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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Who Will Last Longer: Lavin or Floyd?

Tuesday was an interesting day for Southern California sports fans. Former UCLA coach Steve Lavin had his prayers answered and he was hired to become the new head coach at St. John’s. Former USC coach Tim Floyd was plucked from the New Orleans Hornets staff to serve as UTEP’s head coach, replacing Tony Barbee who left for Auburn. So the obvious question is … who lasts longer at their job? Though the answer may seem obvious based on coaching merit, the question is trickier than you think. Let’s examine some of the factors at play:

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Steve Lavin Disagreed with Tom Izzo’s Endgame Strategy Against Tennessee

At the end of the Michigan State/Tennessee Elite Eight game in St. Louis, the Spartans faced a decision. Raymar Morgan was at the free throw line with his team up 70-69. There was 1.8 seconds left on the clock and Morgan was preparing to attempt his second free throw. The question was whether Morgan should try and make the free throw to give the Spartans a two point lead or if he should miss it. The logic behind intentionally missing the free throw was that Michigan State could either claim the rebound and hold on for the win or there could be a mad scramble for possession that lasted 1.8 seconds, giving Michigan State the win without Tennessee ever having a crack at a Hail Mary. Because Tennessee was planning to call timeout had Morgan made the free throw, the only scenario with an upside was missing the shot intentionally.

Morgan missed, Brian Williams of Tennessee rebounded and called timeout, allowing the Vols a chance at a miracle three. They missed badly and Michigan State got the win. Tom Izzo unquestionably made the right decision here because the only scenario presenting an advantage for the Spartans was having Morgan miss — which he did. Although the outcome wasn’t what Michigan State hoped for, it was still the right move. Even Kansas coach Bill Self agreed with the move afterward on CBS saying it’s a 90% chance Tennessee winds up shooting a three so that second free throw doesn’t matter — might as well try and miss to run off the 1.8 seconds without giving the Vols a chance to win. Self knew that, Izzo knew that, heck even I knew that, but there’s one person who didn’t agree with the move; he’s a man with a basketball pedigree and a coaching background — he’s Steve Lavin. Here’s what the former UCLA coach said on ESPNEWS when asked to break down the decision (keep in mind, the play was running on TV as he talked so he gave a little play-by-play too):

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Steve Lavin Knows: Blogs are Watching

I was watching the Purdue/Illinois game on Saturday on ESPN with Dave O’Brien and Steve Lavin providing the commentary. Lavin was talking about UCONN and how he expects them to go on a run now that Jim Calhoun is back. The production team then brought up a graphic regarding tournament regulars in danger of missing The Big Dance. Those teams included Arizona (13-12, on the verge of missing the tourney for the first time in 26 years), UCONN (5-9 in conference), North Carolina (3-9 in the ACC), Oklahoma (13-12 overall), and UCLA (12-13 overall). It’s pretty well known that UCLA has been horrendous this year, especially by their standard. Lavin, as a former Bruins coach who generally speaks positively about his former school, played it safely in his commentary:

Lavin: And Ben Howland still in the mix in terms of the conference race but has struggled overall. He’s done a nice job adjusting in Pac-10 play going to a zone defense (cut off by O’Brien)

O’Brien: Struggling? Yeah, you’re being kind there. It’s been an awful year for UCLA.

Lavin: Of course Dave, if I said that, I’d be getting lit up on the blogs tonight so I tread carefully.

Well Steve, just wanted to let you know that the blogs indeed are watching and they appreciate your careful treading. Matter of conjecture, both announcers were right; as O’Brien said, it has been an awful year for UCLA. Regardless of how many studs they lose to the pros, they shouldn’t be below .500 this late in the year. Losing to Cal-State Fullerton, Long Beach St, and getting blown out by Portland is pretty much unacceptable. As Lavin pointed out (and it may have taken a six-game losing streak), Howland has adjusted and done the unthinkable by incorporating a zone defense in conference play. Yes the Pac-10 is down this year because several players have been drafted recently but at least the Bruins have reached the point of respectability in the conference. Also, let it be known that Lavin is almost always complimentary of UCLA and Ben Howland. For a guy who got fired by the school and replaced with Howland, it probably isn’t easy to speak as positively about UCLA as he does and I respect Lavin a lot for not holding hard feelings.

Steve Lavin Forgos the Hair Gel

I was utterly stunned when I saw this. Stunned. You know those pick up the phone moments they talk about? You know, when your team hits a game-winning three pointer at the buzzer and you gotta share the moment with friends? That was my reaction to seeing the mop-topped Lavin lose the grease on his melon. I went whooping through the halls of work to spread the news. Though I wasn’t able to grab a screen cap since I was at work, I am happy to say that The Sporting Blog did the leg work for me. We can thank them for enriching our lives. As well as Steve Lavin’s hairstylist.

Note to Steve: We are not making fun of your looks — you are quite telegenic. It’s just startling to see the change in style. It’s like looking up on TV to see that Warren Sapp has lost 75 pounds; it’s a must-see because you’re so used to something else.

Baron Davis Takes Jab at Steve Lavin

As dedicated readers of LBS well know, I am not above expressing my opinions of Steve Lavin. Yes, he’s a nice guy who always treated me well, and he’s a good analyst on TV. But one detail should be understood: he was not a good coach at UCLA. Considering he along with Bob Toledo contributed to my uncanny run of horrid athletic performances by the basketball and football teams while I was a student in Westwood, I harbor quite a disdain for the man. Anyway, for all you supporters of Lavin (and there were many of them), check out this comment by Baron Davis:

UCLA products Baron Davis and Matt Barnes were back in their old haunt as the Warriors held their shootaround at Pauley Pavilion.

As things wound down, Davis started needling Cal grad John Murray, the Warriors’ strength and conditioning coach. “Look up there,” Davis said, nodding at the UCLA’s 11 championship banners. “That’s tradition. That’s the little brother beating up the big brother.”

Then Davis got rolling. Talking about his own time with the Bruins, he took a swipe at Marin native Steve Lavin, saying, “We should have a banner up there: the only team to make the tournament without a coach.”

That was from last week in the Contra Costa Times online, and later spotted in the LA Times by Bruins Nation. How incredible is that? I’m guessing that’s a comment Baron made and figured was off the record. Putting reporting ethics aside, I would venture to say that’s indicative of many player’s attitudes from the Lavin era. And I think we all now know why Baron only stayed in school two years — and it’s not because he struggled in his Poly Sci classes.

Chest Bump to Deadspin

Steve Lavin Can’t Draw up Proper Wedding Plans

According to Bruins Nation, which also claims that the LA Times blog jacked the story without giving proper credit, shame, shame on you, Steve Lavin had to call on audible on his wedding plans. From Bruins Nation where the story originally appeared:

Update from the Jarou/Lavin wedding headquarters in Newport Beach.

Unexpectedly we have received a stunning 95% RSVP on sent out wedding invitations. As a result, our wedding guest list has far exceeded the maximum capacity for a traditional ceremony and reception at The Montage Resort.

After giving serious consideration to alternative plans we have decided the best option at this late stage is to head to Europe to create a magical wedding day.

Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconveniences this change in our wedding plans may have caused you.

We are sorry that we will not be able to share our big day with family and friends. We will be sure to send you photos of our wedding upon our return from Europe.

Please confirm that you received this email.

Thanks in advance for your understanding.

Warm regards,

Steve & Mary

Leave it to Lavin. Terrible coach, terrible party planner. Sidenote, what kind of a slap is it that they signed the letter with warm regards. Really, do they have much regard if they’re sending such a letter? I’m not so sure.