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Howland Deal Near

Guerrero Takes the Easiest Shot

April 02, 2003|J.A. Adande

What will be different about life at UCLA with Ben Howland as the basketball coach? For starters, news of his probable hiring brought out the only emotion that hasn't been experienced in Westwood over the last seven years: none.

A Howland hiring lacks the anguish of a blowout loss in January or the elation of a tournament run in March.

It's not a dumb move by Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, but it's not an inspired one either. He's stepping to the line for a pair of free throws, not taking off from the free-throw line for a dunk.

After Howland's meeting with UCLA representatives last weekend, the only passion it inspired was from Howland's athletic director at Pittsburgh, who sent out a snippy press release that said UCLA didn't ask for permission first.

I get the sense Howland will be greeted at UCLA with a welcome mat, not a red carpet. I also get the sense that Guerrero chose to travel the path of least resistance and no rejection. It's the get he knew he could get.

Howland is from California and has made no secret that he would like the job. Guerrero probably had him at "U-C." Guerrero couldn't get blasted for hiring the 2002 college coach of the year, a guy who turned the afterthought Pittsburgh Panthers into the cream of the Big East. And he didn't even have to worry about shoe politics; Howland is an Adidas guy, which fits perfectly with UCLA's Adidas contract.

It's not the most established name or the hottest star, but Guerrero didn't have to risk rejection from one of the higher-profile guys. And now he won't have to compete with that other major opening at North Carolina -- one of the only jobs that can be mentioned in the same sentence with UCLA.

Does no risk mean no reward? How will Howland be accepted by the alumni? Or in recruits' homes? Or, in the case of the Wilkes household, both?

Jamaal Wilkes was an All-American at UCLA under John Wooden. His son signed a letter of intent with Kansas while Steve Lavin was on the UCLA sideline. Omar Wilkes, a guard at Loyola High, chose Kansas primarily because of Coach Roy Williams. But Wilkes has another son, a 6-foot-10 sophomore at Loyola named Jordan.

Jamaal Wilkes declined to share his thoughts on Lavin, but Omar's choice speaks for itself. The pertinent, rather symbolic, question, is how good a chance Howland would stand with Jordan Wilkes should he be named UCLA's next coach.

When it comes to recruiting Jordan, Jamaal Wilkes said, "Any coach from UCLA is more than welcome here. We're open-minded."

UCLA might not prove to be the best situation for Jordan. What does Jamaal want for his old school?

"As an alum, speaking from the heart, what I'd like to see is a consistency in effort and a consistency in organization out there on the floor," Wilkes said. "Whoever they bring in, if they demonstrate that at the beginning of the season, I think people will become more open-minded."

First of all, folks at UCLA will have to get over the fact that Howland never has coached a team beyond the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 -- where the Panthers' season ended the past two years.

"I agree with you, the experience would be great," Wilkes said. "On the other hand, I don't think it would be my No. 1 criteria. Personally, it would be No. 3 or 4. To win at a major program, especially somewhere you can turn it around. That's encouraging."

The most high-profile sons of former UCLA players to bypass UCLA were Henry Bibby's son, Mike, and Bill Walton's son, Luke, both of whom went to Arizona.

The most notable basketball alum whose sons did attend UCLA was Marques Johnson. Kris Johnson played for the Bruins from the 1995 season through 1998 and Josiah Johnson was a member of this season's team.

Marques Johnson also believes Howland would be a solid choice. It just wouldn't be his first.

"Looking at his team at Pittsburgh, the first thing that's impressive about his squad is he's got six guys averaging double figures," said Johnson, now a basketball analyst for Fox Sports Net. "There was such great balance and guys were unselfish.

"There didn't appear to be -- even with Brandin Knight -- anybody that was concerned about stats and building up stats. That would be a welcome change, because that's been a big problem at UCLA. That's been something on the minds of the players: 'I've got to score my points in order to get into the league.' "

But Johnson -- like other people in the college basketball world I talked to -- grew more animated at the mention of Marquette Coach Tom Crean's name. Crean's Golden Eagles unexpectedly soared to the Final Four, knocking off Pittsburgh and Kentucky along the way.

"As an alum ... I love Tom Crean to tell you the truth," Johnson said. "That's not much to do with the fact that he beat Pittsburgh, but the way his teams play ... Crean has a great eye for role players, when to plug his guys in off the bench."

A mid-major coach called Crean "a recruitin' fool" who would flourish at UCLA.

College basketball still begins in high school players' living rooms, and the impressions coaches make there. The first task facing UCLA's next coach is to play border patrol and stop elite local players from going to places such as Kansas and Arizona.

Some people believe UCLA recruits for itself, that the weather, the campus, the city and the Pauley Pavilion championship banners will always ensure a steady flow of talent. One coach called a recruiting trip to UCLA "the best official visit in America."

"You're going to get players," said Wilkes, who runs a financial planning service. "It's if you can organize them and have some consistency in what they're doing."

No coach would get a free pass at UCLA, Wilkes said, "unless it's Coach Wooden himself. And even then you would have critics. That's kind of the nature of the beast."

In other words, there's a big difference between a Panther and a Bruin.

J.A. Adande can be reached at

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