UCLA’s biggest problem is on the recruiting front

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A great coach can win a game on any given night.

Maybe he exploits a favorable matchup. Maybe he notices a weakness in their defense. Maybe he is the ultimate motivator, capable of getting his players’ best effort to buy into his game plan.

But in the long run, talent wins out over coaching.

You ever heard the saying “coaches win games, talent wins titles”?

It’s why recruiting in the college basketball world is such a cesspool. Coaches know that in order for them to get that promotion or that next big contract, they need to win games. The best way for them to win games is to put the best players on the floor wearing their team’s uniform. It’s gotten to the point that the recruiting acumen and the ability to identify talent is likely more important than an understanding of the game of basketball.

That inability to recruit southern California and accurately identify talent is what has Ben Howland on the hot seat at UCLA.

Because it’s certainly not his coaching ability. The Bruins went to three straight Final Fours (’06-’08). That isn’t an easy thing to do.

But he also did it with a roster full of future pros.

The same cannot be said about the Bruins right now. Take a look at Howland’s 2008 recruiting class, which was rated No. 1 overall by Rivals. Jrue Holiday was a success. He’s now in the NBA. But Drew Gordon and J’Mison Morgan both transferred out of the program. Jerime Anderson underperformed so much that Howland was forced to bring in Lazeric Jones this past season. Malcolm Lee is finally starting to develop into the player that was considered a top five shooting guard in the class.

His 2009 recruiting class, ranked in the top 20 by Rivals, was solid — Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt are both having good seasons as sophomores, while Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane have worked their way into the rotation. But is there even an argument that UCLA wouldn’t be better right now if Kawhi Leonard and Derrick Williams — both southern California kids that UCLA passed on — were playing for Howland?

“We did a poor job not evaluating them as well as we should have,” Howland said recently.

Yeah, you did.

And therein lies the problem for the Bruins. They aren’t landing the top recruits anymore, they aren’t keeping local kids local (Jordan Hamilton, Michael Snaer, Allen Crabbe, and Kaela King are all SoCal kids that went elsewhere), and they aren’t accurately assessing the talent level and potential of the players they do bring in.

It may be more than that, as well.

Howland is known for a grind-it-out style that focuses on the defensive side of the ball. The best players in the country don’t necessarily want to play that way. Its no secret that a lack of offensive freedom was a major factor in Gordon’s departure. Even Kevin Love’s dad took a shot at Howland’s system:

I like Ben. It’s UCLA. But you do have to play modern basketball. We could have won the championship if he would have taken the reins off a little bit. Sometimes, you have to outscore the other team; you can’t just ‘D up’ all the time.

Howland is a terrific coach, but if he is going to turn this program back around, it needs to start on the recruiting front.

He needs to not only identify the talented players he has a shot at getting to come to UCLA, but the players that are willing to buy into his system.

And as Bruins fans have learned the past two years, that is much easier said than done.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.