back to top

Understanding A Long, Strange Decade Of UCLA Basketball

Over the last ten years, the Celtics of college basketball went from laughingstock to powerhouse and back to laughingstock. Now they're poised, once again, for a resurgence. How the hell does this happen?

Posted on


The start of our decade in question, 2002-03 was Steve Lavin's death knell as coach of the Bruins. It's also the beginning of the weirdness. One of the proudest programs in basketball history, UCLA took 10 out of 12 national championships during the 1960s and '70s under John Wooden.

So, why was 02-03 weird? Because Lavin, who'd led the Bruins to five Sweet 16s in six years and recruited seven current NBA players, presided over a disastrous 10-19 squad that, in the middle of the season, lost NINE GAMES IN A ROW. (Note to aspiring coaches: when all your top recruits peace after a season or two, boosters eventually get annoyed. Unless you're John Calipari.) Four-time first-team Pac-10 sharpshooter Jason Kapono graduated after this year, and the Ben Howland era began.


Howland's first year didn't exactly dazzle the UCLA faithful. The team went 11-17, again with a long midseason losing streak — this time only six games long — and Trevor Ariza fled for the NBA as a one-and-done. Because he was working with Lavin recruits ill-suited to his system, though, Howland gets a pass.


Second year of Howland regime goes much better than the first. UCLA makes the tournament, and Howland's recruiting class includes Jordan Farmar and Aaron Afflalo.



A roster featuring five future NBA players — senior Ryan Hollins, sophomores Afflalo and Farmar, and freshman Darren Collison and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute — goes all the way to the NCAA Championship game in only Howland's third year with the team. (They lose, but oh well!) There is much rejoicing, and all seems swell: if Howland can get that far with a roster that still includes his predecessor's recruits, just wait until he's got all his own guys. Right?


Every successful college coach faces a point in his career where the question comes up: is he a recruiting genius or a tactical savant? Bill Self and Thad Matta are good examples of the latter; John Calipari and Roy Williams, the former. At the beginning of the 06-07 season, Howland looks like a tactical wizard, having taken two straight squads farther than expected. Even with his third consecutive top-notch recruiting class — which includes three/four-star recruit RUSSELL WESTBROOK (seriously, some people had him pegged as only a three-star guy) — UCLA's second-straight Final Four appearance still seems like a surprise, considering they're a mere three seasons removed from a losing record.


And expectations finally catch up. Kevin Love commits to your school, one of the greatest big-man prospects to come along in forever, a dominant low-post player who can also shoot threes, and oh, that three-star recruit you snagged? Russ Westbrook? He turns out to be awesome. Who's going to stop Kevin Love, Darren Collison, and Russell Westbrook, right?

Well, Memphis. Calipari. Derrick Rose. Then Love leaves, Westbrook leaves, and all of a sudden, Howland's looking awfully similar to Steve Lavin: he recruits these great players who stick around for a year or two, and then they bolt for the League, and that is not an easy way to run a program, even if you're one of only three active coaches to reach three straight Final Fours,


Jrue Holiday and Darren Collison lead the Bruins to 26-9 ranking and a second-round tourney exit. No big deal! Just an off year! Right?


After watching Holiday and Collison leave, a consensus top-10 recruiting class does nothing to stop a sudden drop-off. In 2010, a team that went to the Final Four in 2006, 2007, and 2008 watches the tournament from home, having gone 14-18 in the regular season. Last year no longer looks like an anomaly. Although this might seem petty to complain about — what's one year in the gutter? — the prestige programs of D1 basketball — Kansas, Duke, UNC — don't accept a season out of the tournament. Other than the year in which Coach Mike Krzyzewski left midseason due to back problems, the Blue Devils haven't missed March Madness since 1983.


Howland gets the Bruins back to the tournament after luring the enormous Wear twins away from North Carolina. But something's still amiss. Howland based his approach on a handful of ingredients, the most important of those being 1. man defense and 2. teamwork and selflessness. Compared to Lavin's guys, Howland's recruits were seen as being program-oriented effort guys, especially at first. Of course, with success comes a different tenor of recruit; it's surprising how fast Howland turns into a Lavin clone. And when you're signing prestigious recruits, you sometimes have to sacrifice character for talent.


Soon enough, it emerges that Howland's players have been doing drugs prior to practice, physically harming each other, and generally running roughshod over a dismantled program, as revealed by a Sports Illustrated profile that runs in March. Howland's reputation as a master recruiter and defensive whiz becomes subservient to the idea that he lost his team, letting young, undisciplined players rage unchecked — a problem entirely contrary to what he was known for promoting. The team misses the tournament again. College basketball is cruel.


And just like that, things change again. Last night, Shabazz Muhammad, the top recruit in the class of 2012, committed to UCLA, giving them a perfect complement to giant point guard Kyle Anderson and UNC transfer Larry Drew II. Howland's reputation transforms once again. Nobody knows what the hell is going to happen, ever.

The irony here is that it sets UCLA up for the same disappointment that it has dealt with since those Final Fours, again straying from Howland's original bread-and-butter. If Muhammad and Anderson, both glitzy recruits, and Larry Drew, a noted problem-child when he was at UNC, turn out to be less than advertised — if Drew turns out to be what he's always been — the experiment could blow up once again. And in that case, Howland will be out of a job.

Either way, college basketball in LA is about to get way more entertaining.