasons.
How did Howland respond to this self-inflicted wound? By hiring AAU coach Korey McCray as an assistant basketball coach, of course. What could possibly go wrong?
All of which brings us to the here and now. Howland’s once supposedly powerful preaching of defensive wisdom doesn’t really resonate anymore. His team, amazingly, has found a way to open the year 0-2 for the first time since that disastrous 2002-03 campaign under Steve Lavin. Reeves Nelson is out for the foreseeable future. Josh Smith still hasn’t met a hamburger that doesn’t call out for him. The Bruins can’t shoot (Lazeric Jones, currently 3-of-20, for those that have been closing their eyes when he pulls up).
And on top of all of the aforementioned problems, the first two games of this season have been eerily similar to that infamous 2009 year when the Bruins dropped early showdowns to Cal State Fullerton, Portland and Long Beach State. They ended that year 14-18.
The magic elixir as it applies to fixing all of UCLA’s problems is simple. Really, it just involves Dan Guerrero taking a shot of Jack since he clearly needs some liquid courage, coming to terms with the fact that Howland should have gotten the boot a year ago, and sending him packing to whatever anger management class he came from.
From there, rebuild.
UCLA basketball is a legacy, and a few losing seasons won’t change that fact.
Bring in a new coach.
Change the bitter, tense culture that Howland made prevalent during his wonder years.
And without the doom and gloom of the Howland Era, watch the team turn itself around with the type of enthusiasm we haven't seen around the Bruins locker room in years.