UCLA Basketball: Win Over Missouri Was A Step, Not The Goal


Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

UCLA basketball’s win over the seventh-ranked Missouri Tigers has restored faith among fans in Bruins coach Ben Howland; for four years, the hardcore Howland supporters have harped on about the now-oft-maligned coach’s ability to develop talent, to get his team meshing together after rough starts.

While UCLA hoops was missing out on NCAA tourneys more often than not, and while the Bruins became largely irrelevant within the context of the Pac-12 conference — a largely weak basketball conference the past few seasons — Ben Howland’s supporters have never waivered.

Of course, that segment of the UCLA fan-base is just that — a segment. While that group has become smaller as Ben Howland’s disappointment-filled seasons pile up, the impatient fans that called for Howland’s head after the 2010-11 season saw their narrative dominate. Soon, calling for Howland’s job saw fans split 50/50 and, after UCLA’s stunning loss in Westwood to Cal Poly, a lower-tier Big West squad, fans largely reached a consensus: Ben Howland needed to go.

After all, it was under his watch that countless players left the program, that Matt Carlino was forced to find greener pastures after suffering from abuse at the hands of Howland favorite Reeves Nelson, that Tyler Lamb couldn’t break into Howland’s rotation consistently despite his much-needed athleticism, and that Josh Smith failed to realize a modicum of his potential while he transferred away to rekindle his romance for hoops.

But with the Bruins’ win over seventh-ranked Missouri — a much-needed victory over a good team, and the Bruins’ first win over a ranked squad — faith in Howland has been restored, for the most part. Perhaps not fully, but the rabid Howland supporters have perhaps convinced the slightly-committed-to-firing-Howland that this win will turn UCLA’s fortunes around.

Fans have already begun to point to the Missouri win as a reason why Howland shouldn’t be fired. The arguments are now fully geared towards that contest, and for some reason, the objective fans have bought into the Howland hype.

Skepticism of success is warranted in this situation. Ben Howland earned his biggest win in two years, and for the first time in awhile, UCLA hoops has become fun to watch. No longer are Howland’s teams messing around in a slow-down, sloppy, half-court offense, and no longer is Howland trying to stubbornly press defense as his team’s biggest strength.

This team, though, has reached extremes on both ends. UCLA now has one of the top offenses in the country but  the caveat is that the Bruins also lay claim to one of the worst defenses in the country; squads that are middling-to-terrible from deep look like squads filled with sharpshooters and the low-post defense has been mind-blowingly bad. At some point, UCLA’s gameplan — which is “SCORE SCORE SCORE, RIGHT NOW, SCORE. MOAR POINTS RIGHT NOW” — won’t be sustainable. It worked against Missouri, a team who’s also very offensive-oriented but lacking in defense, but what will UCLA do against Arizona in their pair of tilts with the third-ranked team in the country, a team that is top-25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency?

Indeed, UCLA hasn’t faced as well-rounded of a team as Arizona (although they had their chance when in the Legends Classic to play Indiana, but couldn’t beat Georgetown).

A win in a game in which UCLA and Missouri were both one mistake away from tossing the game to the other shouldn’t remove your skepticism about this team. The issues that arose against Missouri are pervasive ones, and the strengths UCLA exhibited in that game aren’t exactly consistent (see: Wear twins’ best game).

Ben Howland has a long way to go in molding this team before he’s removed the cloud of skepticism revolving his successes. Sure, fans may have removed that cloud themselves, fully convinced that Howland is the guy for the job, fully invested in this program led by a head coach whose last tournament appearance seemed like forever ago.

This win against Missouri has been celebrated, and rightfully so, but it shouldn’t cloud fans’ judgment of Howland — this loss should be seen as a stepping stone, and it shouldn’t be referred back to if all hell breaks loose for the Bruins, if this team inexplicably tanks to start Pac-12 play. Firing Howland mid-season is still an option, but one that’s tabled for the time being.

A lot of questions about this UCLA hoops squad will be answered in January, with the Bruins’ ability to consistently beat competitive squads and top-tier teams, including Arizona and Colorado.

By the end of the month, it’ll be nearly crystal clear as to whether Howland is the right guy to lead this team.

Buckle your seat-belts.