Two heavyweights of College Basketball are trying to reclaim their former glory. Al Dannity looks at the deeper story behind UCLA and Arizona’s match-up on Thursday night.
Ben Howland looked like a superstar coach not so long ago. Three straight Final Fours and a rich supply of talent had the Bruins on the cusp of returning to the status expected of College Basketball royalty. Being one of the top jobs in the business, and make no mistake UCLA head coach is one of the top six jobs in the game, brings with it expectation. There is no patience, especially in the one and done era. Howland is at a crossroads and this season is quickly becoming a referendum on his leadership. Having missed the NCAA Tournament twice in the last three years, pressure is mounting on Howland to do more than just bring the Bruins back to March Madness. They must get there and look like contenders.
Bringing in Shabazz Muhammad was big. Getting him re-instated was bigger. Muhammad however is bound for the NBA next year. That gives Howland just one season to use Muhammad to bring on-court success to the Bruins and, with it, attract more top tier recruits. Statistically Muhammad has delivered on his end. The swingman is averaging 17.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. With Jordan Adams and Travis Wear also averaging in double-digits for points, scoring isn’t the problem with this roster. The issue is that they remain a collection of talent more than a team.
After being frankly out-coached by Oregon’s Dana Altman on Saturday, Howland is on thin ice. The Ducks don’t have a comparable roster to UCLA’s but still managed to pull it out late on the road. Thursday night however provides a chance to silence the critics. Arizona’s 16-1 record and #6 ranking makes them appear a big test, the kind of game where victory would look back to their best if they won. The Wildcats however didn’t face a significant true road test in non-conference play. Like UCLA, the vast majority of their victories have come against teams that won’t even be contending for a trip to the Big Dance. The Bruins have a chance to see what the Wildcats are really made of.
Failure on Thursday night won’t have any immediate repercussions but the voices of discontent are getting louder out west. With a limited number of chances to deliver quality wins between now and the end of the season, Howland needs every big win he can get to aid his case for another year at the helm. Tomorrow would be a good start.