The Comparison: Ben Howland vs. Steve Lavin as UCLA Head Coach

Ed Note: be sure to check the statistical analysis at the bottom

UCLA basketball has only had three losing seasons since 1948. The writer of this post was in school for two of the three, attending UCLA from ’01-’05. That 60-59 stretch was easily the school’s worst since the invention of television, and it contributes greatly to my understanding of the basketball program’s recent history.

Not unlike many college students, the allure of attending a university with a rich athletic tradition is what drew me to Westwood. Like so many of my classmates, I was disappointed not to experience the joys that come with rooting on a national championship-quality basketball team that one expects to see upon enrolling at UCLA. Luckily many students who entered school in subsequent years were able to live that excitement, and that brings me to the point of this post: comparing the Steve Lavin era at UCLA with Ben Howland’s tenure as head coach of the Bruins.

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Ben Howland Admits Recruiting Mistakes Have Contributed to UCLA Downfall

This week is a monstrous week for UCLA basketball. The Bruins are 14-7, 6-3 and ranked third in conference play, and trying to earn a spot into the NCAA tournament. A non-conference win over BYU helps the Bruins’ case for a bid, but beyond that they will have to continue running through the weak Pac-10 to earn a spot in the Big Dance.

The road to the tournament continues with huge games for Ben Howland — home contests against USC and St. John’s. The Bruins have lost four in a row to the Trojans — in basketball no less — and they must beat the Red Storm which is coming off a win over Duke to prove the new error of Bruins basketball is better than the old one. I may be in the minority here, but in some aspects a win over Steve Lavin would be more satisfying to me than a win over USC.

Anyhow, we’ve touched on some of the recruiting issues the program has endured since their reign of dominance in the Pac-10 came to an end. The program went from reaching three straight Final Fours to losing in the second round of the tourney and then going a horrifying 14-18 last year. Some of the best players to enter the program are starring at other schools after transferring (Chace Stanback, Drew Gordon), and that has been frustrating. At the same time, the Bruins were able to steal the Wear twins away from North Carolina and should be on the upswing next season.

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DePaul Apparently Has Dreams of Ben Howland as Their Coach

Commotion has exploded around the UCLA basketball scene today amidst reports that DePaul University has thrown major bucks at current Bruins coach Ben Howland. DePaul is making it known that they’re willing to pay for a high-quality coach. The Blue Demons endured four losing seasons in five years before firing coach Jerry Wainwright mid-season en route to a 8-23 season. They were 0-18 in Big East play two seasons ago and went 1-17 in conference this year so they’re obviously looking for major improvement. Though Howland could move to Chicago and position himself to become the savior once again, keep in mind that DePaul hasn’t won more than 22 games in a season for 25 years; their potential for greatness is low and nowhere near UCLA’s. In essence, I treat this story similarly to the way I view St. John’s efforts to woo Billy Donovan by offering him $3 million a year — it’s a nice dream but it won’t happen. While I’m dismissing the notion that Ben Howland will leave for DePaul — he’s already unequivocally denied interest — I’m not dismissing the notion that Howland has reasons to be dissatisfied at UCLA.

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Ben Howland is into CBS Conspiracy Theories

On Sunday following the CBS tourney selection show, UCLA coach Ben Howland went on a media blitz to promote DirecTV’s NCAA package. First he hit ESPN, then ESPNEWS, then ESPN2. This is no surprise for anyone who watches sports shows regularly; players and coaches frequently make the rounds pimping a product. But what Coach Howland said during his ESPNEWS interview was quite interesting.

First, you must understand that in the first round UCLA plays Weber St. where Howland played as a collegian, in the second round UCLA might play Gonzaga whom they beat in a sweet 16 thriller last year and who gave Howland his first coaching job, and in the sweet 16 UCLA is projected to play #3 seed Pitt, where Howland coached prior to UCLA (and he remains best friends with their current head coach Jamie Dixon). Anchor Robert Flores (and yes, I must watch a lot of ESPNEWS to know all the anchors by name) asked Howland about all the subplots in the West regional that involve him emotionally. Here was Howland’s response:

I think that CBS pays a lot of money for the rights to the NCAA tournament and they want their money’s worth and so they’re going to have matchups that create even more interest, so that’s the bottom line.

Howland had similar words for the LA Daily News

“I’m not surprised by it. I don’t chuckle, but I’m not surprised by it,” Howland said. “CBS is paying a lot of money to telecast the NCAA Tournament, about $700 to $800 million a year over the lifetime of the deal … so, of course, if good TV is available, it’s going to be more commanding to viewership.”

Howland’s response to the question answers what many fans have speculated for a long time. In a business sense, CBS wants to heighten the excitement surrounding their games by creating emotional storylines in order to increase ratings. As a fan, you want objectivity in the selection of the draw so that the path to the championship is as equal for all teams as possible.

This marks the second year in a row that UCLA and Pitt have been paired in the same region (coincidence?). Additionally, UCLA’s path to the Elite 8 seems more difficult than most other teams. Gonzaga who was in the top 25 for a good part of the year is a 10th seed in UCLA’s pod. Pitt is the 3 seed scheduled to play UCLA in the sweet 16. Seems a little tougher, and more coincidental than most.

I guess bottom line, even if teams were “coincidentally” placed in the same bracket, the truth is the same for all 65 teams, win six (or in the case of the play-in teams win seven) games, and you’re the national champ — there’s no confusion about that.

(Chest Bump for Michael David Smith of Football Outsiders and AOL Fanhouse)