The Real Reason Howland Changed
You watch UCLA’s basketball team this year, and you immediately do a double take.
Wait, those fast-paced, revved up kids are Bruins? And Ben Howland is still their coach?
What ever happened to slow-it-down, set-it-up, pass-it-around and barely get your shot off before the 30 second clock goes off? You know, the style we’ve been watching the defense-minded Howland play ever since he arrived n Westwood.
I’ll tell you what happened. The word on the street was what happened. The talk was that the most talented kids in the area no longer wanted to play for UCLA. They watched other teams run up and down the floor, allowing their players to utilize their obvious athletic ability, then they saw the Bruins clamping down on everybody.
It began as whispers at first. But then it gradually grew louder. A father of one of Howland’s biggest one-and-done stars still rips him every chance he gets. Check out Howland’s last couple of recruiting classes. They are nowhere near as talented as some of his earlier groups. Too many of the high school blue chippers who used to think about UCLA first were now heading other places.
It’s unfortunate, because overall Howland is a terrific coach. You don’t make it to three consecutive Final Fours without knowing what you’re doing. Until last year’s hiccup, his teams had been solid and consistent and brilliantly coached on defense. He’s easily been the most effective UCLA coach since the late John Wooden.
If you don’t think so, check out the NBA box scores when you get a chance. Howland-trained players are starting or contributing all over the league.
But this is 2010, the SportsCenter Era, you might call it. Highlight reel plays are what really matter. The chance to make spectacular dunks and flashy passes. Kids still want to win, sure, but more than that, they want to have fun and be creative out on the floor.
Howland resisted for as long as he could. Some writers had been imploring him for years to hire an offense-minded assistant who could juice things up some on the other end. He fought off all such suggestions, but now he finally seems to have relented.
He deserves credit for that. The early returns have been encouraging, and the kids on the team who’d felt somewhat shackled before can hardly believe what is happening. They’re running and gunning and enjoying the heck out of playing basketball again.
Do not get the mistaken impression Howland has deemphasized defense. For him, that would be like demphasizing breathing. No, he will still preach the positives of moving your feet, staying in front of your man and taking charges.
In postgame interviews, he will still bring up opposing shooting percentages before anything else. He’ll still worry about defending better in the paint and not getting beat off the dribble as much.
He can’t help himself. That’s just who he is.
But what has been impressive so far this year is that he’s shown us another side. A more flexible side. Without saying it, he has admitted maybe he shouldn’t have been so stubborn about what was, or wasn’t, going on offensively in Westwood.
UCLA fans should be ecstatic. One of the game’s great defensive minds has now loosened things up on the other end of the floor.
And the future, like the soon to be remodeled Pauley Pavilion, is looking better every day.
— STEVE BISHEFF