UCLA: Norman Powell
The Bruins have been in scramble mode almost since the day athletic director Dan Guerrero announced Steve Alford as the coach to replace Ben Howland, and the latest incident came over the weekend, when Guerrero issued a puzzling statementin response to an L.A. Times article about Alford.
That statement is just the latest incident during hectic two-month stretch in which question after question about Alford, his past and how and why he was hired have dominated discussions about UCLA basketball. About the only way to silence all of this, of course, would be to redirect attention to the team and its potential.
Unfortunately for Alford and UCLA, there are plenty of questions and issues surrounding those aspects of the program, too. Here, we look at five of the biggest questions surrounding the UCLA program as it transitions into the Steve Alford era:
1. Can Alford win over the UCLA fan base?
While this certainly is the biggest issue du jour, it’s also the most easily addressed. All Alford needs to do is land a couple of top-notch recruits and then get the team winning.
Sounds simple enough, but Alford started out behind in the recruiting race and would now need to pull off some magic in order to land a player who can impact next season’s team.
Let’s face it: Alford was not the top choice for UCLA fans. UCLA showed interest in Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth and Brad Stevens of Butler before turning to Alford and his hire came as a surprise to the Bruins faithful.
His name had not previously come up in lists of potential candidates for the job, and some have been slow to fully accept him as a worthy leader for this proud program.
Alford still has a shot, but the real answer to this question won’t come until next March. The only way to truly impress UCLA fans is to win in the NCAA Tournament. Conference titles and tournaments mean little. Sweet 16s, Elite Eights and Final Fours speak volumes.
2. Does UCLA have enough depth?
Alford inherits a team with only six scholarship players returning and only one of them -- Jordan Adams -- averaged more than 11 points per game last season.
Three freshmen are slated to arrive in late June, so the Bruins will have nine scholarship players to start next season and the good news is that is one more than they played with for much of last season.
Or, perhaps more accurately, firing Ben Howland did.
UCLA guard Norman Powell said Tuesday he was staying at UCLA after considering transferring, and the main reason for his decision was because coach Howland was fired. Powell, a sophomore from San Diego, said he would have looked into playing at San Diego State next season had Howland returned, but reconsidered after UCLA fired Howland last week and hired Steve Alford away from New Mexico on Saturday.
The 6-foot-4 athletic wing player began this season as a starter, but soon found himself coming off the bench, and his minutes dropped from 28.4 the first seven games to 19 for the next 26 games. He played 37 minutes per game when recalled to the starting lineup to replace an injured Jordan Adams.
"Hiring a new coach leaves open a chance, an opportunity for me to come in with a fresh start basically because we're under a new coach and see what he has to offer and see what he wants me to do," Powell said. "Now I'm just really excited to see where this program is headed. ... I was just optimistic about being able to play under a new coach."
It also helped that Powell is familiar with Alford, who tried to recruit Powell to New Mexico. Also, an assistant coach from Powell's high school team once played under Alford at Iowa.
"He's a good coach," Powell said. "He knows what he's doing and he expects a lot out of his players and that's what it's going to be. I expect for practice to be intense and for it to be up tempo and see how strict he is. I'm excited to see what he wants to do with this program."
While Powell is back on the team, there are still questions remaining about some other returning players. Shabazz Muhmmad is expected to leave for the NBA but hasn't officially announced his decision. Tony Parker is also thought to be a transfer candidate and Kyle Anderson is also a candidate to leave for the NBA.
Anderson was at Tuesday's news conference but did not speak with reporters. Muhammad and Parker did not attend. Parker has enrolled in classes and is expected to finish the school year, a school spokesperson said.
"I'm sure everybody is coming back," Powell said. "I haven't heard any news or rumors going around about everybody transferring."
Coaches across the country are scouring sources to get video on second-round opponents so that they can cobble together a game plan for a team that they know very little about.
Ben Howland is no stranger to the ritual, having taken nine previous teams to the Big Dance, but UCLA’s coach is pulling double duty this week. Not only is he trying to come up with a scouting report on the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who UCLA will face Friday in Austin, Tex., but the loss of freshman guard Jordan Adams to a broken foot means Howland is also trying to come up with new ways for his own team to play.
Adams, the team’s second leading scorer, is out for the remainder of the season after landing awkwardly on his foot during the final play of UCLA’s Pac-12 Conference tournament semifinal victory over the Arizona Wildcats last Friday in Las Vegas. It’s a devastating blow to the Bruins’ chances of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament, as the injury further depletes a thin roster, but the Bruins have no choice but to adjust and adapt on the fly.
Norman Powell is now starting in place of Adams. Kyle Anderson will be asked to play some small forward after playing mostly power forward this season. Larry Drew II will have to become a shooting guard at times after spending the season as one of the nation’s premier point guards. Everyone, including little-used center Tony Parker, will get an increase in minutes.
“It’s all adjustments,” Howland said. “We’re going to figure out how we’re going to do some things offensively with Norman and Larry in the backcourt together both being smalls. We’ve got some things that I’m excited about that we need to work on that I think will help us.”
The loss of Adams leaves a lot of holes on the floor for UCLA. He was averaging 15.3 points and 3.8 rebounds and had a conference-leading 73 steals. He was capable of carrying the team offensively for stretches -- as he did with 24 points in his final game of the season -- and was always assigned to defend the opposing team’s top wing player.
He was a key cog in a Bruins offense that led the Pac-12 in scoring this season, and his injury is largely considered the reason why UCLA dropped to a No. 6 seed and was shipped to Austin -- the greatest distance any Pac-12 team has to travel -- despite winning the regular-season conference title.
LAS VEGAS -- Tears trickled down Larry Drew II's cheeks as he walked through the long corridor leading to UCLA’s locker room Friday. Eventually the Bruins point guard pulled his jersey over his face, shouted a profanity and began to sob.
Trailing a few steps behind, guard Kyle Anderson clasped his hands on top of his head and dropped his jaw. “Oh my god!” he said. “Oh my god!”
Less than a half hour earlier, UCLA had advanced to the title game of the Pac-12 tournament with a 66-64 semifinal victory over rival Arizona. But shortly after leaving MGM Grand Garden Arena court pumping their fists in celebration and waving to the crowd, the Bruins were hit with some sobering news.
UCLA coach Ben Howland received the news from Bruins trainer Laef Morris as he exited a postgame news conference that was also attended by Drew II and Anderson. The players overheard the conversation and immediately became emotional.
Drew swore loudly before reaching the locker room, where Howland informed the rest of the team about Adams’ injury.
Adams, who scored a game-high 24 points, was among the players trying to defend a potential game-tying shot by Wildcats forward Solomon Hill as time expired.
A 6-foot-5 freshman guard, Adams didn’t seem seriously injured as the final buzzer sounded. He hobbled through the handshake line and then retreated to the locker room for X-rays. Soon after, it was revealed that Adams had broken the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. Adams, who left the arena on crutches, suffered a similar injury in high school.
“It doesn’t get worse than this,” forward Travis Wear said.
Adams, who averages 15.3 points, proved how much he means to the Bruins on Friday. In what was arguably his finest performance as a collegian, Adams helped his team rally from an 11-point second-half deficit. The victory marked UCLA’s third triumph this season over the Wildcats.
“We didn’t even celebrate the win,” freshman Shabazz Muhammad said. “It’s just doesn’t seem right for someone to get hurt like that this late in the year.”
The main storyline surrounding UCLA this season has been its resiliency. Bruins fans were calling for Howland’s firing after an early loss to Cal Poly and narrow victories over Cal-Irvine and struggling Texas. Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb transferred from the program before the end of the first semester.
But the Bruins just got tougher.
Despite counting three freshmen (Adams, Anderson and Muhammad) among its top players, UCLA improved at a rapid pace and won the Pac-12 regular-season title.
“It’s been hard for us all year, with the transfers and the little nagging injuries and now this,” Drew II said. “It’s tough. But there’s something about this team. We find ways to make things happen when it seems like all is lost.”
UCLA, however, has not suffered a setback as significant as the loss of Adams this season. The freshman has at times this season played better than Anderson and Muhammad, his more highly touted classmates.
Adams scored 13 straight points during UCLA’s second-half rally Friday. The Bruins trailed 49-38 before staging their comeback. Adams was 6-of-13 from the field and 11-of-13 from the foul stripe.
This injury likely means that backup Norman Powell will slide into a starting role. Powell is already a significant part of the rotation, contributing 21.2 minutes and 5.9 points off the bench.
UCLA’s players said they’re confident Powell will step up to the challenge in Saturday’s Pac-12 tournament title game against Oregon -- and again during the NCAA tournament, which begins next week. The Bruins, 25-8, have won eight of their past 10 games.
“I just know we’ve got tough guys out there -- physically and mentally and psychologically,” Anderson said. “Norman Powell is a really tough player. It’s a terrible loss, but it’s not as bad knowing that we’ve got him coming in to fill that spot.
“It’s going to be tough to go without him, but it’s all part of handling adversity, and that’s something we’ve shown we’re pretty good at.”
UCLA's vaunted freshmen will get their first taste of meaningful March basketball when the Bruins (21-7, 11-4 Pac-12) face No. 11 Arizona (23-5, 11-5) on Saturday at 6 p.m. PT at Pauley Pavilion in a game with Pac-12 title and NCAA tournament seeding implications.
UCLA is half a game behind Oregon (23-6, 12-4) for first place in the conference and can claim at least a share of the regular-season title by winning its last three games. Arizona sits a game behind the Ducks, and will need to win out and hope Oregon stumbles during a road trip next week to Colorado and Utah.
UCLA is projected as a No. 7 seed in Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology and Arizona is a No. 4 seed, so both teams have room to go up or down. This nationally televised game between traditional powerhouses will go a long way in determining which way they go, so there is no doubt March is coming in like a lion.
"Every game is do or die for us from here on out," UCLA guard Larry Drew II said. "We're approaching every game like it is a must-win, and that starts with this game against Arizona."
Drew is one of the few UCLA players with experience in important games in March. The senior North Carolina transfer was a freshman on the Tar Heels' 2009 national championship team. Travis Wear and David Wear were freshmen at North Carolina when the Tar Heels played in the NIT. Sophomore Norman Powell did not play in the postseason last year, and freshmen Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Tony Parker are about to embark on the first March of their college careers.
"It's special, there's no question," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "This is why kids come to UCLA, to have 'College GameDay' on campus against Arizona. It doesn't get any better than that."
Especially if the Bruins can repeat the performance they put on in an 84-73 victory over the Wildcats on Jan. 24 in Tucson. In that game, Muhammad had 23 points, Adams had 15 points and five rebounds, Anderson had 12 rebounds, and Parker had six points and three rebounds in 10 minutes.
UCLA and USC were each assessed technical fouls after a mild second-half dust up during the Bruins’ 75-59 victory over the Trojans, and referees called an intentional foul after a hard foul on UCLA leading scorer Shabazz Muhammad, but Larry Drew II wouldn't let his team get out of control.
“We were up 20 or 17 or whatever and I’m like we don’t need to fight back or talk back or argue back,” Drew said. “Just go out there and play the game and win. Talk after.”
Going into the game, Bruins fans might have worried that Drew would be the first one to get out of control. After UCLA’s last meeting with USC, one that ended in a 75-71 Trojans’ victory, Drew did plenty of talking after.
Asked how he would approach the game the next time UCLA faced its crosstown rival, he said he would “go out there and kill them, for real.” It was a surprisingly candid response, and, though a poor choice of words, showed exactly how Drew felt about losing to USC.
He said he thought about those comments as he took the floor Sunday, but remembered that keeping everyone level-headed would be the best path to success. When the game threatened to get out of control, Drew took charge.
“When I said it, I didn’t think too much about it, but it’s true," Drew said Sunday. “I wanted to come out here and beat these guys as bad as ever. But this year, this game, I had to be the fifth-year senior that the team can rely on.”
Drew took charge right away. He made a 3-pointer for the first points of the game, made a nice pass to David Wear for a dunk and a 9-2 UCLA lead, then drained another 3-pointer to put the Bruins up 12-4 less than four minutes into the game.
He had eight points and five assists in the first half as the Bruins blew open a 47-26 lead and set the tone, making it clear they would not fall to the Trojans on this day. But even though his statistics weren’t as productive in the second half -- he finished with 11 points and six assists -- his contributions were no less important.
The No. 24 Bruins lost to the No. 21 Oregon Ducks 76-67 on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, ending UCLA’s win streak at 10 games and exposing the Bruins as a work in progress.
Only minutes after the 10-game win streak ended it became clear that the run had been mostly a mirage padded with victories over teams that would need a boost to enter the world of mediocrity. Even UCLA victim Missouri, an 83-52 loser to Florida on Saturday, seems like a marginal team after losing two of its past three.
The convincing victory by Oregon (16-2, 5-0 Pac-12), a team that has established itself as a legitimate top-25 team with victories over the Arizona Wildcats and UNLV Rebels, shows that the Bruins (15-4, 5-1) still have room to grow if they are to re-join the national elite as they so desperately desire.
“After a loss like this it really takes us back to the drawing board,” said guard Norman Powell. “Come back to practice and work on the things that we need to work on.”
Losing to Oregon in itself isn’t the end of the world. But when you remember that this is the same UCLA team that was capable of losing to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo back in November -- and factor in this was a statement game on its home court -- it becomes clear why this loss is so damaging.
There seems to have been a wait-and-see approach with the Bruins since that Cal Poly loss. And even after defeating Missouri and winning back-to-back games to open conference play to extend their win streak to seven, the Bruins couldn’t crack the national rankings.
Only after sweeping a road trip at Utah and Colorado last week did the Bruins re-enter the national polls. They needed to validate their ranking with a win over Oregon. The failure to do so means voters were right to be skeptical.
“It really hurts,” center Travis Wear said. “This one, after having that win streak going and playing so well, to come out and lose a tough conference game to a ranked team we really wanted this one.”
If the Bruins are going to stay in the Pac-12 title race and get back on the road to national elite status, they will have to figure out a way to overcome their rebounding deficiencies. Oregon outrebounded UCLA 40-31, marking the sixth time in the past seven games UCLA has been outdone on the boards. The Ducks had 13 offensive rebounds -- 10 in the first half -- and scored 12 second-chance points.
“You talk about what our Achilles’ heel has been for us and what concerns me most: No. 1 is rebounding,” coach Ben Howland said. “Today we got outboarded by nine. They’re physical, they’re strong. It’s my fault. We obviously haven’t done a good enough job of teaching block outs.”
UCLA’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t have a true center. Kyle Anderson, a 6-foot-9 swingman who considers himself a point guard, is far and away the team's leading rebounder at 9.1 per game. Travis Wear, who starts at center, is generously listed at 6-foot-10, but is more of a finesse jump shooter than a physical center who can mix it up in the paint. He’s second on the team with 5.9 rebounds per game.
“I think that we have to box out and seek the ball rather than just boxing out and hope someone else is going to get it,” Wear said. “Actively seek the ball off the rim. Go get it; don’t let it come to you. We’ll work on it this week in practice. Rebounding is just an effort thing.”
It’s not going to get any easier. UCLA’s next game is at No. 7 Arizona, which leads the conference in rebounding margin. Not only that, it marks gut-check time for the Bruins.
A bounce back win in a difficult environment will show that the Bruins still have the chops to make some noise in the conference and perhaps in the NCAA tournament come March. A loss, and the Bruins will be dismissed as also-rans in a conference that isn’t all that great to begin with.
“It’s how you bounce back,” Howland said. “We’re going into what is arguably the toughest road trip of the league based on the records of our next two opponents. This will be a real good test for us, and we’re going to work real hard to prepare.”
Powell hinted that this next trip would be a crossroads trip for the Bruins. He said the Bruins may have become a little too enamored of their 10-game win streak and forgotten how difficult a test Oregon would be.
“We all knew it was going to be a big game,” he said. “It’s just about coming in with that mentality. We can’t get too big-headed about our win streak and come in there and just think this team was going to lay over and give us the win.”
The key to re-establishing themselves among the conference elite, Powell said, would be to go in to Arizona and show that losing to Oregon was the exception, not the norm.
“We have to just play as a team, play as one since we’re on the road and do everything we need to do to win,” he said. “It takes true character of the team to come back on this road trip and get these two wins that we need.”
Here's a quick breakdown:
How it happened: In a game that had been back and forth the entire way, Oregon went on an 8-0 run and opened a 70-61 lead with just more than a minute to play, then made 6 of 9 free throws down the stretch to hang on and end UCLA's 10-game win streak. It was the seventh consecutive victory for the Ducks (16-2, 5-0 Pac-12).
Neither team led by more than six points through the first 36 minutes of the game, but the Bruins -- using a seven-man rotation -- clearly tired in the waning minutes. UCLA (15-4, 5-1) led 46-41, then went on a scoreless stretch of 5 minutes, 17 seconds. Oregon led 49-46 with 11:22 to play and did not relinquish the lead after that.
UCLA trailed 32-28 with 5:42 left in the first half but held Oregon to only two field goals the rest of the half. One of those was a 3-pointer by E.J. Singler at the halftime buzzer that cut a 40-34 UCLA lead -- the biggest of the game for the Bruins – to three points as the team retired to the locker rooms.
Tony Woods led Oregon with 18 points and Dominic Artis had 14. Travis Wear had 17 for UCLA and Norman Powell added 11. Shabazz Muhammad, benched to start the game because he was late for practice on Friday, had 10 points. Kyle Anderson notched his sixth double-double of the season, with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Player of the game: Woods scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half, including dunks on back-to-back possessions that gave the Ducks a 70-61 lead with 1:07 to play.
Stat of the game: UCLA, the conference leader in field goal percentage at 47.7 percent entering the game, shot only 37.9 percent in the second half. (The Bruins shot 55.2 percent in the first half.)
What it means: Oregon, with victories over Arizona and UCLA, is now the early favorite to win the Pac-12 title. UCLA must rebound at Arizona and Arizona State next week to remain in the conference title race.
What’s next: UCLA heads to Tucson for a 6 p.m. showdown with the No. 7 Arizona Wildcats on Thursday. Oregon has a Wednesday home game against the Washington State Cougars.
What: Stanford Cardinal (9-5, 0-1) vs. UCLA Bruins (11-3, 1-0)
When: Saturday, noon PT
Where: Pauley Pavilion
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: AM 570
Scouting the Bruins: UCLA won its sixth consecutive game Thursday night on the strength of arguably its best defensive game of the season. In beating the California Golden Bears 76-65, the Bruins held their foe to 39.5 percent shooting, including 0-for-13 on 3-point attempts. Norman Powell stepped into his role as defensive stopper and held Pac-12 leading scorer Allen Crabbe to five points in the first half. Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams -- maligned for their defensive energy much of the season -- played very good D in spurts as the team continues to develop its defensive identity. This is the final game of a six-game homestand, and the Bruins have found themselves offensively. They are averaging 90.2 points during this homestand and are No. 14 in the nation is scoring at 80.8 points per game for the season. During the past four games, Muhammad is averaging 22.8 points, Kyle Anderson is posting 13.3 points and 10 rebounds, and Larry Drew II is tallying 9.5 assists.[+] EnlargeGary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsCalled out previously for questionable defense, Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad are improving on that side of the court as the Bruins continue to develop their defensive identity.
Scouting the Cardinal: Stanford visits UCLA coming off a disappointing 71-69 loss at USC on Thursday, when the Cardinal led most of the game before faltering down the stretch. Stanford shot 26.7 percent in the second half of that game. That type of poor shooting has plagued the Cardinal all season; Stanford is last in the Pac-12 with a 40.6 shooting percentage. The Cardinal are shooting 28.7 percent on 3-pointers, which also is last in the conference and is No. 270 (out of 345) in the nation. Junior forward Josh Huestis figures to give UCLA problems inside, as he is fifth in the conference in rebounding with 9.1 per game and second in offensive rebounding with 3.6. Dwight Powell, a 6-foot-10 forward, also is a matchup problem because of his ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor. He leads the Cardinal with 14.2 points per game. Sophomore Chasson Randle is the team’s best guard, averaging 12.8 points. The teams have a common opponent in Missouri. Stanford lost 78-70 to the Tigers, while UCLA defeated Missouri 97-94 in overtime.
The series: UCLA leads the all-time series 136-91. The teams split the season series last season, when Stanford edged UCLA 60-59 in Palo Alto and UCLA defeated the Cardinal 72-61 at the Sports Arena. UCLA has won 12 of the past 15 meetings against Stanford, although the teams have split the season series in two of the past three years.
Quick quote: "They had a very tough loss [against USC]," UCLA coach Ben Howland said of Stanford. "Their game went down to the wire. It was a tough loss, so we know that they will obviously be very prepared for this game.”
LOS ANGELES -- At long last, the UCLA Bruins showed some signs of improvement.
The season so far has been tainted by lackluster play on the defensive end and a top-rated freshman class that seemed to be underachieving.
None of it appeared to be getting any better from game to game, either, with a string of mostly uninspiring and unimpressive games over the past few weeks. But they took a step in the right direction Saturday night as they dominated Prairie View A&M, 95-53, in a nonconference game at Pauley Pavilion.
The cynics will say that it was only a win against a mediocre team which UCLA should dominate, so it wasn't that big of a deal. But UC Irvine, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Georgia and Texas also fit into that category, and UCLA (7-3) struggled against all of those teams.
Against the Panthers (5-6), UCLA looked fluid and played with an energy level that has been missing for much of the season. The defensive intensity, especially, made significant progress, and if the Bruins can somehow figure out how to string together some games with a similar energy, they may very well ramp up into the more important months of the season that are to come.
"This was hopefully something we can build on here," coach Ben Howland said.
Indeed, it was. UCLA's man-to-man defense looked like an entirely different unit than it had in recent games. The Bruins crouched low in their stance, stayed in front of the ball and seemed committed to getting defensive stops.
They rotated effectively to help one another and generally played together as a team.
"I never thought we would give up on being a (good) defensive team," guard Kyle Anderson said. "We're a bunch of mentally tough kids. I just thought collectively we had to work on it and that's what we did. It all came along after working on it and practicing it and it all came together tonight."
The Bruins had played only one real game in the last two weeks before Saturday, so they had ample time to work out the kinks in their much-scrutinized man defense. During that time, it has become en vogue to bash Howland for stubbornly sticking with his man defense even though the team seemed better suited for a zone.
But Howland rolled up his sleeves and got to work with his team, figuring a good man defense is the best path to success. He refused to take the easy way out and play a zone, choosing instead to believe that his young team, with three freshmen starters, simply needed time to soak in the principles of his defense.
How it happened: The Bruins played their best man-to-man defense of the season, holding the Panthers to 34 percent shooting (22-of-64) from the field with nine blocked shots and nine steals. The 53 points for Prairie View were a season low for a UCLA opponent.
The Bruins never trailed as they took an early 7-2 lead, were up 26-11 midway through the first half and ended the half on an 8-0 run for a 46-23 lead.
Shabazz Muhammad scored a career-high 25 points, eclipsing the 21 he had Nov. 20 against Georgia. Kyle Anderson had a career-best 16 points and added 11 rebounds, Jordan Adams had nine points, David Wear had nine points and five rebounds and Norman Powell had nine points. Travis Wear had a career-high five blocked shots and Larry Drew II had eight assists.
Player of the game: Muhammad showed the type of dominant offensive game everyone expected when he came to UCLA after earning national high school player of the year honors last year. He was 8-of-13 from the field, including 3-of-6 on 3-pointers, and dished out four assists.
Stat of the game: UCLA outrebounded Prairie View, 40-30. The Panthers came in to the game No. 19 in the nation in rebounding at 42.2 per game, and had been outrebounding opponents by an average of 12 per game. Also, the Bruins shot 55.9 percent for the game, including 59.4 percent in the first half.
What it means: UCLA's man-to-man defense, a work in progress all season, took a step forward. The Bruins had played only one real game in two weeks and put in extra time working on the man-to-man. It seems to have paid off as the Bruins looked like a completely different defensive team than they had all season.
What's next: UCLA plays Long Beach State on Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Pauley Pavilion.
Howland acknowledges his team this year is better suited to play a zone, and he has reluctantly used a zone in the past few games. But that doesn't mean he's giving up on the style of defense the UCLA Bruins rode to three consecutive Final Fours from 2005 to 2008 and that earned him a reputation as one of the top defensive coaches in the country.
He also believes he can turn this collection of players he dubbed "not super-athletic" into a solid man-to-man team.
"I think we can, but I think we’ve got a lot of work to do," he said. "I think we’ve got to be able to mix it up and keep people off-balance by changing defenses a little bit with this group. We’ve got to continue to evolve defensively with our man."
The problems with this year's man-to-man defense go right down to the most basic levels. Players are having trouble staying in front of their man while guarding the ball; and away from the ball, they are getting lost in the traffic of motion and screens. Opponents are finding clear paths to the basket because UCLA's defenders are not reacting in time to help or are simply out of position to do so.
In each of UCLA's three losses this season, its opponent has shot 57.7 percent or better in the second half. It's an indication the opponents have adjusted to UCLA's defense and the Bruins have not been able to counter.
"We still have some things we have to work on," forward David Wear said. "We have a little ways to go. We need to stop the lapses in defense. We need to get better at trailing and extending and help-side defense, but that will come. And a couple of more practices and we’ll really see improvements in our man-to-man defense."
Many of the issues stem from using so many players new to the system. Howland employs a complex man-to-man strategy that takes time to fully understand and usually gets better as the season goes on. Players who stay in his program for several years tend to leave as much better defensive players. It's a principle that not too long ago was called the "UCLA effect" and was helping Bruins players get drafted higher because they were thought to be better prepared to handle the defense required at the NBA level.
But with so many players leaving school early and transferring over the past several years, there aren't too many left who have been through the ringer of Howland's system enough to fully understand it. The result is a cycle of players who have to learn on the job, many of whom are never around long enough to grasp all of the concepts and help pass them down from one team to the next.
"It makes it a lot harder, because we haven’t found our niche," said freshman Kyle Anderson.
Howland is using four true freshmen in major roles this season. Sophomore Norman Powell and junior forwards Travis and Davis Wear are the only regulars with more than a year of game experience in Howland's system. But Howland's system is a major reason why he was able to land the nation's top freshman class this season. Anderson, Shabazz Muhammad, Tony Parker and Jordan Adams have all cited Howland's ability to coach defense as a reason why they wanted to come to UCLA.
They see former UCLA players, such as Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, flourishing in the NBA after stellar defensive careers at UCLA and are looking to learn those defensive skills. One look at the current UCLA freshmen on defense and it is clear that they need all the help they can get. In high school, they were all offensive standouts, but none was lauded for his defense.
Muhammad recently called Howland "the perfect guy for this team" because of his ability to coach defense. And each player on the team who has been asked recently said he prefers to play man-to-man over zone.
"I think we’d like to be able to rely on our man-to-man a little more," David Wear said. "Especially in games coming up against Texas or Missouri and once we start getting into conference play, we know we’re not going to be able to rely on our zone at all. So I think it’s really important that we start working on our man and really working out the kinks so that can be our first option when we’re playing."
After using mostly zone for two games in a row, Howland stuck to exclusively man-to-man Tuesday in an exhibition against Cal State San Marcos. UCLA won 83-60 and held San Marcos -- an NAIA school in its second year with a basketball team -- to 37 percent shooting.
"You can see that our man defense, even though we held them to 37 percent, still has a lot of work to do," Howland said. "It’s a work in progress."
The Bruins will get more work Saturday against the Texas Longhorns, who without quick point guard Myck Kabongo lack some of the quickness that has hurt UCLA's man defense. Howland sees it as a good opportunity to use a man D against an upper-division team. He knows he'll still have the zone in his back pocket and said he will continue to mix in the zone until the team shows the ability to effectively defend in man-to-man.
"My preference as a coach is man," Howland said. "But we also have to put ourselves in the best position to have a chance to win games."
A quick look at the game:
How it happened: The Bruins used a balanced scoring attack, with four players scoring in double figures, and even got a few walk-ons into the game at the end.
Shabazz Muhammad tallied 19 points, Norman Powell scored 14, David Wear contributed 11 and Larry Drew had 10. Kyle Anderson and Travis Wear just missed the double-digit party, scoring 9 points each. Anderson also had 16 rebounds and 5 assists, while Drew had 10 assists.
UCLA opened the second half with a 10-1 run, then held the Cougars scoreless for a period of nearly five minutes later in the half to take a 63-42 lead and blow open the game.
During the first half, San Marcos was within a point at 20-19 with 11:52 left and was trailing by four after a Jacob Ranger basket made it 29-25 with 5:48 left. But Travis and David Wear lead a 13-5 run to close the half for UCLA ,and the Bruins took a 42-30 lead into the break.
Player of the game: Muhammad continues to progress in getting his game legs back. He made 7-of-12 shots from the field for a team-leading 19 points. He also added 5 rebounds and couple of blocked shots.
Stat of the game: UCLA, playing a man-to-man defense the entire game, held San Marcos to 37.9 percent shooting. The Bruins outrebounded San Marcos 49-29.
What it means: Nothing. It was an exhibition game against an NAIA team and the Bruins were working on specific aspects of their game. It's difficult to judge the results against a clearly inferior opponent, in a game prior to which UCLA coach Ben Howland had asked the San Marcos coaching staff to play at least one half using man-to-man defense so he could work the Bruins on offensive sets.
What's next: UCLA travels to Houston for a Saturday game at 2:15 p.m. PT against the Texas Longhorns at Reliant Stadium. It is part of a doubleheader, with the women's teams from each school squaring off before the men tip off.
The Bruins (5-3) began the season at No. 13 in the Associated Press rankings and rose to No. 11 before plummeting out of the rankings after a loss to the Cal Poly Mustangs. A loss Saturday to the No. 17 San Diego State Aztecs indicated the Bruins still are not quite a top-25 team. They say that doesn't mean they can't turn things around and get back into the poll.
"I think we can be a very good team," coach Ben Howland said. "We’ve got a lot of basketball to be played."
The big issue is so many new faces on the floor. Freshmen Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams are playing major minutes in their first seasons in college basketball. Point guard Larry Drew II is in his first year with the Bruins after transferring from North Carolina, and sophomore Norman Powell has become a key piece for the team after serving as a role player last season.
Howland said it is testing his patience trying to mix so many new parts.
"A team with youth, you’ve got to be patient," Howland said. "Everything is new to them. Things that you take for granted sometimes are things that freshmen might not know. You can’t take anything for granted."
The fan base lacks that kind of patience. Already there are numerous calls for Howland's job, suggesting he has lost the team and he can't relate well enough to the players to keep them around. Tyler Lamb and Joshua Smith already have left the team this season.
Plus, these freshmen were supposed to be different. They were the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country and were expected to succeed right away, much like Kentucky's freshman-laden roster did last season in winning the national championship. It's pretty clear, however, that no other freshman class is quite on that level, including that of UCLA.
"Kentucky was great last year winning the national championship and everything, but we’re no Kentucky," Powell said. "We don’t have Anthony Davis. We don’t have Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. We don’t have those type of players. Shabazz and Kyle are great players, but Shabazz isn’t Anthony Davis. Nobody is Anthony Davis."
Kentucky is having its own problems trying to rebuild with mostly freshmen and now is 4-3. Clearly, trying to win with freshmen isn't something you want to gamble on too often. Still, the Bruins feel like they can turn the season in the right direction over the next few weeks. It's about steady progress at this point.
Powell pointed to the super team assembled by the Miami Heat that failed to win the NBA title in its first season before reaching the top last season.
"We have the players; it’s going to happen," Powell said. "It’s going to take a process. It’s going to take everybody learning what we need to do and how everybody plays. Once we get that down, hopefully we’ll get that down before conference play and we’ll be able to jell during the Pac-12."
But in the "now" culture we live in, fans want to see UCLA succeed right away. They don't want to see losses to teams such as Cal Poly and San Diego State -- schools that at one time were dwarfed by the shadow of UCLA basketball in Southern California. The Bruins say they can't afford to get caught up in all of that.
Sure, the season hasn't started exactly the way it was projected, but the players are intent on making something out of a season that has been all but written off by many outsiders.
"We all believe what we can do," Powell said. "We’re not listening to what other people are saying about us and what is being said about us. We know the hype was there. We know we were supposed to be a top-10 team with the recruiting class coming in, but we know everything was not going to be done right then and there."
A quick breakdown of the game:
How it happened: The Bruins shook off an embarrassing loss to the Cal Poly Mustangs by playing with an energy and sense of urgency not yet seen this season. UCLA crashed the boards hard, ran with a purpose in transition and played with a defensive intensity that had been lacking all season.
After a back-and-forth first few minutes, UCLA took control midway through the first half and ended it on a 26-10 run to take a 38-24 lead at the midway point. The Bruins opened the second half on a 13-2 run to take a 51-26 lead, then cruised the rest of the way.
Shabazz Muhammad had 13 points and nine rebounds to pace the Bruins. Norman Powell added 17 points and eight rebounds, and Travis Wear posted 14 points and seven rebounds.
UCLA player of the game: Powell scored 10 of his points in the first five minutes of the second half, including two 3-pointers, as the Bruins sent a clear message they had no intentions of relinquishing their lead. He made seven of 14 shots.
Stat of the game: The Bruins used a 2-3 zone most of the game -- the first time they played predominantly zone this season -- and held Northridge to 33 percent shooting, including 19.2 percent (5-of-26) on three pointers.
What it means: Bruins fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief for the moment and hope that the Cal Poly loss was an aberration. The Bruins might have figured out what it means to play hard for an entire game. They still have to show they can do it on a consistent basis, however.
What’s next: UCLA will face the No. 23 San Diego State Aztecs on Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Wooden Classic at the Honda Center in Anaheim.