After Minnesota bounced UCLA out of the NCAA tournament last Friday, UCLA fired head coach Ben Howland and reports indicate VCU head coach Shaka Smart is at the very top of UCLA’s wish list.
The Bruins need to go all-in on Smart, take a page out of his “HAVOC” playbook and pursue him relentlessly, and convince him he needs UCLA as much as UCLA needs him.
UCLA is to college basketball what Alabama is to college football in the sense that the Bruins have only won one title since the Wizard of Westwood John Wooden won ten, much like Alabama had won only one title after the legendary Bear Bryant had retired. Then Alabama hired Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide have won three titles in the last four years. Just like how every coach after The Bear at Alabama was compared to Bryant, every coach at UCLA is compared to Wooden. Perhaps this is unfair, but that is reality.
Smart may be one of the few coaches who can bring UCLA basketball back to glory. He could be to to UCLA basketball what Saban has been to Alabama football.
For Smart, jobs like UCLA’s coaching gig come around once in a generation. When UCLA hired Howland a decade ago from Pittsburgh, Howland said UCLA was the only place that would compel him to leave Pittsburgh.
If the UCLA job is offered to Smart, he will have to decide if he is content being known as one of the best mid-major coaches or is willing to test his coaching skills on one of college basketball’s biggest stages that will offer him the opportunity to become a legend.
While Howland has often coached NBA talents like Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, and Jrue Holiday as if they were mid-major players, Smart coaches his mid-major talent as if they are blue chip recruits. Howland’s self-asphyxiating, slow-it-down offense does not reward UCLA players for playing the tough-as-nails defense that is required by him.
Last month, during an ESPN telecast of Washington at UCLA in a Pac-12 regular season game, ESPN analyst Bill Walton, who was calling the game, ripped Howland and said “things would be different” at UCLA if Walton were in charge.
Walton said Howland’s UCLA’s teams did not play with style and the players did not seem to enjoy playing basketball. There was no joy in Westwood, he implied.
Walton was right. The Bruins have not played like the high-flying and effervescent Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, a team that has swaggered, done the Eagle dance, and smiled almost as often as they have throw down “anvil” and “hammer” dunks en route to becoming the first No. 15 seed ever to make the Sweet 16.
Howland’s tactics have been lauded, but the bottom line is they have led to crushing defeats when UCLA has been matched up, coincidentally, with teams that had similar athletes that they had. In the 2005-06 season, UCLA made their first Final Four under Howland and Florida, with Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer, demolished them. The next season, UCLA made the Final Four again. And Florida again decimated UCLA. UCLA made its third consecutive Final Four the next season, and Memphis, a team whose athletes were free to be playmakers, defeated UCLA.
After those losses, Howland could have tweaked his system. But he did not, and once UCLA’s talents like Westbrook and Kevin Love left his restrictive system to flourish in the NBA, UCLA’s program sharply declined.
Players have transferred in frustration. Other players–like the disgraced Reeves Nelson–may have made life miserable for fellow players, primarily because Howland also failed to understand how important chemistry is in this day in age, when players do not stick around for four years and do not have the time to develop chemistry on their own.
Contrast that with Shaka Smart, who participated in the drills with the Navy SEALs along with the VCU team to build a sense of camaraderie.
Smart’s “HAVOC” defense, which requires his defenders to relentlessly put pressure on the ball handler, rewards VCU’s defenders for their stout defense by giving them the freedom to turn those defensive stops into transition buckets that showcase their individual talents and playmaking abilities within a system.
There is a method to Smart’s madness. There is structure to his system. “HAVOC” is not like Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” full-court press that often lacked rhyme or reason because it also is employed in half-court sets as well. Smart is a player-friendly coach who combines grit and style, which makes him tailor-made for Westwood, a town that has plenty of flash but often lacks toughness. And he has had VCU rocking unlike anything seen in Westwood in recent years.
Two types of people succeed in Los Angeles. Those like Magic Johnson, Tommy Lasorda, Pat Riley, and Shaquille O’Neal, who soak up all of Hollywood and feed off its excesses, and those like John Wooden, Vin Scully, and Chick Hearn, who are so grounded that they become larger-than-life figures because they could care less about the glitz and glamor of Hollywood.
Smart, though he is plenty media-savvy, seems to have the mindset of the latter. He is from the Midwest–and may have his heart in there–but he has shown he is not solely about the money. In 2012, Smart reportedly turned down an offer to go to Illinois even though the deal would have paid him at least $2.5 million a year, which was more than double what he was making at VCU annually.
But after the new Big East, composed of the so-called “Catholic 7,” did not take VCU, instead taking Butler, Xavier and Creighton, Smart lost an opportunity to coach on some of college basketball’s biggest stages.
And initial reports indicate the Big East does not plan to take VCU when the league expands to 12 teams in 2015, which leaves him stuck in Richmond and the A-10.
There was once a coach who also also had his heart in the Midwest but ended up coming to Los Angeles.
His name was John Wooden.
After having success at “mid-major” Indiana State, Wooden wanted to coach at Minnesota. But Wooden and Minnesota could not come to terms on a deal, so he ended up leaving for Westwood.
Howland was like the prototypical Washington political hack who is conventionally talented but lacks the creativity, ability to adjust tactics on the fly, and the the so-called “juice” and intangibles to be “box office” or win “the big one” because he is shackled to convention. He is like a bureaucratic manager who excels at managing mid-level plodders but is incapable of getting the most out of gifted superstars.
Wooden allowed his individual talents–like Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton–to thrive and flourish within his system en route to eleven national titles.
Smart can as well.
IN 2011, VCU made the Final Four as a play-in team that had been mocked by nearly every basketball pundit for not even deserving to be one of the “First Four” teams.
As a No. 12 seed in 2012, VCU upset No. 5 Wichita State before barely losing to No. 4 Indiana 63-61.
This year, VCU ran Akron out of the building before Michigan pummeled them on Saturday.
Imagine what Smart could do at UCLA.
UCLA has the weather, the academic reputation, Hollywood, basketball history, and the women to attract essentially any basketball player they want–if the team has the right coach and system that will allow those players to flourish instead of being restrained.
Jim Larranaga, who led George Mason to a Final Four in 2006, has turned Miami into a basketball powerhouse. Strutting and dancing–literally–like Muhammad Ali, Larranaga has his Hurricanes playing with joy in the Sweet 16.
Smart can do better at UCLA.
The VCU coach seems secure and confident and does not seem to have a desperate need for affirmation like most plodders–and flameouts–in Los Angeles and, for that matter, Washington, D.C. Of course, potentially making the cross country move will be up to his family. Smart’s wife–a Harvard alum–may like the educational opportunities UCLA offers. Their family may like a city where snow does not fall in mid-March.
VCU reveres Smart. But if Smart wants to take the challenge of coaching UCLA, they should let him try, for Smart deserves to coach on one of college basketball’s grandest stages. He is destined to coach under the white-hot Klieg lights and test his coaching skills against other coaching giants. They should not hold him back.
If VCU loves Smart, they’ll let him go West.