Howland adjusts UCLA game plan

Updated: January 29, 2013, 4:56 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The uniforms say UCLA. The coach on the sideline looks like Ben Howland.

He acts like him, too -- never met a timeout he didn't want to use, for instance.

But these Bruins resemble Howland's Bruins about as much as Bo Kimble's Loyola Marymount team resembles Bo Ryan's Wisconsin squad.

For starters, on offense they get out in transition like North Carolina does, or did until this season. No more deliberate half-court pick-and-roll, not much screening or random dribbling. It's more one-on-one isolation or plain old go.

[+] EnlargeBen Howland
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsBen Howland says he's having fun coaching this season's UCLA team.

Then there's the defense, or what occasionally passes for the defense.

Which is exactly the point. It's at best OK, more often on a milk carton.

But darned if that isn't Ben Howland and UCLA.

In a season rife with interesting storylines -- the rise of Michigan, the fall of North Carolina, the dearth of scoring and the importance of point guards -- the most fascinating sociological study is Howland and UCLA. Coaching for his team's survival and perhaps his own, he is going about his job in a way that is almost counterintuitive to his entire philosophy.

He is doing it not necessarily because he wants to but because he realized, finally, that he had to. The No. 1 recruiting class he plucked from around the nation came equipped with the defensive skill of a summer-ball team.

That is to say none.

And so Howland has remade the Bruins outside of his own coaching image.

It is no small coincidence that this team started to win when Howland conceded, if not defensive defeat, then defensive mediocrity. After an ugly 5-3 start that was mired in more bad personnel news -- Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb transferred a season after Howland booted Reeves Nelson -- UCLA is 16-5 and in the hunt for the Pac-12 title.

Howland credits a collective hard look in the mirror for the change.

"Going through the adversity of losing and everybody saying, 'Woe is me. UCLA isn't what we thought, the players aren't as good as they were touted to be.' That's motivating," he said over a sandwich at the team hotel before the Arizona State game, which the Bruins lost.

Maybe that's part of it, but there's also little doubt that the Bruins are playing more liberally on offense than any of Howland's previous teams.

If Howland is going home and punching his pillow at night in frustration, he's not letting on.

"It's been fun for me to coach this group," he said "I love this team. They're fun to coach because they're all highly motivated, with goals beyond college. They want to win. They understand what they have to do."

The question is, can they do what they need to do at least moderately well enough to live up to the preseason standards?

[+] EnlargeLarry Drew II
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsLarry Drew II thinks the Bruins can beat anyone, but that's not how they played against Arizona State.

In one weekend in the desert, the Bruins demonstrated their limitless potential and their crippling weaknesses.

A week after it was humbled by Oregon at Pauley, UCLA beat Arizona at the McKale Center by upending the box score. The Bruins, only plus-2 in rebounding margin, topped the Wildcats, who entered the game plus-9, by one; they held Arizona, a team that shoots 46 percent, to 38 percent and won by nine.

Two days later, UCLA played at Arizona State with a completely flip-flopped result. The Sun Devils, a woeful plus-1.8 on the boards, put up 53 rebounds to the Bruins' anemic 33 and shot a blistering 47 percent from the floor that was in no small part thanks to the matador defense offered up by UCLA.

As the games dwindle, just who are the Bruins? Is UCLA the team that looked so good against Arizona or the team that looked so soft against Arizona State?

"We're still trying to figure that out," freshman Jordan Adams said. "Yeah, I thought we would have that solved by now."

Perhaps the answer, as uncomfortable as it might be to admit, is this is who UCLA is -- a roller-coaster team that could make noise in March or go quietly into the night.

"I definitely think we're the team that beat Arizona," point guard Larry Drew II said. "We're more than capable of beating anyone we play, which we proved against Arizona. But we need to prove it every game and be consistent. We need to learn how to balance it."

Certainly that's not what anyone expected when Howland landed the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, a class capped off with the addition of Shabazz Muhammad.

But Muhammad is almost the personification of this Bruins team. He can be breathtakingly amazing on offense, his ability to score almost effortless.

Defensively, the jury is out about whether he is incapable or unwilling. Muhammad insists he's trying, but he also admitted that none of this comes easily.

"In high school, I never worried about playing defense at all, to be honest," he said. "So it was all new to me. It's still not natural. I have to think about it all the time, about staying in my stance, all of the little things you have to do."

[+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsShabazz Muhammad is at his best on the offensive end.

Muhammad, as well as all the rest of the Bruins, has gotten better. Howland quickly and accurately points out that UCLA's defensive numbers have improved, especially with the advent of Pac-12 play.

In overall games, the Bruins rank first in scoring offense and 11th in scoring defense; in conference games, the balance improves marginally, to third and 10th respectively. The biggest jump is in field goal percent defense, from ninth overall to fourth.

But the Bruins are 23rd in scoring offense and 232nd in scoring defense, only the second time in Howland's tenure at Westwood that their scoring defense has been worse than their scoring offense.

Contemplate that for a brief moment.

Then study these few doozies from KenPom.com. In Howland's 10 seasons at UCLA and his last at Pittsburgh, his teams every single season had a better adjusted defense ranking than adjusted tempo, sometimes glaringly so.

When the Bruins went to the Final Four, they ranked third (2006), second (2007) and third (2008) in adjusted defense and 300th, 266th, 217th in adjusted tempo.

This season, UCLA is 41st in adjusted tempo and 96th in adjusted defense.

"We've run before," Howland said by way of explanation. "The difference is now we're pushing the ball on makes as well as misses."

Fair enough. But the Bruins have never defended quite so badly, either.

It's not as if Howland doesn't want good defense. He does. He belabors the point in postgame interviews and in games, practically begs his players to find some defensive gumption. His hands are constantly overhead, and he repeatedly shouts "Stance!" to remind them to find their positioning.

If it were just a matter of wishing it so, the Bruins would be defensive gurus. And sometimes they are, if not gurus, good enough. Trouble is, more times they are not.

That might be the only thing that is certain with this team -- the uncertain.

In the happy moments after the Arizona game and the day before the ASU letdown, Howland and the Bruins waxed poetic about UCLA's maturity and defensive intelligence in the game against the Wildcats.

"Our young guys aren't freshmen anymore," Howland said after the game. "They have 20 games under their belts. They're playing like veterans."

A game later, after the ASU loss, he said, "We're starting three freshmen. They're all learning for the first time." Howland was right in both instances. UCLA is equal parts talented and vexing.

And, with Howland at the helm, thoroughly fascinating.

Dana O'Neil | email

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