Top basketball players slip from coach Ben Howland’s grip

Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins fell to the Long Beach State 49ers 79-68 Sunday, one of three consecutive losses during the 76 Classic in Anaheim. UCLA is now 2-4 for the season, with a showdown with No. 1-ranked Kansas coming up on Sunday.

Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins fell to the Long Beach State 49ers 79-68 Sunday, one of three consecutive losses during the 76 Classic in Anaheim. UCLA is now 2-4 for the season, with a showdown with No. 1-ranked Kansas coming up on Sunday. Michael Chen

I really wonder what will go through Ben Howland’s head when he shakes Bill Self’s hand Sunday night at Pauley Pavilion.

Howland and Self are two of the very best coaches in college basketball. In the past decade, both have rebuilt dynasties at proud schools. Howland’s UCLA teams reached the Final Four in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Self-led Kansas to the national championship in 2008. Moreover, both of these coaches are excellent recruiters and in-game strategists. In general, both have done a good job at maintaining discipline over their respective programs and creating a good public image for themselves and the schools they represent.

But Self is a bit better at a certain part of the job; he is better at creating an atmosphere within his program that somehow entices top players to stick around.

Whether it is a skill or a gift of good fortune, this ability to retain star players is perhaps the most crucial thing in college basketball right now. Its importance is more than obvious here in Westwood, where things are falling apart for Howland because his players keep jumping ship.

Coaches invest tremendous energy in recruiting and then teaching their players. Each top recruit is like a huge investment, and whenever one of these players leaves school, that investment loses all its value.

In that analogy, Self is like Warren Buffet.

Both Kansas senior guard Sherron Collins and junior forward Cole Aldrich spurned the NBA draft to play for Self again this season. It was an impressive feat for Self, considering both Collins and Aldrich played for his 2008 championship team, and both had a chance to earn a lot of money in the NBA this season. Kansas is now the top-ranked team and a favorite to win the NCAA title again this season, in large part because Self convinced Aldrich and Collins to stay in school.

Howland does not seem to have this skill.

In six seasons, only once has one of Howland’s players turned down a legitimate NBA opportunity and returned to Westwood. That was Arron Afflalo, who returned to school as a junior but then left before his senior season. Otherwise, every Bruin chose to leave. The list is long and probably painful to read for UCLA fans:

- Forward Trevor Ariza (2004)

- Guard Jordan Farmar (2006)

- Afflalo (2007)

- Guard Russell Westbrook (2008)

- Forward Luc Richard Mbah A Moute (2008)

- Forward Kevin Love (2008)

- Guard Jrue Holiday (2009)

He doesn’t get his own bullet point, but sophomore forward Drew Gordon fits in with this list as well. Although Gordon’s situation is different, his abrupt decision to quit the team earlier this week conveys a similar sense of discord between Howland and his top players.

And so the meeting of Howland and Self leads me to ask the following questions.

Should this “retention ability” be a measure of coaches?

Is it reasonable ““ or even ethical ““ to expect these coaches to control the whims of teenagers?

If you are like most UCLA basketball fans I know, and you believe the only standard for success here is a national title, then the answer to those questions is likely to be yes.

I don’t think this new metric is really fair to the coaches. But it’s becoming more and more clear that the way to win national titles in this one-and-done era is to find a way to woo players back to the college game.

The last three coaches to win a national title found a way to do this. North Carolina’s Roy Williams brought back all his stars and cruised to the championship last season. I already mentioned Self in 2008. And in 2007, Florida’s Billy Donovan was coaching a team of future NBA players who had all chosen to return for an extra year.

I want to reiterate that UCLA fans are lucky to have Howland. He’s one of the best coaches in the sport. Almost all good teams have down seasons like the one his team has had so far this year.

But, when he stands next to Self Sunday night, it will be hard not to think of Howland’s Achilles’ heel, the thing that has so far prevented him from joining that most elite cadre of coaches and the thing that makes him vulnerable to downturns like this one.

He just can’t keep his players in Westwood.

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