There is a vociferous school of critics who is convinced that 11 scholarship players transferring or being dismissed from UCLA's team over the last four years proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Ben Howland has lost his grip on the program.
It is not an insane position to take if there is something there to back the assertion up; but what is there?
There have been two bad seasons since 2009-2010. But the tack the program had taken after winning the conference three years in a row from 2006-2008 was knocked well off-line by the recruiting classes of 2008, 2009 and a piece of 2010's. It has taken most of three seasons to set it straight, with one good, promising, successful season sandwiched in the middle.
To hear the angry crowd howl it seems that UCLA has been lost in a decades-long darkness. But looking closely at what has transpired, without the idea of chopping someone's head off at the end, not much of it is worth firing a good basketball coach over.
There have been transfers and dismissals all over the Pac-12, and the west has been down—way down—off of huge highs in quality around 2005-2008, when the conference was arguably the best in America and UCLA was its best team.
The whole league was loaded with talent, and then everyone who had been there was gone. Many of those players are still in the NBA or playing professionally overseas.
UCLA's class of 2008 included Jrue Holiday, J'Mison Morgan, Drew Gordon, Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee. They came in to play with what was left of Howland's second and third classes that had battled for the school and brought UCLA aggressively back into the top tier of college basketball.
Holiday was a one and done college player from the outset. He was not a great fit in Westwood. Other than playing high school basketball in Los Angeles and wanting to continue at the local flagship program, it is hard to know why Holiday picked UCLA, beyond Howland's excellent reputation for getting players into the NBA in a ready-to-go condition.
The Bruins had an established, disciplined system being run by three and four year players, and Holiday as a freshman was not going to get to run the point over Darren Collison, one of the great four year players in the history of the school. Holiday played off the ball on the wing and never got comfortable. Then—35 games later—he was gone.
It was Gordon and Morgan that marked the real beginning of the bad ballasting within the program. Morgan was dismissed from UCLA after his sophomore season, and has just been kicked off of Baylor's basketball team as a senior.
Morgan was a miss for everyone evaluating him, and Scott Drew, the excellent young coach at Baylor, found out the same thing Howland did, Morgan does not have the character or commitment to basketball it takes to reach his potential.
Gordon was 17-years-old when he came and was a bad fit at UCLA. He was also not the huge impact player scouts across the west thought he was going to be. Gordon had a good career in the Mountain West Conference at New Mexico after transferring from UCLA in 2010. He worked hard and made his college career a positive experience.
Gordon said his time at UCLA just did not work out and that Howland's personality did not mesh with his. There have been multiple reports that Gordon was insubordinate at UCLA, arguing and challenging Howland's orders regularly.
Has it really reached the point where fans of the program want to think a sophomore in college knows more about where he ought to be on the basketball floor than his head coach who played the game at the college level and professionally, and had been a head coach for 15 seasons at that point?
"There are people who you just butt heads with, and I'm sure everyone reading this can relate to that in their own lives," said Gordon. "It's not about someone being right or someone being wrong. It's just a difference of personalities and opinions."
Fine, Gordon didn't like his coach and left; that time period is over and gone. Gordon is playing professional basketball somewhere on the other side of the world from the NBA, and both parties were better off without each other.
Brendan Lane, from 2009, left as a senior because he was not going to win a part in the show. Lane was hurt during his career and never got it going. He left UCLA with no animosity. "It's hard," Lane said to ESPN. "I've been here three years and the coaches have been supportive and my teammates have been supportive. It's been a really tough decision, but I've got to make the decision that is best for me."
Anthony Stover, another 2009 recruit, was not good enough to get onto the floor, could not handle the course work at UCLA, flunked out of school and over the summer was dismissed from the team. That is not on Coach Howland.
Stover thanked those who supported him, according to Sporting News, and issued an apology: "Most of all, I would like to apologize to my coaching staff, teammates and all of Bruin nation. Please forgive me.”
De'End Parker, a junior college transfer, went back to San Francisco to live with his sick and possibly dying mother.
But then there is Mike Moser, also from 2009, who has turned himself into a good player after transferring to UNLV. Moser was not mature enough to handle playing low minutes early in his career at UCLA, and he was an undersized front court player while he was in Westwood.
Moser was getting time at small forward at UCLA, weighing what looked like 175 lbs at 6'7'', though he was listed at 185 lbs. At UNLV he has been a big rebounding power forward listed at 210 lbs. He has spent a good part of this season injured.
Moser chose to leave UCLA because he wanted more playing time early in his career and perhaps because Reeves Nelson was hounding him at practice. Moser may have gotten to be a big contributor at UCLA, but he left before anyone saw what he could become.
Chace Stanback, who came in with Kevin Love in 2007, was a swing player and not good enough to contribute to Howland's system. He left after the 2008 season, his freshman year, to play at UNLV. Stanback played 28 minutes a game his senior year, scored 12.5 points a game and grabbed 4 rebounds.
That was a personal choice Stanback made with his career in mind. How many Bruins' followers are going to say in earnest that Howland was wrong not give Stanback, a freshman about to become a sophomore, all the minutes he wanted to remain in the program?
Matt Carlino, who came in 2010 out of Bloomington, Ind., is playing a good third wheel at BYU. At UCLA, Carlino had a concussion that kept him out of his first three games, then he didn't practice so he couldn't play in the next two games. Carlino spent one game healthy on the bench against Montana, and UCLA lost.
Carlino then transferred. It was eight games into his freshman season.
It would be nice to have Carlino as a back-up point guard, but the program will be fine without him. Carlino may have been chased out by Nelson, too, who apparently stalked him like a psychopath during practice and tried to hurt him.
Nelson is the one real piece in all of this that seemed to poison the well for everybody.
I think, when everything is boiled away, Howland can be criticized for keeping Nelson, part of the 2009 recruiting class that was considered the best in the conference at the time, and one of the ten best nationally.
This class, along with two players from the 2008 class, were basically a disaster, and more than anything else the toxic reaction of Nelson on everyone around him, and Coach Howland's handling of it, undid much of what had been built by the superb character classes of 2004-2007.
So the big mistake was allowing Nelson to stay into his junior year when it became clear he was totally immature and borderline criminally violent, if the piece Sports Illustrated wrote last year is to be trusted.
The thrust of the post-2009 roster problems was that young, very big ego players came into a system that had been built by a corps of excellent, humble players and high caliber people. The underclassmen did not want to pay their dues like the group before them had, but instead wanted to sit down on the bridge of the ship and start sailing.
Howland can legitimately take some criticism for making poor recruiting evaluations. He has already acknowledged that himself.
Perhaps it was here that Howland showed a weakness in handling prima donnas, and in dealing with people outside of a basketball framework. It would not be the first case of someone obsessed with their profession being seen as an anti-social or awkward person in other places, which anonymous sources in the SI piece claimed Howland was.
Does anyone want to blame Howland for Josh Smith? Smith ate his way out of basketball and it has been his problem since he was a sophomore in high school.
We will see what happens with Smith at Georgetown, a very slow playing half court team; but it looks clearly like Smith does not love basketball enough to get in shape to play the game.
Tyler Lamb made a personal decision to transfer that surprised his teammates. Coach Howland said it was straightforward. Lamb, a good defensive player and someone who was working hard on his offensive game, did not think the minutes or shots would be available to him with the quality of the freshmen class just arrived at Westwood.
The frank assessment hast to be that it was just a short, bad patch for Howland and UCLA. The irony of it is that Rick Majerus, who everyone agrees was an exceptional basketball coach, had 47 of 80 players he recruited to play at Utah, fully 59 percent, transfer out of his program. Majerus had six players leave after a single season.
Howland has already accomplished more in the tournament than Majerus did in six fewer seasons, and if he keeps coaching he will blow by Majerus's career win total.
"I don't think it really affects anything," Norman Powell told the Los Angeles Times."The people transferring, they probably have personal decisions. You can’t make your recruitment decision on, 'Oh, people are leaving the program.'
"UCLA is a great program. It has great tradition, great players who have come out of here and went to the NBA and made a name for themselves.
"UCLA alone is going to stand for something good about basketball, and that’s going to attract players no matter who's in the program or who's leaving. It doesn't really matter or affect anybody’s recruitment."