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NCAA Basketball

The Downfall of UCLA Basketball?

It wasn’t too long ago that the UCLA Bruins were coming off their third straight Final Four appearance under head-coach, Ben Howland. Now, just 4 seasons later, the once-proud basketball program, who is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons, is trying to figure out what went wrong.

A Sports Illustrated article entitled, “Not the UCLA Way,” hit the internet early today, offering a behind-the-scenes look at what caused the former powerhouse’s fall to mediocrity. The article, which spoke with more than 12 Bruin players and staff members from the last four seasons, claims that the Bruin’s recent demise can be explained, quite simlpy, by Howland’s loss of control.

The article claims that Howland, in his 8th season at UCLA, has recruited “talented but immature” players who have “undermined team discipline and moral.”

According to the article, despite Howland’s hands-off approach, the Bruin’s Final Four teams were a close-knit group of players who were self-disciplined, hard-working, and understood what it took to succeed, much like the UCLA teams under legendary coach, John Wooden.

The following year, though they had lost most of their superstars to the NBA or graduation, the future continued to look bright for UCLA with top recruiting classes in the nation coming in.

But things didn’t go as planned, and over the next few seasons, the work ethic that made past UCLA teams so successful began to fade.

And according to the sources, Howland did nothing to stop it.

The former players told Sports Illustrated of various incidents that would occur over the next few seasons, including fighting amongst teammates (both on and off the court), some players not taking the practices seriously, a few players drinking and smoking marijuana (often before practices), and, on one occasion, some players using Ecstasy at an off-campus rave.

While fights in practice may be common, it was the number and intensity of the fights which is most concerning, and according to the article, there were no consequences for behavior that was detrimental to the team.

Two of the players who seemed to cause the most trouble were Drew Gordon and Nelson Reeves. Both were prone to violent outburst when pushed in practice, and the article tells of several of these incidents. Some of the players recall a situation in which Reeves intentionally re-injured the recently surgically impaired shoulder of a teammate, causing him to miss the next several weeks as it healed. Reeves was described as a bully who tried to intimidate others on the team. All of these actions, the article declares, went unpunished.

After reading the Sports Illustrated story, however, one must ask how much blame should be placed on Howland, and how much should be placed on the players who caused the problems themselves? While I certainly see how much, if not most, of the blame lies with the coach, the article doesn’t place enough blame on the players in question, primarily Reeves himself.

After ongoing issues with Howland, and by mutual agreement, Gordon transfered to the University of New Mexico. And though it was much too late, Nelson was dismissed from the team this past December, after several suspensions.

Clearly, both Howland and the players are to blame: the players for causing the problems and Howland for not stopping it sooner.

While Howland did eventually take action against the two players, his biggest problem was waiting too late to take action. Perhaps if he had been more harsh in the beginning, none of this would have happened.

That said, hind-sight is 20/20. The question now is, what will Howland do to get UCLA back to the place where they belong–in the upper echelon of college basketball? An even bigger question–will he even get the chance?