Conference Questions

Is UCLA head coach Ben Howland on the hot seat?

If not for a once-in-a-generation Florida team, Ben Howland could have led the Bruins to consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007. He took squads without big-time recruits, and taught them defense. The result: two Final Fours. But UCLA’s third consecutive Final Four was somewhat of a disappointment, as the Bruins could not even reach the title game despite trotting out a starting lineup of four current NBA players, two of whom — Russell Westbrook and a not-quite-as-thin Kevin Love — are full-fledged stars.

The next year Howland had a senior-laden group and the top freshman in the country and couldn’t escape the second round. The following year, UCLA missed the NCAA tournament all together.

Yes, the Bruins are still recovering from a series of early defections to the NBA. Jrue Holiday set UCLA back a year, and the Bruins would be a top-25 team right now had Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt not jumped ship. Moreover, too many UCLA players are transferring; UNLV is in the top-15 thanks to two former Bruins.

Some say the problem is the slow-down offense, man-to-man defense style that Howland employs. I don’t think that’s it. He still gets prestigious recruiting nevertheless, though that may not be such a good thing.

Howland goes for big recruits, not his recruits. For every Kevin Love, there’s a Joshua Smith. One of the most indispensable, irreplaceable players of the Howland-era was Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a completely unknown, off-the-radar forward. But he could guard any position, and he fought for every rebound. Darren Collison was supposed to be a perennial backup; he ended up being one of the nation’s top point guards for three season and now starts for the Pacers.

Howland needs to go back to what made him successful in the first place: getting proven winners, coachable players who have the speed and mentality to hedge a screen and double the post.

— Jonathan Kuperberg

Will USC win a conference game?

This is the point where you just start feeling bad for USC.

The calamities began back in August, when senior guard Jio Fontan tore his left ACL on an exhibition tour in Brazil, effectively killing his season. Coming off an NCAA appearance, the Trojans were already returning inexperienced squad; Fontan’s injury meant that only one starter would return.

With last week’s season-ending knee injury to Aaron Fuller, USC fans can only pray that the worst is over. The Trojans’ starting forward — an Iowa transfer who was a former All-Big 10 honorable mention — was the team’s leading rebounder (5.9) and main inside scoring threat (10.6). His numbers may not have been remarkable, but his departure leaves only seven scholarship players on the roster.

So coach Kevin O’Neill must push forward with a patch-worked group of non-stars. Daniel Munoz played his first game on Thursday at Oregon, manning the point guard spot in order to move leading scorer Maurice Jones to shooting guard. Munoz only scored two points, but Jones scored 22. USC’s conference-worst offense cracked 60, and O’Neill said the 65-62 loss was the best his team had played in six weeks.

The Trojans followed up with a 19-point loss to Oregon State.

If USC wants to avoid an egg in the conference win column, it might need to take advantage of its upcoming homestand. Galen Center will host Colorado, a shaky team on the road, and Utah, a team that ends nearly every game in full collapse. It will be the Trojans’ only shot at both teams.

Their chances still aren’t dashed if they hit 0-9 — the Pac-12 is bad enough that it seems probable that at least one team will sleepwalk into a loss against USC. The Trojans just need to make sure they’re not dozing off either.

— Jack Wang