For all the expectations placed on UCLA this season, perhaps nobody hopes for this team’s success more than head coach Ben Howland.
After missing the NCAA Tournament two out of the last three seasons and having his coaching methods questioned after an expose in Sports Illustrated, Howland’s sitting on the hot seat. Nobody will ever question the work he did to resurrect the program but now the question is if he’s done enough lately to remain its caretaker.
One of the biggest criticisms I’ve had of Howland is his unwillingness to open up the offense. He’s recruited some great athletes since 2007 but since he’s so focused on the defensive end, he’s run them off instead of mold them into better two-way players.
That’s being rectified this year as he said on Pac-12 Media Day the team would run a more uptempo offense. Part of being a great coach is knowing when to yield to your personnel while maintaining your principles.
I’ve also criticized that while he’s a great recruiter, he’s not a great talent developer. He developed great players early in his UCLA tenure such as Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute but since 2008, very few of his players improved after coming in. Mike Moser and Drew Gordon left the program to become much better players, with Moser being talked about as a preseason All-American candidate this year.
The flip side to him being a great recruiter is that he’s watched several local players like Allen Crabbe and Solomon Hill leave the Los Angeles area to thrive at other schools. Even with the recruiting class he has now, none but Shabazz Muhammad have California ties. Both Afflalo and Collison were local players who had notable high school success and even now, the most prominent SoCal players on UCLA’s roster (David Wear, Travis Wear and Larry Drew II) came via transfer.
Despite that, this crop of incoming freshmen holds the keys to his future in Westwood. Do I believe he’ll be fired at season’s end? Probably not, especially in the debut season of the new Pauley Pavilion. But does he need to win this season and perhaps the next to keep his job? Absolutely.
Nobody will forget what he did to resurrect this program with three consecutive Final Four trips and the players he’s sent to the NBA. Nobody will forget the way he’s cherished John Wooden’s legacy and took pride in what he means to Westwood. But to deny there’s an urgency to shake things up would be naive. The Sports Illustrated article is enough proof to wonder if Howland has run his course.
With that said, it’s up to Howland to see how he maximizes this team’s potential and responds to the criticism thrown his way. If the Bruins don’t advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, don’t be surprised if the chorus calling for his job grows louder.