AUSTIN, Texas -- It wasn’t so much a goodbye wave as a slap in the face.
After 10 years of professionally serving a university he loved, Ben Howland was ushered out with two hours of everything he hated.
Selfish shots. Lazy defense. Blank stares.
In what was probably Howland’s final game as a UCLA basketball coach after a decade of giving the program class and dignity and three Final Four appearances, his players gave him nothing.
In what was probably his last stand, he was crushed.
Say what you want about the embattled leader of the Bruins’ sixth-seeded team, but Howland deserved better than Friday’s 83-63 loss to 11th-seeded Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
If his players cared, they didn’t show it. If his players were still listening to him, it wasn’t evident. Once embraced by a UCLA community that truly believed he was leading them back to the days of Wooden, Howland spent his probable final game shouting into nothing, drawing up plays for nobody, very much alone.
At the bitterest of end, in a postgame news conference in front of only a handful of reporters, the man who has answered every question for 10 years couldn’t bring himself to respond to the final one.
“Do you think you’ve coached your last game as UCLA coach?” he was asked.
“No comment,” he said.
Dan Guerrero, UCLA athletic director, also refused comment, but the message seems clear.
All indications are that Howland, having missed the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive year, will soon be bought out of his contract by UCLA administrators who believe that the basketball program would benefit in a change of culture much like the football team last fall. Officials agree that Howland is still a great coach, but they also feel his style has reached its shelf life, and that he’s being tuned out not only by current players and potential recruits but also by fans who rarely filled up new Pauley Pavilion.
If Howland leaves, he will leave not only as a criticized guy who failed to build on his three Final Four appearances which ended five years ago, but also as a beloved figure who never stopped working or caring or believing. In the final moments Friday, fans sitting behind the Bruins’ bench gave him a standing ovation, even leaning down to shower him with encouragement. Howland, focused to the end, said he never heard them.
“I never hear anything during the game, I don’t notice,” he said tightly. “If you’re hearing the fans ...”
Also in typical Howland fashion, when he was asked again about his job status, he responded by praising his kids. He talked about a team that went 25-10 and won a Pac-12 regular-season championship before being derailed by a season-ending foot injury to top player Jordan Adams in the Pac-12 tournament.
“I’m just really proud of this season these kids provided going back into Pauley this year, bringing home the championship of the regular season,” Howland said. “I’m really proud of our team, proud of our kids, excited about the future for them.”
He was excited about their future. He wouldn’t comment on his future. Howland clearly knew what was at stake in this game, and obviously understands the ramifications of its outcome.
It’s a shame the players, who are rarely held accountable in these situations, seemingly did not share that understanding.
Given the hype that accompanied some of these guys into this season, it’s fair to ask some question and offer some answer. Best recruiting class in the country? Please. A lineup of top NBA prospects? Only one. John Wooden’s university? The kids acted as if they never heard of the man.
“This is definitely not how I envisioned it ending,” said senior guard Larry Drew II, holding back tears.
The Bruins’ first shot of the game was blocked, and it didn’t get much prettier from there. The Bruins didn’t score a point in the first 4:05. Their starters didn’t make a field goal in the first 10 minutes. At halftime, they had more turnovers (nine) than baskets (eight).
The first half included a no-look alley-oop pass to a player who wasn’t looking, and, yes, it was as bad as it seemed, Drew to David Wear to thin air.
After the usual lengthy tournament halftime break, what happens? UCLA’s locker-room play is so well designed, the Bruins can’t get off a shot in the first 35 seconds and give up the ball.
They hung around a bit in the second half, but eventually just stood around while Minnesota made nine three-pointers and 51% of its shots and basically ran the Bruins ragged.
The Bruins’ last shot of the game was Shabazz Muhammad missing a layup, which is appropriate because he will now take his game to the NBA after missing his mark as an enduring Bruins star. On a day when this newspaper reported that Muhammad has been playing under an assumed age — he is 20, not 19 — he began by playing as if he were 40. He missed all seven shots in the first half and by the time he found his rhythm, the game was essentially over.
So, too, probably, is Ben Howland’s UCLA career, a great run that deserved a better ending.