UCLA Basketball: Why Coach Howland and Bruins Are Right Where They Need to Be

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UCLA Basketball: Why Coach Howland and Bruins Are Right Where They Need to Be
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

I wish there was something to be done about all the people who had written off this team—and especially its coach—by the end of November.

This is the group that thinks college basketball is just a matter of locating a sort of wizard to lead a traditional program who recruits a few stellar high school players and conjures championship teams into existence with the same ease a person punches a pin code into an ATM machine.

The ideal move would be to issue a binding fiat that excluded them from whatever pleasure remains in the season, and also the sincere pain of having something you believed in end—as this season inevitably will—unless the Bruins make the rarest of quests after the national championship grail. 

That is the situation now for the ones who have stayed true to the process all along, with the team having swept the season series against Arizona, the pre-season conference favorite, in an exciting, passionate, emotional win on senior night at Pauley Pavilion, 74-69. The victory lifted the team to a first-place tie in the Pac-12 with one weekend left to play

Of course, the pessimists and turncoats will still say the Pac-12 conference is weak like a relegated league, and of course UCLA should win it—they should win it every year without much difficulty and run deep into the NCAA Tournament. It's that matter of fact, they'll say, when you're UCLA.

But these comparisons and eye-tests of the Pac-12 against the rest of America are subjective in the extreme and hypothetical in the purest sense. Joe Lunardi, the Baron of Bracketologists, has the Big East, a 15-team league, putting eight teams into the tournament. He has the Big Ten, a 12-team league and the best conference in America, sending seven.

And the Pac-12the lowly, weak conference that UCLA should be embarrassed to be neck-and-neck inwill probably send five teams. That is the third-most in the United States and the same as the ACC and Big 12, and ahead of the SEC—a 14 team league.  

So many people in that gloomy crowd are the same who purport to be big fans of the program and true blue UCLA supporters. But there were a few national scribes, too, the white tower princes of the pen who look down on a thing from a lofty height and call it either a masterpiece or a disaster while rarely getting within 100 feet of the ground. 

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Matt Norlander at CBS made a nice November contribution to the digital dumpster of spastic, reflexive writing after UCLA lost at home to Cal Poly San Louis Obispo

Forget it all. Even at 4-2, UCLA's a garbage disposal on fire right now.

If things don't turn for the positive and the culture doesn't shift in the immediate future, then it's another year lost, and more proof that Howland's time has unfortunately past him by. UCLA fans and boosters have already been pacing for a few years now. Tonight gave them legitimate reason to slam the panic button.

Since when is the first six games of one season considered plenty of time to forge a championship team? In what context is it easy for a "great" coach to do it with a group of freshmen leading his team? If in the course of conversation or debate you are given that opinion to turn over, know that you are talking to someone who has never seriously played or never actually coached.

The whole narrative is a conception built up outside of the game and flatbedded in; an alluring false front propped up from behind by a rickety skeleton of cheap timber. It is a fiction sold by the school of enthusiastic "fan of the game" analysts and hobbyist bloggers

The best orchestrator of the new one-and-done form—the progenitor even—is John Calipari. When last season he won his first title after his fourth Final Four—with two of the prior runs erased from the record books for rules violations—he needed players who had been there before to get it done.

His best player was Anthony Davis, a freshman—an extra special, dominant 6'10'' talent who had learned his skills as a 6'2'' guard until his sophomore year of high school, when he really grew tall, giving him a very rare basketball education in both the front and backcourts

But the team's next two best scorers—Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones—were sophomores who had felt that dagger go in at the previous year's Final Four. They came back to Kentucky to win a title and improve their draft stock by showing themselves as big, unselfish talents on a team of stars. 

The most steady leadership on that Kentucky team was a desperate senior, Darius Miller, a professional player who knew he was out of chances to hang a banner from the garlanded rafters at Rupp Arena.  

If the NCAA Tournament were to start today, the defending champs with a roster full of freshmen would not even make the field. 

For the ones this season who have stayed loyal to UCLA, it has been first a deeply frustrating, and then amazingly fun to watch this team develop steadily under Coach Howland. 

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The team's half-court offense has gone from a traffic jam that relied on shot making and one-on-one talent to get buckets early on, to a well executed system that flows in and out of sets with well organized cohesion. It has been an amazing open-floor transition scoring machine all season, averaging 76 points per game19th best in the country. 

These Bruins average 17 assists per game, which is 5th nationally, and their 1.517 assists-to-turnover ratio is third. Their offensive tempo is 25th nationally and the best in the conference. That is a galloping horse race of an offense for a coach who the turncoats said wasn't capable of taking his hands off the reins.  

And the players worked hard to improve their performance within strict and advanced defensive concepts. Their rebounding differential numbers have slowly improved. Their hedges, rotations and help-side defense have all gotten significantly more cohesive and better executed.

The rotations still break down from time-to-timethey forget or miscommunicate on the help side of the balland they surrender a lot of very good shots to their opponents; but they are getting better by the game now, it seems. The team went from probably a two in the beginning of the year to a six or 6.5 as the regular season winds down. 

Defense was the subject of an exchange between coach Howland and Shabazz Muhammad in a Yahoo! sports piece. It is an eloquent statement on why great high school basketball players will continue to come to UCLA to play under Howland.

"Bazz early in the year, was very, very quick to leak out like we were playing in the summer," said Coach Howland. "He's really improving. He has improved so much as a player defensively and defensive rebounding. You can see he's going to be really special for years to come."

"Improving in those areas was the No. 1 reason I came to UCLA," Muhammad said. "I had Kentucky and Duke after me and those are two great programs, but coming here I thought I could really learn how to play defense and rebound because that's going to prepare me for the next level. I feel like it's working. I'm really improving."

"It has been great playing at UCLA," Muhammad said. "It was definitely the right decision coming here. We're all like brothers out there and the added focus on defense and rebounding has really helped me a lot."

Muhammad is almost certainly headed to the National Basketball Association, to play the game for millions of dollars—and who can blame him? But the fact that the NBA is not on his mind now, and that he is even considering playing a second season, is a more forceful testimony to the strength of the team built in one season than any of the long-distance pessimists could make in 2,000 words of gloom. 

This tweet came out from Los Angeles Times writer Chris Foster. It quotes Muhammad in the Arizona post game press conference.

 

 

This group of players has stayed busy on Twitter most of the season. There has been some vicarious fun in living through the moment with them; trying to enjoy the ride.

It's also been an illustrative reminder that the cynics live in a cocoon, making assumptions about what happens during practices, about why players are getting minutes on the floor, about who is miserable, about the future—and they are no more informed than a loud-mouthed coach potato might be about the course of a war being fought overseas.

 

 

Kyle Anderson re-tweeted a Tony Parker "bros for life" message in the middle of February with Muhammad and Jordan Adams attached it.

 

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

And if you love UCLA and enjoy the college game for what it is, talented young people growing up in front of you, what has been better than watching Larry Drew II come into his own in his senior season? He has understood the grind, the power of believing in yourself and coming out under the lights and doing what you know you can do to the best of your ability, and living with the results.

From his inglorious return from Chapel Hill, branded a failure and a quitter, to Coach Howland admitting he had made a mistake in not getting him right out of high school, to Drew Two's emergence as one of the best point guards in college basketball—it has been a pleasure. 

"It was one of my many recruiting mistakes," Howland said about Drew II. "I got some snide remarks [about taking him back as a transfer], but I thought it was a no-brainer." 

Doug Gottlieb was a national analyst who didn't think Drew II had what a point guard needed to run a team. But Gottlieb, a hard-edged analyst with high standards for lead guards, has been won over and offered a public mea culpa last week. What more can you ask for than that? 

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Drew II and Howland have both gotten plenty of it from other quarters. The negativity from people who don't understand the game, the cynics and pessimists, people who attack where there might be little sores or weaknesses in an effort to break you.  But then, when things improve, slowly, secretly, they begrudge the success and climb back on the wagon.

There is an old saying for it: success has 1,000 fathers, but defeat is an orphan.

When it hasn't come from the outside, there has been plenty of misplaced bile from within the program. UCLA's own Bill Walton, one of basketball's Gods, has spent an unbelievable amount of time publicly criticizing this coach and his program.

Typical of Walton, very little of it has made sense. But Howland has handled it with a high class of professionalism, which is how he has conducted himself generally during his time in Westwood. Howland said for a piece in Sports Illustrated:

He has been critical in all the games he has done of ours this year. As a broadcaster and an analyst, that’s his job. It’s perfectly his right to be critical. As I've said in the past, to me, Bill is one of the greatest players in the history of college basketball. He holds such a special place in UCLA basketball lore. I just try to do the job to the best of my ability.

But this season is not over yet. This young UCLA team is not a Goliath, and it will not leave the gate as favorites to be national champions. But this group has worked itself into a position to have a chance, a real chance, at winning a regular season and tournament conference championship.

And these Bruins will definitely get the opportunity to push all their chips onto the table and play their hand, for good or ill, in the NCAA Tournament. 

Maybe the gloomy ones will find room in their hearts for forgiveness if one of those games goes bad, but the team played hard and left its blood on the floor—given the players only had one year and no chance for mistakes—but probably not. 

For the rest of us, we are enjoying the ride, one game at a time. 

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