Howland's simple recruiting touch

Director of Scouting
Posted Apr 4, 2008

For a program knee-deep in rich tradition, UCLA coach Ben Howland succeeds the old-fashioned way: Evaluating talent and developing players.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams can swoop in and get nearly whoever he wants — whenever he wants. Kansas coach Bill Self is one of the nation's elite recruiters and has stockpiled McDonald's All-Americans.

For a program knee-deep in rich tradition, UCLA coach Ben Howland has done it primarily the old-fashioned way: Evaluating talent and developing players.

Howland's only big-time recruit on his entire roster is Kevin Love, who was the consensus national player of the year coming out of high school and wound up choosing the Bruins over Duke and North Carolina.

OK, James Keefe was at the McDonald's Game, but no disrespect to the UCLA forward ... he wasn't really a "true" McDonald's All-American. He was that guy that everyone shook their head at when he was announced on the roster.

Howland has brought his approach from Pittsburgh and taken it to Los Angeles — and somehow it's worked.

He has become just the 10th coach in NCAA history to lead his team to three consecutive Final Four appearances.

"He's done a fantastic job getting them to buy into his system," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "Stressing the defensive side of the ball, passing the ball and playing team basketball — and what has happened is that the cream has risen to the top."

But these weren't exactly players that the Pac-10 coaches were banging down the doors in an attempt to bring to their campus.

Darren Collison was a mid-major recruit. Same goes for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alfred Aboya, Russell Westbrook, Lorenzo Mata-Real, Michael Roll and even Josh Shipp to some extent.

Collison chose between UCLA and San Diego State. Westbrook was a late-bloomer and picked the Bruins over San Diego and Creighton. Mbah a Moute looked at South Carolina and Virginia Tech while Aboya was hardly a big-time recruit after de-committing from Georgetown following a coaching change. Mata-Real looked at New Mexico and Roll, who has been injured this entire season, was pursued by UC Santa Barbara.

Hardly a group that would be pegged to represent the Pac-10's finest.

Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating, who spent four years on Howland's staff, said it took a while to understand Howland's recruiting philosophy. It was more than just players who can make open shots, pass the ball and bring intangibles to the table — although those are all important characteristics that Howland cherishes.

"I had to figure it out," Keating said. "He wants hard-working, dedicated guys who compete."

He prioritized players that came from winning programs. Players that performed well in playoff games.

"He wants players that never got accustomed to losing," Keating said. "They expect to win."

Howland's teams are a stark contrast to the previous regimes. Former coach Steve Lavin was all about luring the high-profile players to Westwood. He brought McDonald's All-Americans JaRon Rush, Dan Gadzuric and Ray Young to Westwood in 1998 and had Baron Davis (recruited by Jim Harrick) in 1997.

However, there were no Final Four berths in the Lavin Era. Howland has gone to three straight.

Howland took a similar approach in turning around a Pittsburgh program that was in shambles when he took the reins. However, UCLA is different. It basically recruits itself because of the tradition and campus.

But Howland is still selective and makes certain to stick with what made him successful. Players who will buy into the team concept and tough kids who will also work on the defensive end of the floor.

"Ben Howland is so comfortable in his own skin and what he likes," national recruiting director Dave Telep said. "He doesn't have to go out and get a list of the top 100 kids and start at No. 1. He's a feel guy. If it feels right, he goes for it."

Howland's approach hasn't changed, although he will bring in a pair of McDonald's All-Americans next season: guards Jrue Holiday and Malcolm Lee.

However, while the talent level may increase, Howland's approach remains the same.

Jeff Goodman is a senior college basketball writer for He can be reached at or check out his blog, Good 'N Plenty.

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