I wrote last season that the UCLA basketball program had gotten away from its identity under Ben Howland and, so far this season, it’s the same story. Greg Hicks, in his review of the VCU game, covered the subject well, how this year’s team, like last year’s, doesn’t emphasize the things that garnered Ben Howland success at UCLA, like defense, rebounding and playing hard.
It’s a strange phenomenon, too, because it seems to defy Howland’s philosophy. When Howland arrived at UCLA he stressed these staples, and it was clear that he was right; UCLA climbed back up the college basketball mountain because of them. But in recent seasons, Howland hasn’t held his players accountable for their defense or for playing hard and it’s no coincidence, then, that the UCLA program has dipped in that time, recruiting has fallen off, and the future of the program is relatively in question.
Now, of course, many could point to how Howland lost some players early to the NBA, which caused a talent vacuum in his program, and that contributed greatly to the program’s downturn. That’s completely true, but it doesn’t explain the change in philosophy. In fact, what the UCLA program needed most to get it through those NBA defections was a re-affirmation of Howland’s principles and identity. If recruits could perceive that UCLA was still doing the things that got it to three Final Fours but just needed some talent it would have minimized the damaged. But the loss of the NBA talent coincided with and was exascerbated by a loss of the program’s identity.
Howland built the UCLA program and took it to three Final Fours in a row because of those principles, the first and primary one being: UCLA is going to play tough man-to-man defense. In Howland’s first five years, it was UCLA’s defining characteristic, and we thought it was because Howland demanded it from his players. It was believed that if you didn’t play defense you’d be benched. But I think that’s been proven, over the last three years, not to be the case. UCLA’s defensive reputation was built because Howland advocated defense, but I think it was also because a few players in the program happened to set the defensive tone, too. Arron Afflalo, in my opinion, deserves a great deal of the credit for UCLA’s defensive reputation. When Howland came to UCLA, he was talking the defensive game, but Afflalo played it. He was then joined and followed by such great defenders as Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alfred Aboya, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook. So, we all assumed this was because of Howland demanding his Bruins put in a big effort and emphasize defense, but it might have been more about the great individual defenders he recruited into the program for the first five years. Because, once all of those guys left the program, and we were left with Howland just talking the defensive game, we didn’t see it on the court. We discovered that players wouldn’t get benched if they didn’t play defense.
I see now, then, that the last three years aren’t really a departure from Howland’s identity, but possibly a return to an original philosophy and approach. I think it’s more that Howland, when he started out at UCLA, adopted a different mindset to help make UCLA as competitive as quickly as possible. If you see the departure from it as really a return to an original philosophy, it’s not nearly as baffling. That’s what’s most distressing – to realize that Howland’s success at UCLA was more a result of a departure itself than the norm.
And much of the reason the UCLA program doesn’t adhere to those principles anymore has to do with a fundamental shift in UCLA’s recruiting.
Howland, in his first several years, recruited to his defensive philosophy, but he has tended to get away from it in recent years. There has been a clear shift away from pursuing the pure athlete who could, first, defend at a very high level. That’s not to say that UCLA hasn’t recruited elite athletes recently; it certainly has. But it’s only done so when that superior athlete, and potential defender, was also particularly skilled (generally an elite national recruit). Howland has passed over athletic recruits who could defend that wanted to come to UCLA while he was out pursuing elite national prospects who were generally very skilled. In recruiting, Howland has recently valued skills over defensive ability. Put it this way: Howland would probably not recruit Mbah a Moute right now if he were a high school senior. He’s just simply not skilled enough.
When he first arrived at UCLA, I think Howland didn’t feel he could go out and get a whole recruiting class of top 25 national players, so he recruited guys who were missing some things. Mbah a Moute, Aboya, Collison and Westbrook weren’t highly ranked recruits (at least nationally) because they were lacking some things in their game. Mbah a Moute, Aboya and Westbrook lacked scoring skills, and Collison was physically a question mark (which, by the way, is the other Howland recruiting red flag -- generally staying away from skinny prospects, even if they can defend. Justin Holiday was the perfect example of an unskilled, skinny player that Howland passed on). But Howland tried to find a diamond in the rough with each of them – recognizing their athleticism and ability to defend. He knew that his fastest way back to competitiveness was to play tough defense.
Now, in the last three years, after UCLA went to its three Final Fours, I believe Howland then thought he could recruit at a high national level and didn’t have to necessarily “settle” for just good athletes and defenders who couldn’t shoot. He’s spent the last three years recruiting nationally elite prospects, and has subsequently struck out with most of them. While doing that, he also then passed on athletic and potentially great defensive players that he could have gotten who were more like Mbah a Moute and the guys he built his UCLA program on.
I also think that Mbah a Moute, like Afflalo, established an image of Howland’s UCLA program that, well, isn’t accurate. We thought Howland would, after Mbah a Moute, go after four men who could really defend the position. But Howland really lucked into Mbah a Moute playing and defending the four at such a high level. Mbah a Moute was recruited as a small forward, if you remember. Howland moved Mbah a Moute to the four out of desperation but Mbah a Moute by no means lived up to the ideal four man that Howland envisions. Howland wants a skilled four that can step out and shoot, and that’s not Mbah a Moute. For Howland, it was really Nikola Dragovic. So, the best four man Howland has had at UCLA was, really, just a lucky move out of desperation. We realize this because, if you notice, Howland hasn’t tried to re-produce a Mbah a Moute-type at the four. He had one potentially in Mike Moser, but Howland played him at the three in his short stint at UCLA, which was out of position for Moser. We’re not saying that Moser would have been the next Mbah a Moute if he had stayed at UCLA, but we’re holding up Moser as an example of a good athlete who had the potential to be a good defender -- a guy like Mbah a Moute -- that now, in Howland's program, the coach wouldn't recognize as a big contributor down the line because he wasn't offensively skilled (In fact, Moser was more offensively skilled than Mbah a Moute coming out of high school). Moser didn't project to getting playing time because Howland wasn’t desperate enough to play Moser at the four, like he was with Mbah a Moute. Heowland did, though, play Dragovic doggedly at the four. It begs the question: If, say, Mbah a Moute was a freshman last season when Dragovic was a senior, would Mbah a Moute have either languished on the bench behind Dragovic or been wasted at the three spot? Even with Mbah a Moute as a model, Howland has almost completely recruited the four position by looking for skills far more than defensive ability. And his choice of playing time, like with Dragovic, confirms that he prizes shooting and scoring over defense, particularly at the four position.
My point here is: I think Howland needs to recruit to his strength and that’s, first and foremost, defense. As Greg Hicks pointed out in the VCU review, this year’s team doesn’t have an identity, in much the same way that last year’s team didn’t. And it’s simple why. Howland is a great defensive coach. It’s his niche. When he first got to UCLA he, out of desperation, recruited guys he recognized could defend and, like I said, Howland recognized the quickest way back to competitiveness was to play tough defense. Recruits then came into the program with the tools to be great defenders – good quickness and desire – and then received excellent defensive coaching. It was a formula that led to three Final Fours and an identity. Now, he doesn’t necessarily have to opt for the “diamonds in the rough,” per se, like he did when he first arrived at UCLA, but in his system a lower-ranked west coast recruit who has the athleticism and desire to defend should be a higher priority than any long-shot national prospect. It’s abandoning the idea that he can get a recruiting class of nationally elite players. He has chased around national recruits that were great shooters or scorers, while pretty much rejecting some west coast recruits that had athleticism and a potentially superior defensive ability. That’s not to advocate that UCLA stops recruiting elite national players; it definitely should because you never know whom you might get. UCLA will, occasionally, get a Kevin Love-level prospect. In fact, the roster for that 2007-2008 season is the ideal UCLA roster under Howland – the elite national prospect in Love, complimented and filled out by some “diamonds in the rough” that Howland found who could, first and foremost, play some defense. UCLA shouldn’t reject the athlete and potentially great defender who can’t shoot as a high school senior because, in my opinion, those are the guys that will bring UCLA back to consistently winning ways. Guys like Afflalo, Mbah a Moute, Aboya, Collison and Westbrook were the foundation of Howland’s success at UCLA, and they will be the foundation of any future success.
This season Howland has tried to emphasize transitional play – not just to help the team get easy baskets in transition, but to rehabilitate his reputation in recruiting circles and with recruits. It’s not a bad move, it can’t certainly hurt, but it is indicative of the fact that Howland doesn’t understand, and is doing a poor job of self-scouting and realizing what the perception of him is. He was successful at UCLA not because of his offensive coaching ability. Howland was successful at UCLA because his Bruins played an incredibly high level of defense. Players came to UCLA, like Jordan Farmar, because they thought Howland could teach them how to play defense at a level that could make them NBA players. Yes, Howland also prepared his players for the NBA in other ways, too, but the cornerstone – his identity – was his ability to teach defense and get his players to play it. His emphasis this season of transition basketball, like I said, isn’t a bad thing for recruiting, but when you watch UCLA’s team this year and see them trying to get out and run and still not play good defense, you realize that Howland isn’t understanding what made him successful at UCLA. If Howland, this season, actually emphasized transition basketball while demanding a great effort on defense then he might very well have a successful formula in terms of marketing himself, his program and his system to recruits. But it’s not going to happen without putting a good defensive product on the court.
Many fans keep surmising that the perception of Howland’s program as being a slow-down style is what’s hurting Howland in recruiting circles. It certainly doesn’t help, but in my experience in covering recruiting for UCLA, it’s not the primary negative that Howland needs to rehabilitate. It’s not about trying to convince recruits that Howland’s UCLA program is something it might not necessarily be, but about selling recruits on what it is – or, more accurately, what it was: A great defensive program. Howland has a better chance of selling recruits on his niche (or former niche), playing tough defense, than he does selling them a semi-false impression that he employs a new run-and-gun system.
The road UCLA has gone down since the last Final Four, whether it be a return or a departure for Howland, has been a lost one, with false turns and dead ends. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. It’s just a matter of finding the right road back to UCLA’s identity under Howland. Hopefully there will be a little de ja vu phenomenon. When he first came to UCLA, he surmised – and accurately so – that the fastest track back to competitiveness was to recruit players who could potentially be good defenders. Perhaps, out of desperation (which seems to be what inspired many of the best aspects of the program) there will be somewhat of a similar realization with the 2012 recruiting class. Perhaps Howland has struck out enough with nationally elite prospects and will realize that his road back to the Final Four is to not waste too much time with them, but to recruit predominantly good athletes who can defend that want to come to UCLA. Perhaps he’ll realize again that the fastest track back to competitiveness is to play defense, and that, for him and his system, defense isn’t just the fastest track back to competitiveness, but the only track.