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UCLA's next move will tell us plenty
In the end, after all the excuses are made and explanations proffered, this really just comes down to what UCLA basketball wants to be.
Because the UCLA you remember, the brand that sells recruits and gets the school on national television? That UCLA is one of college basketball’s legacy programs, hanging banners only for NCAA championships, not Final Fours. That UCLA has John Wooden, Lew Alcindor, Pauley Pavilion and nearly unmatched mystique. That UCLA purports to be on the same plane with Kentucky and North Carolina and practically nobody else.
But now comes the moment when UCLA needs to decide whether it’s still one of those programs, whether the legacy it inherited is still worth protecting. It’s time to stop rationalizing the poisonous culture of Ben Howland and do what Kentucky did, what North Carolina did, when its birthright started slipping away. It’s time for UCLA to stop talking about what it was and start figuring out what it’s going to be.
UCLA’s plunge from three straight Final Fours to its current state of disrepair is no secret. The Bruins finished 14-18 two years ago, were beaten early in last season’s NCAA tournament and are almost certain to miss it again this March barring a miracle run in the Pac-12 tournament. Since losing to Memphis in the 2008 semifinals with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love, UCLA hasn’t been a national factor at all.
Plenty of theories and reasons have been given for those struggles, from a dip in West Coast talent to early NBA defections, both of which certainly played some role. But an investigative piece by Sports Illustrated published yesterday offered a deeper window into the problems at UCLA, from partying and drug use by former players to a divisive locker room born from recruiting the wrong players and enabling them with selective accountability.
Predictably, the college basketball establishment spent much of yesterday dismissing the allegations, pointing out that this kind of stuff goes on at dozens of programs across the country. To a large degree, that’s true. The problems at UCLA are fairly common examples of what happens when teams become dysfunctional.
But that largely misses the point, because this isn’t any program. This is UCLA — or, more accurately, it was UCLA — and the article detailed a series of desperate decisions by Howland that set it ablaze.
What complicates this, of course, is that Howland is undoubtedly a good basketball coach. It wasn’t an accident that he went to three Final Fours. The players he’s sent to the NBA have largely thrived there. And yet, for the last few years, there have been huge warning signs that everything around him was on the verge of crumbling.
The sudden problems recruiting elite players in California. Borderline prospects like Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee bolting for the NBA draft when they clearly were not ready. Hiring an AAU coach from Atlanta to recruit players who live 2,000 miles away. Mike Moser and Drew Gordon transferring out of UCLA and becoming all-conference players in the Mountain West. Taking a transfer like Larry Drew, who was a chemistry-killer at North Carolina. Big man Josh Smith, a former McDonald’s All-American, showing up for his sophomore season at least 50 pounds overweight. Reeves Nelson, the subject of a significant part of the SI article, missing the team flight to Maui last November.
These aren’t things that happen at elite programs. They’re things that happen at desperate programs. And if there’s something UCLA should never be, it’s desperate.
So now here we are, the mystique of UCLA basketball smoldering on the pages of Sports Illustrated, and what happens next will be telling. Kentucky would not tolerate this. North Carolina would not tolerate this. In fact, they didn’t tolerate it when some of the same issues arrived at their doorstep within the past decade.
Kentucky didn’t sit around and equivocate and give Billy Gillispie a chance to turn it around when it was clear he had dug too deep a hole. They fired him after two years, got serious about being the best program in the country and offered a mountain of cash to John Calipari. North Carolina didn’t give Matt Doherty the benefit of the doubt with his signature recruiting class of Sean May, Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton when it became obvious he couldn’t coach them. The Tar Heels made the tough call to fire an alumnus, convinced Roy Williams to leave Kansas and won a national title two years later.
In both cases, the issues that hastened those firings were not much different than what has gone on at UCLA. Players transferring. Chemistry and discipline problems. Choosing the wrong players to recruit. A general atmosphere of chaos around the program. Lackluster on-court results. Standards not being met.
Kentucky and North Carolina saw the warning signs and acted like elite programs. How UCLA reacts to this will say a lot about what UCLA is.
Howland did not forget how to coach. He is the same guy today who went to three straight Final Fours. But this isn’t an Xs and Os issue. The job of a college basketball coach isn’t just about what out-of-bounds plays you draw up. It’s about who you recruit, how you discipline, how you deal with people. When a coach makes bad choices in those areas, it will show up in the on-court product every single time. It’s never been more obvious how those bad choices have turned UCLA into a Pac-12 also-ran, and at programs like that you shouldn’t get more than one chance to screw it up.
But what kind of program are you, UCLA? Do you belong with Kentucky and North Carolina on the Mount Rushmore of college hoops, or are you just part of the riff-raff, willing to tolerate this disgrace?
We’re all waiting for your answer, UCLA. Now’s the time to choose.
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