It's been a bad week for UCLA basketball. First, Tyler Lamb, a starter last season, announced his intention to transfer from Ben Howland's program. Then it was former top recruit Josh Smith. Sandwiched between those was a home loss to Cal Poly and UCLA, a top-15 team to begin the season, sits at 5-3 with eight scholarship players left on the roster.
While the Pac-12 has been down for a few years now, UCLA's descent has been most baffling during that stretch. In the last four-plus seasons, after making three consecutive Final Fours, UCLA is 87-55, including a 45-27 record in conference play in the worst Pac-12 in recent memory. They made the NCAA Tournament only twice in four years, and aren't exactly putting together a tournament resume early on this season. This is a perfectly acceptable record at many schools in the conference....but this is UCLA.
The Pac-12 has been awful the past few years. While results like Oregon's win over UNLV and Colorado's victory over Baylor show that the conference is on the slow climb back, it's still nowhere near being where it should be--which is in the top 3-4 college basketball conferences in the nation. It's also no secret that a big part of the Pac-12's decline can be attributed to instability at it's top programs. Arizona made a great coaching hire and is on the way back. But the conference cannot get to where it needs to be without UCLA being a perennial top-25 team. At times, many other schools have reached heights for a few seasons, but the Oregons and Washingtons of the conference have nothing in their history to suggest the staying power of being able to do it year after year. UCLA, with all the built in advantages in the world (history, brand, location, recruiting base, and now, facilities), has no excuse.
The scathing SI article that came out last spring should have been an instantly fire-able offense for anybody in the country yet, somehow Howland has survived both that and chronic underperformance. I think Howland is a good coach--both his record at Pitt and the fact that he went to three consecutive Final Fours would indicate that--but sometimes, you've just reached the point where you're at a place too long. This happened to Jeff Tedford at Cal. If you read or listen to a lot of the college basketball media, the roster has been plagued with guys who are bad characters (Reeves Nelson) or don't work hard (Smith). The players have had no buy in to the program. I would hire Ben Howland if I had a job opening this season elsewhere. But mistakes he has made with compromising culture in recruiting has poisoned the well for him at UCLA.
I think UCLA guard Norman Powell said it best this week when he said "we're no Kentucky." Well, why the hell not, UCLA? The SEC was awful when Kentucky was down under Billy Gillespie, and has popped back up along with Kentucky. The Pac-12 needs a similar renaissance from UCLA. Should Howland's necessary firing come this offseason, the UCLA job is the top one on the market, and should have no trouble drawing a marquee name. With roster numbers down, and Shabazz Muhammed likely leaving for the NBA after the season, it may take a year to get things back where they need to be. But lndiana was in worse shape a few years ago, and look at where they're at now. UCLA is every bit the national program that Kentucky and Indiana are.
Like it or not, there are certain brands that just mean a little bit more and can elevate an entire conference. The Pac-12 needs UCLA to remember that they're UCLA.