Ever since Ben Howland took over the UCLA basketball program, he has aimed to make one word forever synonymous with his tenure:
While Howland’s defensive commitment is news to no one who closely follows the program, it is still without question the key to turning the Bruins’ disappointing season around. Now 10-9 on the year and 3-4 in conference play, the turnaround needs to happen soon.
At times this year, particularly against Oregon State, the Bruins have clicked offensively but failed to dent the opposition’s scoring ability.
What plagued UCLA in their two losses in Oregon wasn’t really their offense. The Bruins shot the ball incredibly well against the Beavers, shooting 57.6 percent from the floor. In the first half against Oregon, UCLA ran out to a 37-24 halftime lead with their 51.5 percent shooting.
What undid UCLA were lapses on the defensive end. A burst of up-tempo scoring midway through the second half turned the Oregon State game in the Beavers' favor, and a resolved Duck squad trounced UCLA in the second half.
In both cases, the Bruins played respectably on offense, but lacked the consistent pressure on defense.
Consider the Oregon game. When the Bruins executed defensively, played tough man with zone principles, and pressured the ball, the Ducks managed next to nothing offensively, making only seven of their 31 shots.
When the pressure was eased slightly, when the rotations were a bit slow, and the defensive rebounding evaporated, Oregon stormed back in the second half for a convincing 75-68 win. True, the Bruins didn’t shoot as well in the second half, but they could have sustained their 13-point lead with tighter defense, lessening the need to match Oregon basket for basket.
With two Oregon case studies on the value of defense in the books, UCLA now looks forward to home games against Utah and Colorado. Take these three points with you as the Bruins continue their march toward improved Pac-12 tournament seeding.
UCLA’s defense is key to turning around their season because:
1) UCLA Cannot Outgun Teams Offensively
This year’s UCLA squad simply cannot offensively outgun the Pac-12's top-tier (Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Washington) and even new challengers to the throne (Oregon State, Colorado, Washington State).
While Lazeric Jones, Tyler Lamb, the Wear Twins and Joshua Smith have all had impressive scoring performances, they have all been inconsistent.
Lamb will have a 26-point game against California, then put up 27 over the next five games combined. Jones has impressed, but he sometimes bites off more than he can chew. David and Travis Wear have had foul trouble often limit their effectiveness, and the same—to a much greater extent—can be said for Joshua Smith.
Frankly, this team isn’t built to put up 85 points a game. They have broken 80 points only four times this season, and only once when you take out D-II and Big West opponents. UCLA ranks seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring (69.5), but only a few tenths of a percent keep them from ninth.
Instead, Ben Howland has tried to craft a team as he always does, rooted in fundamental defensive principles with offense a secondary concern. He’s right to preach defense actually, because offense can wax and wane. Solid defensive teams bring more stability night after night, and are able to beat anyone in the country regardless of a talent gap.
Again, this is a team with limited offensive capability, so the only logical way forward is solid defense. If they can do that, UCLA has an outside chance at a conference title, be it in the regular season or come tournament time
2) Defense Leads to Offense
Another principle of Howland’s coaching style is that defense leads to offense—Create turnovers that lead to easy buckets. Allow one shot, then execute in the halfcourt.
These basic principles are almost universally accepted among defense-first coaches, and UCLA is no different. Howland doesn’t focus as much on the offensive end as he does the defensive mostly because of this idea.
If the Bruins can continue to be defensive stalwarts (or start to be, according to some), they can better tailor games to suit their low-scoring needs. Teams that garner offense from defense often prefer low-scoring games, and as I talked about above, the 2011-12 Bruins fit that description.
However, having your offense tied to defense this way limits its ability to function when the defense just isn’t there. Explosive run-and-gun teams don’t have to worry about their offense suffering because of poor defense; that side of the court is entirely separate.
When you tie the two sides together however, as UCLA has done, there is less room for error, making defense key for the Bruins to get back on track.
3) It’s Worked in the Past
Finally, we know defense is a reliable way forward for UCLA because Howland has made it work in the past. His three Final Four teams, now more a memory than ever, were all impressive defensively.
Players like Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alfred Aboya, Lorenzo Mata and even Jordan Farmar committed themselves to being solid defenders, and the results were championship-grade teams year after year.
What’s missing this year—as it's been for the last few years—has been that kind of commitment from players.
The Final Four teams worked because Howland brought in the kind of blue-collar players overlooked by many schools because of their lack of offensive prowess. Before the three Final Fours, Howland was excused from getting blue chip recruits due to UCLA’s diminished prestige, allowing him to get the players he needed for his system. These weren’t flashy recruits, but they were the right ones.
Now that Howland’s brought UCLA back to national prominence, he’ll get offers of service from top recruits. Guys that he didn’t have a chance with before are now lining up to play in Westwood, but they lack the right mentality to succeed in his system—and the team suffers because of it.
Howland has to get back to his recruiting basics and build his team from the ground up again. A defense-first approach has worked in the past. Now he just needs the players to run it well.
With the two new Pac-12 schools coming to town, UCLA has to hold serve at home if they want to stay in the hunt. Neither Utah nor Colorado will be easy, so it will fall to the Bruins’ defense to win both.