UCLA vs. Minnesota: Does Bruins' Loss Signal End of Ben Howland Era?

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UCLA vs. Minnesota: Does Bruins' Loss Signal End of Ben Howland Era?
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It feels like the end of something at UCLA. There is a definite sense that the sea has gone out on the coast beyond Westwood and will carry back something new on the incoming tide. Whether it's some rancid bull kelp or a school of mermaids bringing whatever magic mermaids bring is not yet known. 

The Bruins were backed down and battered tonight by a deep-benched and senior-led Minnesota Golden Gophers team, 83-63. UCLA was frigid from the floor, shooting 31 percent and scoring only 25 points in the first half. The Gophers ran with 12 players and used its deep front line to put UCLA's thin front line into serious foul trouble before the break.  

It's how seasons end for a lot of good young teams, in the face of an experienced group in the tournament. If expectations weren't what they had been, and the coach wasn't who he is, this would have been looked on as a promising season.

After all, a group of four freshmen—with a sophomore, two juniors and one senior—won the Pac-12 and 25 games during its first season playing together. It also beat an experienced Arizona team, the preseason conference favorite and its biggest rival, all three times they met. 

It was surprising tonight that Larry Drew II, the team's only senior, didn't bring his best game to the tournament. Drew had been one of the top point guards in America all season. Minnesota's zone defense, and then their switch to man-to-man after the half, confounded him. Drew shot 1-of-6 from the field, scored four points and had three assists against five turnovers. It was a brutal way for a senior to end his career.  

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But nobody played especially well. Shabazz Muhammad manufactured 20 points, but they weren't pretty and came on 6-of-18 shooting. Kyle Anderson never got his feet under him in his first tournament appearance and shot 2-of-11 for six points to go with four assists. Anderson did rebound effectively with 11 on the game; he will be a monster rebounder and stat sheet stuffer for as long as he chooses to stay in Westwood.  

Norman Powell did everything he could, playing as hard as he could, but he didn't have what it took either, grabbing 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting along with five steals. 

The day had begun ominously with the surprising news that Muhammad was 20 and not 19 years old. The force of the Los Angeles Times' story was not the physical side of a one-year age discrepancy, but rather that Muhammad had a father in Ron Holmes who had controlled his son's destiny with a Machiavellian hand since before he had been born.   

From the evidence available it is clear that Holmes has been grooming his son—who has a strong game but would benefit enormously from another season developing it—for the short-term glory of a big NBA payday. Holmes also had revealed in the piece a previously quiet criminal conviction for providing fraudulent bank statements and tax returns to serve as qualifiers on loans. 

Holmes lied again when he was directly questioned about Shabazz's age. He swore to the reporter there was a mistake on the birth certificate that had been located, but returned on his own shortly and admitted the truth had been discovered. Then there was what looked like an awkward bribe attempt when Holmes offered the reporter a job as a publicist for his son, who he knows is about to make millions. 

So it was about building his son up against younger players and getting him a paycheck, and not about the pure development of Muhammad's game. It is Holmes running the show for his son by whatever rules he makes up as he goes, and it nearly got Muhammad declared permanently ineligible before the season began.

The exchange between Holmes and the reporter felt like the moral and ethical equivalent of body boarding a storm sewer during the wet season in Southern California all the way to the ocean, and lifting your head up in the alluvial fan of sewage to see the orange "toxic, not fit for human contact" sign. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It was another weird development that felt like a poison pill; another good reason for UCLA clean house and be finished with everything that's there.  

The true pain this season came—for the fans who had not invested their ego and happiness in seeing coach Ben Howland fired—when Jordan Adams was hurt in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal win against Arizona. That was when the true hopes and legitimate aspirations for this young team and the postseason died. 

Adams is a dynamic player. He is a lethal, savvy scorer and a disruptive defender who led the conference in steals. This team had a hole punched in it and the air sucked out when Adam's right foot failed and broke in an awkward, heavy landing on the game's final play. 

The fanbase—which many intelligent outsiders regard as the most unrealistic in America—has already begun practical discussions amongst itself over whether it wants Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart to come take over the program. That Stevens and Smart have both recently pledged loyalty and happiness at their current schools, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, respectively, is of no concern. 

The fan base makes a strong case in favor of getting either: it's UCLA. There is a good coach out there, somewhere, and UCLA should be able to hire one; but there has been no indication it will be either Stevens or Smart. There has been Twitter chatter about Buzz Williams, which is actually funny if you think of Howland's noisiest detractors, who say he plays too grinding a defensive style and doesn't emphasize offense. 

Williams is the living, screaming embodiment of grinding basketball, the gold standard of punishing defense and just enough offense to escape with a win. The mob would be calling for Williams' head before three seasons were out.   

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That was much of the Twitter chatter tonight before, during and after the game—who will replace Howland? There was clearly some ambivalence: did they want the Bruins to lose now, so Howland would definitely be fired and a great new coach be brought in; or should UCLA make a tournament run first but risk making it slightly less likely that Howland would definitely be fired? I never learned what the answer was.  

When the game ended the obituaries had mostly been written. They were not flattering and showed the blackness of ingratitude. Howland is often spoken about as if he is a piece of garbage. If it is the end after 10 years of Howland, it was a lot of fun, and the memories for those of us who were there for it will live a long time.

There were the first three years when he restored what was one of college basketball's most pure-blooded dynasties from rotting like an abandoned house on stilts along the beach. It was quickly transformed back into a powerful, big-chested dynamo that won three consecutive conference titles and played into three consecutive Final Fours while sending player after player into professional basketball. 

Then there were two more more tournament appearances in four years along with two tournament misses. UCLA played exceptionally ugly basketball in the two years in which they missed the Big Dance, and the program seemed to loosen some at the seams as promising recruiting classes transferred away to help other teams win. 

All of Howland's capital was burned up in those years like in a market crash, and the fact that UCLA did not advance beyond the round of 32 in either tournament showing brought many of the villagers to a level of inconsolable rage and disgust that I have not seen since the last coach—Steve Lavin, a man who was not qualified for the job—was run out of Westwood in 2002.   

Howland's second tournament miss came during a year in which UCLA spent wandering the earth like an outcast from paradise while their Pantheon—Pauley Pavilion—was being rebuilt. But nobody who has turned on Howland has any patience for those excuses.

The Bruins have played in 43 NCAA tournaments, trailing only Kentucky and North Carolina. They have won 11 national championships, trailing no one. That 10 of the titles and 12 of the 18 Final Fours came before 1975, and only three before Howland arrived, does not sooth anyone in the angry crowd.

The Bruins have been to the tournament 14 times more than their next closest Pac-12 rival, Arizona, who marks 29 trips. The villagers will not stand for tournaments missed—it is the bare minimum in Westwood and it is considered an inalienable right of spring. Chasing the ghost of John Wooden is the great gift and awful curse of UCLA basketball. 

Some of the criticisms of Howland have their merits, but the choice is whether or not you think Howland has lost control of the program, and whether or not you think the mistakes are worth firing an excellent coach over. Many people say yes, without a doubt.  

There are other spurious criticisms that seemed to have been planted and grown by the critics themselves. Howland can't recruit California, they say, because bridges have been burned. Howland can't coach offense and his teams can't score. Howland calls too many timeouts, and it's not any fun. Howland can't keep players on the team, look at all the transfers. This is their list. 

It never looks like much when you compare it to the accomplishments, but this group is angry and has definitely made up its mind. 

It is ironic, though, because this year was one of Howland's very best coaching jobs, getting a brand-new team led by freshmen to win the fourth outright conference championship of his tenure. 

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But again, without one of their top players, the Bruins were thrashed out of the tournament in the opening round and now it feels like something has to change. There cannot be another year with the negative energy boring in on the program like a malignant heat ray from three sides out of four. It would be too much for fans to take and too much to ask players to deal with. 

If Howland is finished, he leaves the second-longest tenured coach behind Wooden, with the second most conference championships behind Wooden, the most Final Fours behind Wooden and is the winningest coach in the Pac-12 over the last decade with 121 wins in conference and 233 overall. Howland's tournament record is 15-7. 

The starters and All-Stars in professional basketball will be a testament to Howland's program for as long as they last. 

If it is the end, Howland went out like he existed at UCLA, with professional class and personal dignity. He wouldn't comment on questions about his future, but he would praise his players.

"I am really proud of this group of kids and really indebted to them,'' said Howland in a piece at ESPN.com. "So coachable.''

 

Follow Mark on Twitter @MyTimesProse 

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