There’s no sugar-coating it, Ben Howland is on thin ice at UCLA


LAS VEGAS — Despite the sudden loss of one of its best young players, the UCLA basketball team showed up here Saturday night determined not to throw in the towel.

The coach’s suit coat was a different matter.

Angered by a charging call on Shabazz Muhammad late in the first half of the Bruins’ losing battle with Oregon in the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament, Coach Ben Howland could no longer endure the frustration.

In a bit of gymnastics as impressive as the Cirque du Soleil halftime show, Howland angrily spun and, in the same motion, removed his jacket and flung it high and far into the front row behind the Bruins’ bench.

It was Howland’s first technical foul in 10 years as UCLA coach. Then again, he’s rarely been backed up against such a wall, his job on the line as his team heads into next week’s NCAA tournament without Jordan Adams, its second-leading scorer who broke his foot in the final moments of the Bruins’ emotional semifinal win Friday against Arizona.

In a title game that really did churn the stomach, the Bruins missed Adams’ scoring and defense as much as Howland missed a wooden hanger in a 78-69 loss to the Ducks at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

UCLA struggled to get good shots, gave up open shots, didn’t lead after the midway point in the first half, and eventually wore down by trying to match the Ducks with essentially only six players. Because of the Pac-12’s mediocre conference RPI — sixth in the nation at last look — the Bruins now are likely headed for a tough NCAA seeding in a tough environment.

Late Saturday night, Howland defended his team’s resilience while criticizing his own, apologizing for the coat toss.

“I am very embarrassed by that, it’s a terrible example for our team,” Howland said. “We have to play through adversity . . . I deserved a technical foul . . . I behaved poorly.”

Things for the coach could only get tougher.

There is talk that the athletic department, for both basketball and business reasons, wants this season to be Howland’s last. There is word that a $2.3-million buyout is already in place. There is a feeling that only a Sweet 16 appearance could save his job, and even that might not be enough.

No official will publicly confirm any of this, they never do, but privately, Bruins boosters already are apparently lining up replacement candidates amid the obvious question.

Is firing Howland fair?

It’s fair if you believe, as many do, that today’s college basketball coaches are judged by success in the NCAA tournament. Howland’s three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006-2008 feel like four centuries ago. If UCLA misses this year’s Sweet 16, it will be the fifth straight year Howland’s teams have not reached college basketball’s magic number. Don’t forget, his predecessor Steve Lavin was fired after making the Sweet 16 five times in seven years.

But it’s unfair if you believe March is just one moment, and a maddening one at that. Howland has attained consistent success in the regular season, with four conference titles in the last eight years that have helped make him the league’s winningest coach during his tenure. His title this season might have been his best yet, as he molded a group of highly touted but terribly schooled young stars.

Then there’s Pauley Pavilion. Howland’s shaky status is fair if you think a UCLA basketball coach should fill one of college basketball’s most venerable arenas, because his grinding style of play has never done that. In fact, as UCLA’s small following here at the Pac-12 tournament indicates, the Bruins basketball buzz has rarely been more muted.

But it’s unfair when you realize that nobody should be judged by attendance at a Westside arena where games are held in the early evening to accommodate television, making it difficult for fans who want to be in their seats for an entire game. Howland’s team was much more fun to watch this season, the coach finally changing his style to fit his athletic roster, but that still doesn’t make folks want to fight traffic for a 6 p.m. weekday start.

Finally, there are the players. Howland has recruited great ones, and not just this season. His program has groomed and sent to the NBA the likes of Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday.

But critics will point to the players Howland could not even keep on the team. His tough-fisted tenure has been marked by transfers of some decent college players, the sort who never seem to leave places like Kentucky or Kansas. He suffered perhaps his biggest personnel failure this season when he failed to keep overweight but potentially overpowering Joshua Smith, now at Georgetown.

His players haven’t always liked him. But they’ve made lots of money because of him. Fans have often been bored by him. But they’ve also lived through lots of exciting wins with him.

Dan Guerrero, the Bruins’ athletic director, will be faced with a tough choice that perhaps has already been made. The real shame is that Howland’s short-handed team won’t be dressed for the kind of success that could make that decision tougher.

Twitter: @BillPlaschke