UCLA Basketball: The biggest question of Ben Howland’s wayward Bruins

UCLA head coach Ben Howland

The tale has been told many times now, enough times that the perimeter details of the story have become fuzzy.

A young player shows up for practice after 10 days away from the team. Invigorated by his belief in self and identity, he reports to campus with a beard despite his coach’s strict mandate that all players will be clean shaven.

“Have you forgotten something?” John Wooden asks.

“Coach, if you mean the beard, I think I should be allowed to wear it,” Bill Walton responds. “It’s my right.”

“Do you believe in that strongly?” Wooden asks, assessing the strength of his player’s commitment to revolt.

“Yes, I do coach, very much,” Walton responds, taking the bait.

Wooden has reached an impasse. Succumb to the personal desires of one of his best players, or maintain his stance as educator with simple, but direct, demands.

“Bill, I have a great respect for individuals who stand up for those things in which they believe, I really do,” Wooden responded. “And the team is going to miss you.”

There was no debate, no hint of negotiation. Walton embraced 70s culture, from physical appearance to intellectual freedom, and a beard symbolized his valuation of not self-entitlement but expression. Wooden appreciated such conviction but held firm on his rules.

He sent Walton back to the locker room with a choice, a choice Walton had to make before returning to practice.

Walton emerged with a clean face.

*          *          *

It didn’t take long for the 2011 Bruins to reveal that the votes of preseason confidence were unwarranted and generous.

Ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press preseason poll, UCLA couldn’t keep up with the Wolverines. Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 20 points, Zack Novak added 22.

No. 15 Michigan beat UCLA 79-63, a night after No. 14 Kansas also downed UCLA by 16.

The Bruins looked lifeless and disengaged. Players sulked, teammates argued, nothing clicked. Ben Howland looked up and down his bench for answers, for leadership.

As the Bruins fell to 1-4 and departed the Maui Invitational, Howland had found neither.

*          *          *

Ben Howland was brought to Westwood because the UCLA administration believed he would reconnect the basketball program with the roots Wooden planted decades before.

His predecessor, Steve Lavin, wasn’t a failure with the Bruins as much as he was a protector of mediocrity. Lavin took the Bruins to an Elite Eight and five Sweet 16 appearances, but his touch softened, his teams plateaued. UCLA began to fall behind conference foes Arizona and Stanford on the recruiting trail, and when the Bruins went 10-19 in the 2002-’03 season, the university found a way out of the Lavin era.

Complacency – and that’s what habitual exits in the Sweet Sixteen were by UCLA’s standards – was fatal for Lavin’s teams.

Howland had spent five seasons at Northern Arizona before a four-year run at Pittsburgh. The Panthers went 89-40 under Howland, and he captured two Big East regular-season titles and the 2003 conference title.

Howland directed Pittsburgh to two consecutive Sweet 16s when the UCLA job opened.

With Southern California roots and a Big East pedigree, Howland eyed his dream job.

The only job Howland determined good enough at the time to leave Pitt for.

*          *          *

Years after Walton challenged Wooden’s system, another talented Bruin challenged his coach’s authority.

After a season-opening loss, the player arrived late to a team meeting the following day. Not only was he late, but when he arrived in the room, he brought with him an attitude of disinterest. He sulked over his individual performance the previous evening with little disregard for any team-oriented concept.

The coach suspended him indefinitely, believing that sitting one of his best players for an early-season game would send a message to his team. Selfishness dies at the door of UCLA Basketball.

After the player’s suspension was lifted, UCLA prepared to go on the road. The Bruins boarded a charter bus, scheduled to take them to Los Angeles International airport. All Bruins arrived on time except the previously suspended player. The coach ordered that the bus depart for the airport on time, and the player would have to take a separate flight.

Now, the coach had reached an impasse. Succumb to the lack of discipline and self-centered attitude of one of his starting and most experienced players, or maintain his grasp of the team’s respect. Allow his player’s potentially destructive attitude to continue, or initiate a movement to break it.

The Bruins faced Chaminade in Round 1 of the Maui Invitational last week.

Ben Howland benched Reeves Nelson for 20 minutes, and then patted him on his butt as he took the floor for the second half.

*          *          *

It took Howland four seasons at UCLA to accomplish something nobody had since Wooden: reach consecutive Final Fours. Howland made it three in a row from 2006-2008 and is one of only three active coaches to accomplish that. Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski are the others.

What does this all mean? This is not to suggest that Howland is Wooden or these Bruins are the Bruins of better Westwood days. He’s not, and they aren’t.

But as Howland begins his ninth season as coach at UCLA, he has delivered on many of the expectations the administration had for him when they brought the coach home from Pittsburgh. The only thing that hasn’t come to fruition yet is a national championship.

Nobody thought that UCLA had the potential to hang a banner this season, and where the Bruins stand today, a reasonable argument that they are good enough to even make the tournament remains tough to make.

But after a 23-11 season a year ago, the Bruins returned a team that consists of Nelson – who led UCLA in scoring and rebounding last season and was an all-conference selection — center Josh Smith and additional frontcourt help in Travis and David Wear – who sat out last season after both transferred from North Carolina. Senior guard Jerime Anderson returned.

It appeared Howland was piecing together another one of his squads that was one good recruiting class away from a March Madness run. Maybe that’s still reasonable for Howland in the coming years, but at the present moment, the Bruins look to be troubled on and off the court.

UCLA doesn’t rank in the top 200 among Division I teams in points per game, rebounds per game or field goal percentage. The Bruins sit along the floor of a conference that isn’t supposed to be strong outside of its top three or four teams. UCLA was supposed to be one of those three or four.

The Bruins have Pepperdine before hosting Texas Dec. 3. After that, it’s five games against other unranked opponents before they open Pac-12 play in Palo Alto, Calif., against the Stanford Cardinal.

What’s more concerning than production on the offensive or defensive end, though, is Nelson and Howland’s handling of his best player. Nelson’s teammates noted that his attitude seemed changed after sitting for the first half against Chaminade.

“I think he’s making an effort now to be the person that coach wants him to be,” Travis Wear told the L.A. Times.

How real is that change? Will it last after Nelson’s next struggles? What is Howland sacrificing by giving Nelson rope he doesn’t appear to deserve? If Nelson is a junior now and doesn’t get it, will he ever?

Those are all questions that Howland must address before he gets to UCLA’s performance.

*          *          *

When Wooden explained his decision in his book to offer a passive ultimatum to Walton, he wrote, “I think if I had given in to him, I would have lost control of not only Bill but of his teammates.”

Walton respected his coach because he knew it was a prerequisite for playing time. Wooden knew he didn’t need to yell, didn’t need to raise his voice, didn’t need to curse. He didn’t need to try to intimidate players. Playing time served as dictator.

Howland holds that same power. It’s too early to assess the talent of this UCLA team, to decide if they will be competitive in the Pac-12.

But it’s not too early to ask the questions central to UCLA’s slow start: Was 20 minutes on the bench enough to keep Reeves Nelson on board?

Was 20 minutes enough for Howland to keep his team?

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