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From the first practice, Nelson's treatment of Carlino was a divisive issue. Carlino suffered a concussion during the preseason that caused him to miss the first three games. Nelson ridiculed Carlino for letting the injury sideline him. He told Carlino he didn't belong at UCLA and wasn't any good. He would yell at Carlino to leave the locker room, calling him "concussion boy." When Carlino returned to workouts, Nelson would go out of his way to set a screen on Carlino so he could hit him. Eventually, players say, Carlino dreaded practice. It was of little surprise when he left UCLA midway through the season and transferred to BYU.
After Carlino left, there was a team meeting at which Howland said he couldn't respect a quitter. "But everyone knew why Matt left," says one player. "He didn't want to keep sitting on the bench, but most of all he didn't want to be around Reeves anymore. That wasn't quitting. That was just smart."
Carlino became eligible for BYU midway through this season and immediately became a standout. Through Sunday, he was averaging 13.0 points and 4.7 assists. He joined the list of recent players who have thrived after leaving Westwood, most for schools in the Mountain West. At week's end Moser was the leading scorer (14.2 points per game) for No. 17 UNLV, and was ranked sixth in the nation in rebounds (11.0 per game). Chace Stanback was the Runnin' Rebels' second-leading scorer (13.6 points per game). Gordon was averaging a double double (12.5 points, 10.9 rebounds) for New Mexico (22--6). Morgan has had the least impact of the former Bruins, but he did appear in all 31 of Baylor's games last year, starting 14. (He is redshirting this season.)
Early in 2011, after the conference season began, players noticed a subtle shift in how Howland handled the mercurial Nelson. "[Howland] always gave Reeves the benefit of the doubt on foul calls in practice so Reeves wouldn't lose it and be even more disruptive," says one team member. "But when Reeves started going up against the Wear twins, Coach would call it straight. That got to Reeves. He started yelling more at Coach, showing him up."
Nelson finished his sophomore season as the team's leading scorer (13.9) and rebounder (9.1) and was selected first-team All-Pac-10. He was a preseason first-team pick last fall, but he lasted only seven games.
On Nov. 14, Howland suspended Nelson for being late to a team meeting and exhibiting other behavior that was deemed insubordinate. Howland reinstated Nelson two days later, but on Nov. 19 Nelson missed a team flight to Hawaii. Howland suspended him again on Dec. 6, a move that was roundly criticized by the media for being inadequate. Three days later, Howland dismissed Nelson from the program.
Nelson's mother, Sheila, told the Los Angeles Times that she wished Howland had been stricter with her son earlier in his career. "I think what my mom was saying was that when I went to college I was just 17," Nelson, who is back in Modesto training for the NBA draft, told SI. "I'm not trying to make excuses for what I did, but I got into some weird behavior patterns, and I think my mom was saying that if instead of one big punishment at the end, what if there had been smaller punishments along the way." In a December interview with the Los Angeles Times, Howland acknowledged that he had made mistakes with Nelson.
UCLA won five in a row against soft competition following Nelson's exit, but when conference play started, the Bruins proved to be only a middle-of-the pack team. Smith, UCLA's most gifted player, was a disappointment. He has admitted to a lack of motivation, but players say that Howland also has babied him, allowing him to miss meetings and arrive late or unprepared for workouts. "Same thing as before," says a player. "Josh is a star and so [Howland] isn't holding him accountable." (Howland declined to discuss his handling of Smith.)
Whether Howland is capable of getting the program back on track is the question of the moment in Westwood. The capital he built up during the Final Four years would seem to have been spent. His winning percentage over the past three seasons (.558) is worse than that of the much-maligned Lavin during his final three years (.574).
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, who through a spokesperson declined SI's interview request, told ESPN.com in January, "I need Ben Howland. Why would I even think about looking at someone else?" He added, "By his own admission, [Howland] made some mistakes. But I'm going to work with him. I'm not going to crucify him for those mistakes. Because Ben Howland is a hell of a coach, and anyone who understands basketball, anyone that's been around him, that knows the game, has the utmost respect for what he does as a coach.... We need to turn it around, and we all get that. But we will."