In many ways, UCLA basketball fans currently don't have a good attitude about the program. It was a very disappointing year on the court and, off the court, it was perhaps the most tumultuous season in recent memory. Fans are left with a mixed feeling, very evident in the general reaction to the recent announcement by UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero that Ben Howland will be retained as UCLA's head coach next season.
We've said this a few times over the last 13 years, but it truly is a strange time to be a Bruin basketball fan.
As Kennedy Cosgrove wrote in his column, it's mind-boggling to think the program is in the state it currently is when you consider where it was just four short years ago, after going to three straight Final Fours. The fall from grace, on and off the court, has left the UCLA community in somewhat of a stunned state.
So, after Cosgrove's column, which aptly assessed the current feeling of the collective Bruin conflicted soul, we thought we'd focus on what at this point is the most important aspect of the program: Where does it go from here?
Of course, we don't have a crystal ball and no one can foretell the future, but since we have a pretty good grasp of the UCLA basketball program, and have some knowledge of college basketball and recruiting, we thought we'd take a shot.
Quite simply, the UCLA basketball program's long-term outlook is murky, and it will need a significant boost and turnaround to get it back on the right track.
Now, many might read that and think we're being pessimistic, and that very well could be the case. But in analyzing the future of UCLA basketball, the scales tip toward a pessimistic outlook.
Very simply, the team, the program and its head coach need some rehabilitation (and apparently, according to the SI article, in more ways than one). It needs to overhaul how it does business -- again, on and off the court.
That's a huge undertaking. We're not saying it can't be done. But just that: It's a huge undertaking. And we have one reason why we think it leans toward the unlikely, that we'll get to in a bit.
First and foremost, as the saying goes, winning cures everything. That could very well be true in the case of UCLA basketball. If the Bruins have a very successful year in 2012-2013 it very well could bury all the demons of the past four seasons and catapult Howland's program into a new era of success. Right now, UCLA recruiting for 2013 is facing a considerable uphill battle, with recruits having a tainted opinion of UCLA, and just about every other program able to negative recruit against the Bruins. But if UCLA is clearly successful in 2012-2013, it's entirely possible the 2013 class will forget the SI article and want to be apart of a newly-successful UCLA program.
What will it take for that to happen -- for UCLA to have a greatly successful year, one that at least equals or goes beyond expectation?
First, it's going to take Shabazz Muhammad, the widely considered #1 prospect in the nation. The 6-5 wing from Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman is a very talented player, one that will immediately make UCLA a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 crown next season. We continue to hear that Muhammad is coming to UCLA, and the most recent reports are that he'll take an official visit to Westwood the first weekend in April and we believe he'll then sign a National Letter of Intent for UCLA on the first day of the late signing period, Wednesday, April 4th.
We actually haven't heard much lately on Tony Parker, the 6-8 center from Livonia (Georgia) Miller Grove, of substance, but there are rumors that he will not, in fact, be coming to UCLA.
Then, there is the question of anyone potentially leaving the program. Brendan Lane recently announced that he'll graduate and then transfer. The freshman guard Norman Powell sounds like he's staying. There has been some question of whether Josh Smith would put his name in the NBA Draft and test the waters and go through the NBA workouts in the spring, but we haven't heard anything recently to that effect and assume, at this time, that he's returning for his junior season.
If this is the case, how will the Bruins be next season? Well, better. Getting Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, the 6-8 "point forward" from Jersey City (New Jersey) St. Anthony, along with Jordan Adams, the 6-4 shooting guard from Mouth of Wilson (Virg.) Oak Hill, will substantially enhance UCLA's talent level. Muhammad and Anderson are ranked the #2 and #4 players nationally by Scout.com, and that's not for nothing.
So, even though it's incredibly premature, what would the team's make-up look like next season?
As we've said before, any projected starting line-up needs to have Muhammad and Anderson in it. Not just because they're that talented, but because the #2 and #4 players in the nation don't go to any program not to immediately be in the starting lineup. So, it's very safe to assume that they'll both get starter's minutes.
Of course, the big question and elephant in the room is whether Josh Smith is going to put in the work during the off-season and come back relatively svelte, more mature and ready to play. As it was this season, that's perhaps the biggest factor in whether the 2012-2013 Bruins will not just be competitive in the Pac-12 but nationally. Smith, as we've said, has the potential to be a difference-maker, but he needs to develop considerably between now and next October.
Let's assume, though, that Smith is the starting center, and gets 25-28 minutes per game. That then leaves two starting spots open. We'd be shocked into a coma if Travis Wear and David Wear don't get the bulk of the minutes at the four spot, and probably some back-up five minutes. It might be one of Howland's biggest challenges of next season, how to crunch in enough playing time for both Wears, the two guys who he sometimes played for upward of 66 minutes per game this season. Even if Smith plays what we would project would be a low amount for him next season -- say, 24 minutes per game -- and the Wears take all of the 40 minutes at the power forward position and all of the back-up center minutes, that would only be 56 minutes for two Wears. If Smith does play 28 minutes per game, and Anthony Stover, who will be a junior, gets even just 7 minutes per game at the back-up center, that would leave 45 minutes for the Wears. We're not saying that Howland won't scale back the minutes of the Wears, but after how much he played them this season it will, at least, be interesting to watch how he manages their playing time.
Then there's one more spot open, a guard position. How Howland fills the minutes of that position is completely up in the air at this point and will undoubtedly be completely determined in practice next fall. The main issue that needs to be fulfilled is: With Anderson running the point on offense, which he is bound to do, who is going to guard the opposing point guard? The candidates are Tyler Lamb, who will be a junior; Powell, who will be a sophomore; and North Carolina transfer point guard Larry Drew, who will be eligible as a senior. All three will play, we believe, but one of them will get the starter's minutes. Who gets the most minutes in any game, too, could come down to match-ups. If UCLA is facing a team with a 5-9 point guard it will probably have to opt for Drew. If the opposing team has a point guard in the 5-11 to 6-2 range, it might be the best to match up Powell against him. If the opposing point guard isn't particularly quick and the 6-4 Lamb can stay with him, it could very well be a very advantageous match-up to give Lamb the bulk of the minutes in that game.
While that sounds reasonable, it would be a huge departure for Howland to be that flexible, and we believe he'll settle on a starter and, if you go by his player usage history, be fairly rigid in the roles he sets early in the season. We really can't project who will win the battle for the majority of the minutes at that spot. Powell has the most upside because of his athleticism, but he'll have to make some considerable strides in the off-season to win the starter's minutes. Not only will his defense have to improve, to the point that Howland is confident in him matching up with the majority of opposing point guards, he's going to have to get quite a bit more familiar and comfortable with Howland's offense. This season Powell looked tentative often offensively, mostly because he simply didn't know what he was doing most of the time in Howland's set offensive schemes. From that standpoint, Lamb could be the frontrunner; Howland does tend to go with the players he's most comfortable with, and Lamb is coming off a season where he was a starting guard. It's tough to project how versed Drew will be in Howland's offensive sets, and in Howland's defensive style.
There is also Adams, who will immediately be UCLA's best shooter when he comes to Westwood. The problem, though, will be his lack of defensive ability and athleticism. It could very well be similar to Matt Carlino's short experience at UCLA. We're not saying that Adams will transfer after a couple of weeks of his freshman season, but if we had to project, we think he'll be edged out of playing time because, even though he can shoot, he'll be so far away from being able to defend at the level Howland wants.
But therein lies the dilemma and central problem of UCLA in the last four years: What exactly is the level of defense that Howland demands now? It definitely isn't the same as it was during those Final Four years. We've said it before and it bears repeating again: UCLA has lost its identity under Howland because he just doesn't emphasize defense like he did during those Final Four seasons, and isn't recruiting the types of players who can play it. If you had to narrow down all of the issues plaguing UCLA in the last four years to the biggest determining factor of why UCLA has slipped under Howland, it's that: The program simply doesn't play the type of defense it used to.
In terms of next year's team, this is why we believe, even given the influx of talent like Muhammad and Anderson, that there's a decent chance it could under-achieve. We don't see it having the make-up of a great defensive team, if you go by the projected playing time we laid out above. Smith, if he's in decent shape, will be better defensively, but we can't see him really making the complete turnaround from extreme defensive liability to strength. The only way Smith can be a decent defender is if UCLA plays a zone, and we are pretty certain that just isn't going to happen. So, you have a below-average defender as you're starting center. The Wears aren't great defenders. They're better defending the four, and not having to defend the five or the three, but they're still limited by their athleticism and lack of overall strength. Strong power forwards will always have a chance to over-power them, and quicker ones will always be able to out-quick them. You can probably project they'll be better defenders with another off-season of development and you know they'll put in the work, but the defensive upside is limited. The days of having a defensive four man like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are long gone.
There is going to be a question of who Anderson guards. He almost certainly won't have the strength to match up against college power forwards, so we think he more than likely will be the choice to defend the opposing three. It very well could be similar to David Wear trying to guard the three spot this season, however, since Anderson isn't exactly quick (his nickname is "Slow-Mo.").
Then that leaves Muhammad to guard most opposing two guards. While we have the highest regard for Muhammad and his talent, if there's a weakness in his game it would be his lateral quickness, and Muhammad trying to match up with 6-3, quick guards specifically exploits that one weakness. We are certain that Muhammad will try to make up for it with an extreme amount of effort and heart, which he has displayed throughout his high school career, but whether he'll be able to effectively guard most shooting guards is a question.
Actually, then, the three options at the other spot -- Drew, Powell and Lamb -- provide UCLA and Howland some good defensive options, depending on the match-ups. But again, that's contingent on Howland being flexible enough to utilize all three of those options liberally. Drew was considered a decent defensive point guard at North Carolina -- not great. So, we'll project this position to being defended adequately -- not incredibly, but adequately.
That simply doesn't make for a great defensive team.
So, how will next year's Bruins live up to the season's expectations then? They'll have to out-offense their opponents. They will have some considerable offensive firepower with Muhammad and Anderson, and particularly if Smith can mature and stay on the floor for even just 25 minutes per game. Anderson is a special offensive talent, one that will give other teams fits trying to match up with him. If you put your point guard on him, Anderson is just too big, crafty and skilled, and he'll exploit the size mis-match. If you put your 6-6 small forward on him, then probably Muhammad is going to have a 6-3 shooting guard on him, which he'll exploit, and perhaps then there's a 5-11 point guard trying to stay with either Powell or Lamb. Anderson's offensive make-up really creates problems, problems that ripple throughout every match-up on the floor.
But you have to weigh in with how Howland's offense tends to be limiting. We've brought this up before, and it's a very interesting aspect of Howland's program: He definitely makes players better and perhaps is among a small select group of college coaches that prepares players best for the NBA. It's well-documented. But at the same time, while players are playing for Howland, they don't seem to optimize their talent offensively while in college. So, there's a question of whether Anderson and Muhammad will really be optimized offensively in Howland's offense. There's little doubt they'll improve as NBA prospects, but there is considerable doubt of whether they'll be as potent as they could be offensively under Howland.
Then there is another big question: Will Howland loosen up the offensive reins for Anderson and Muhammad? We don't doubt it's been contemplated, and even presented to Muhammad and Anderson, but we tend to be skeptical if there's anyone who could budge Howland from his rigid offensive sets.
After now watching and analyzing Howland's offense for his tenure at UCLA I have respect for it, in many ways. It does teach so many of the basic offensive principles that players need to be successful in the NBA, while other programs more or less roll the ball out, comparatively. But there are certain players that are more suited to Howland's fairly rigid offensive sets, and I don't think that Anderson and Muhammad are them. I think for next year's offense, particularly those two players, to be successful -- Anderson and Muhammad are going to have to be let loose, to a degree. As we said above, there are some reasons to possibly be pessimistic about the future, and this would be one of them -- that Howland won't loosen up his offense enough for Anderson and Muhammad to fully utilize their offensive skills, and because of that, offensively UCLA won't be as good as it needs to be to offset and overcome its defensive liabilities next season. Within Howland's offense, with that talent, it will probably still be pretty good, but not devastatingly good enough to overwhelmingly make up for UCLA's average defense.
In other words, Howland would have to change fundamentally and philosophically. And, given what we know about Howland and his intransigence, and what he's said in the wake of the SI article, we're doubtful he's capable of such change.
You do, though, have to consider, again, how bad the Pac-12 will be next season. While it will be improved from this season (How couldn't it?), it will still be a pretty weak conference overall, and no one will have the kind of talent that UCLA has. A bad Pac-12 will make it easier to have a successful season, even though it could set up the team for a big wake-up call in the NCAA Tournament.
But beyond just next season, there is the more long-term perspective on Howland's program. Again, like we laid out above, how successful UCLA is next season will have a major influence on whether the program rights itself. But, really, Howland's program will need more than that just a successful 2012-2013 season to sustain success down the road. Is it possible?
As we said above, Howland's program took a turn down the wrong road after he went to those four Final Fours. The wrong turn was a de-emphasis on defense. As we've written before, we believe, after those Final Fours, Howland thought he needed to upgrade his offensive talent. With that new perspective, there were some recruiting misses (which includes the recruits he actually missed on, the players he took and the players he decided not to take), and Howland found himself, over the last four years, without the athletes to be able to defend the way the Final Four teams did.
We think, having analyzed this program pretty closely in all of Howland's nine years at UCLA, that for UCLA to be successful long-term under Howland again, some things will have to change. Or rather, change back to Howland's original approach when he was at UCLA. If he won't be able to loosen the reins offensively, and we're doubtful he will since it goes against just about every fiber of his being, we do believe he's capable of re-capturing the mindset that led him to recruit the type of players he needs to play his original style of defense at UCLA. But while we think Howland is more capable of a return to that approach, we're still skeptical. As we said in one analysis a couple of years ago, how he recruited when he was initially at UCLA was more of a departure than the norm for him. In his first couple of years he didn't think he could get the elite national prospects so he "settled" for good athletes who could, at least, defend. Once, then, he was successful at UCLA, after the Final Fours, he abandoned the original approach he had when he came to UCLA and went back to his true philosophy of recruiting for offense. Ironically, and what we think he hasn't fully realized, he had inadvertently discovered the formula for what would make his program -- with the limited offense and pressure man-to-man defense -- successful. If Howland ever realizes this again, there's very much a chance he'll be able to resurrect the UCLA program.
So, it's not about Howland becoming more touchy/feely, as he's tended to state in interviews since the SI article, and other sports outlets have claimed. Does Howland have an issue with his players not exactly enjoying being coached by him? Well, yes, but many coaches do. Is there an issue with partying, and diva athletes? Sure. But, again, all programs are essentially the same. Does Howland need to institute more accountability and discipline in the program? Sure.
But these really aren't the issues that are making UCLA unsuccessful primarily. They do contribute, but they aren't the primary contributing factor to UCLA's four-year demise. And, if you're winning, all of those issues won't matter at all. The real issue, and the method for UCLA to win, within the way Howland coaches, is to get the athletes he needs to play defense. His offense is probably never going to be effective enough to consistently make the program successful, no matter what offensive talent it plugs in. Howland has proven he can win by playing a high-end, athletic version of his defense, and if he returns to that philosophy, and recruits to it, then Howland has a chance.