Understand that six days out of seven, I’d rather watch college basketball than the NBA; that I’ve been a Georgetown fan since I was a kid; and as a West Coast native, I’m both loyal and defensive when it comes to the Pac-10.
Also understand that I’m far from an expert at the X’s and O’s of basketball. I don’t run plays on NBA 2K10, and I would never coach at any level beyond the littlest of Little League. The kids deserve better.
That said, even I found myself wondering W-exactly-TF Ben Howland was doing in the latter stages of UCLA’s loss to Cal State-Fullerton last night.
Unranked going into the season for the first time in I don’t know how long, the Bruins did lose arguably their four top players from a year ago — Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, Jrue Holiday and Alfred Aboya — but they’re still UCLA and they were still at home against a mid-major team that posted a losing record last season. They should have won. And in a game that had the feel of a first round NCAA Tournament upset, the Bruins had chance after chance to steal a win despite being outplayed throughout. But their coach wouldn’t let them off that easy.
To make matters worse, Fullerton did everything they could to give the game away. With nine seconds left in regulation, point guard Jacques Streeter (who looks like Mike Conley Jr. with a bigger head, and even wears #11 like Conley) bricked a free throw that would’ve given Fullerton the lead, just one of several missed freebies in crunch time. In the first overtime, it was tied with 26 seconds left when Fullerton committed a double-dribble. Then in the second OT, Fullerton was up two with 24 seconds left when they committed a five-second inbounds violation.
So how did the Titans still manage to win? Not because UCLA shot 31% from the field, 17% from three and 47% from the line. But because every time UCLA had an opportunity to tie or win the game in the final seconds, Howland never appeared to have a play drawn up. It was insane: UCLA would furiously swing the ball around the perimeter looking for an open shot, and every now and then somebody would try a pump-fake and drive, but that was it. No identifiable go-to guy, no diagrammed play, no back-picks or dive cuts, nobody looking like they even wanted to be the guy to hit the game-winner. Seemingly every time, UCLA ended up with somebody taking a desperation NBA-range three with a hand in his face.
It looked like Howland never gave his players a plan, and in turn, his team proved too young to coach itself. Maybe he’d gotten too comfortable from having NBA-caliber point guards Jordan Farmar and Collison steering the ship over the last five seasons, but Howland can’t just let these Bruins do their thing and assume they’ll get it right.
I’m the first guy to say that players win and lose games, but in this case, this loss falls squarely on Howland. Just like what’s been happening with Bill Belichick since Sunday, I still respect Howland’s accomplishments and absolutely admit he knows way more about basketball than I ever will. And unlike the Belichick case, I can even say I actually like Howland and know him to be a nice guy to work with. But last night, he came up short and failed his players.
You had to wonder if Harrison Barnes was watching everything unfold on his TV in Iowa, a North Carolina logo wallpapered on his phone, silently being thankful he didn’t pick UCLA.