Howland's success at UCLA shows blueprint for Kentucky

Other Voices

Commentary

March 27, 2007|By Ann Killion | Ann Killion,San Jose Mercury News

The matchups are set. The Final Four includes the defending champion, the most talked about player of the season, college basketball's most storied program and a team of second-generation stars.

Yep, there will be plenty to talk about in Atlanta.

And that is why everyone will be talking about ... Kentucky.

The Kentucky program made almost as much news last week as the teams that were left in the NCAA tournament. Tubby Smith fled Lexington for - of all places - Minneapolis. And the Final Four festivities will be filled with an undercurrent of speculation about who will take the Wildcats' job.

Florida's Billy Donovan might listen, and use it as leverage. John Calipari, whose Memphis team was ousted by Ohio State on Saturday, already is in the mix and says he has no interest. Billy Gillespie's name is in the hopper.

When a program like Kentucky is looking for a coach, it creates a lot of talk. And much of the chatter will be, "What kind of massive ego would take that job? Who would want it?"

Kentucky is a place loaded with pressure, where history hangs from the rafters, pushing down on the present. It is a place where the fans demand national championships. Where the Final Four is considered a birthright. It is one of the toughest jobs in the country.

But it is not the only program like that. There will be a team in Atlanta that once fit that designation as "lousiest high-profile job in America."

Ben Howland has walked on the scalding coals of basketball tradition and survived. Thrived, even.

Just as whoever takes the Kentucky job will always have the shadow of Adolph Rupp's accomplishments, Howland is in the shadow of John Wooden every day at UCLA.

He seems to embrace it. He called Wooden, who was in Southern California with his family watching the UCLA-Kansas game Saturday at a restaurant, after becoming the second coach in UCLA history to earn back-to-back Final Four appearances.

"He's doing a good job of coaching," Wooden told the Los Angeles Times, the game's largest living legend offering high praise.

Howland talks fondly of UCLA's tradition.

Of hosting barbecues at his house with current players and former players to give his team a sense of the "special, special fraternity that is unique in all of college basketball."

Yes, it's a special fraternity, full of grand tradition. But tradition can crush men. Just ask Tubby Smith, who jumped to a land where basketball tradition amounts to one Final Four year in 1997 and a grading scandal.

Just ask Gary Cunningham or Larry Farmer or Walt Hazzard or Steve Lavin, who failed to meet expectations in Westwood. Or Matt Doherty, who was dumped at North Carolina to make room for Roy Williams' homecoming.

What Howland has done in Westwood is nothing short of remarkable. Though UCLA added one championship in recent years, under Jim Harrick, there has been an assumption that the program could never return to sustained greatness. That the athletes who arrived at Pauley Pavilion just wanted to be Lakers-in-training, with flashy suits and expensive cars. That UCLA was just a revolving door to the NBA.

That discipline and hard work weren't the kind of things you could sell L.A. kids on.

And winning with defense? Without dazzling offense? Well forget it. That might fly in the Big East or the Big Ten, but not in the Pacific-10 and never at Pauley Pavilion, where Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton set the talent bar incredibly high. Yet that's what Howland has done.

"At the end of the day it's about defense," Howland said. "To be a complete player, you have to play both ends of the floor."

The Bruins are in their 17th Final Four - one better than North Carolina, which was ousted Sunday by Georgetown. They are making their first back-to-back appearances since Gene Bartow's 1976 team followed Wooden's 1975 team there (Bartow lasted two seasons before fleeing for the Alabama-Birmingham).

UCLA will play a rematch of last year's title game with Florida. Four of the five current starters had subpar performances in that game; a fifth, Josh Shipp, was sidelined by an injury. Unlike some Bruins teams, winning an NCAA championship is a priority for this group.

"I definitely came back to try for one more shot at a championship," Arron Afflalo said.

Take heart, Wildcats fans. If it can happen in Westwood, it can definitely happen in Lexington.

Ann Killion writes for the San Jose Mercury News.

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