Thursday, March 16, 2006

Bruins' Boss

By Dan Weber, Staff Writer
The Press-Enterprise

Under Ben Howland, UCLA is once again a national title contender

Mary Howland is a Stanford graduate, a Shakespearean scholar and a former missionary to China.

But Saturday, in her baby blue and gold UCLA sweatshirt, she was all Bruins basketball fan -- and proud mother.

Her smile matched that of her son Ben, whose Bruins had taken a big step back into the world of the basketball elite, having just won their first Pacific-10 tournament championship since 1987, and 27th game this season, to go along with their first regular-season title since 1997.

Mary Howland nods and agrees about the big, broad smile her often oh-so-serious son is sporting these days. She knew exactly where that smile was coming from.

"Ben loves to win," she said.

It's that simple.

In his third season at UCLA, just as in the third seasons in his previous head coaching jobs at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, Ben Howland has the Bruins basketball program winning -- big time.

That big old smile is the proof. He can't help himself.

Driven. Detail-oriented. Demanding. Meticulous. Passionate. Tough-minded. Relentless recruiter. Ben Howland is all that and more.

He is a tough guy, and so are his teams. That's the unanimous evaluation of those who covered Howland's Pittsburgh teams that rocketed to the top of the Big East.

But he's also a small-school guy who played high school basketball in Santa Barbara and Cerritos. His goal, his dream, he's always said, was to get back home to California some day.

"Why would you want to live anywhere else?" he said.

And get to his dream job, UCLA.

His basketball mentors, with the exception of current ESPN analyst Rick Majerus, are mostly guys he coached with at places like Gonzaga and UC Santa Barbara.

"The level they coach at doesn't matter to Ben," said Chris Carlson, UCLA's director of basketball operations. "He knows who can coach."

Howland has proved he can, and his more hard-scrabble basketball background has shown him how to do it with whatever he has.

At Northern Arizona, his little Lumberjacks made a name for themselves with jump shooters from long range who earned back-to-back NIT and NCAA tourney berths his third and fourth years there (1998 and 1999). At Pitt, the Panthers did it with defense and pounding power, earning him numerous national coach of the year honors in 2002.

At UCLA, the Bruins at their best are doing it with both.

But there's no question where it all starts for a Howland team. A guard in his playing days, Howland led his Weber State teams to a pair of NCAA appearances as the team's defensive MVP.

Defense is Key

"We emphasize defense," freshman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said. "There's no question about that. Defense wins championships."

Defense also won Howland his first big-time recruit. Just as USC's Pete Carroll got his program going by luring All-American defensive tackle Shaun Cody, a Southern Californian, away from Notre Dame, Howland targeted flashy McDonald's All-American Jordan Farmar, a creative shotmaker and inspired ballhandler from Van Nuys.

"When Coach recruited me, that's all he talked about -- defense," said Farmar, an All-Pac-10 guard as a sophomore whose biggest improvement has come on defense this season. "That's why I came here, to be a complete player."

It's a line you hear from every UCLA player. You don't have to ask Ben Howland for his philosophy, you just have to talk to his players.

The commitment to 40 minutes of defense, to out-tough opponents, to squeeze them until they quit, may sound oddly misplaced coming from the mouths of young players who mostly made their mark on offense, but it may be the best tribute to how Howland does his job.

Fifth-year senior Cedric Bozeman, after serious knee and shoulder injuries and surgery that cost him last season, had seen it all at UCLA. Even a long losing struggle his second season as one of the last wave of McDonald's All-American recruits attracted by the flash of Bruins basketball that flamed out in Steve Lavin's last season.

"A great coach," Bozeman said of Howland. "From the get-go, I knew he was. He said we were going to be winners. That's all I needed to hear. But he does run a tighter ship than Coach Lavin did."

"He should be tough on you if you don't play defense," Mbah a Moute said. "If you don't, he should pull you off the court."

Freshman Surprises

Easily the pleasant surprise of the season with his extraordinary rebounding production, the 6-foot-7 Mbah a Moute was assigned primary duties on the boards by Howland in an injury-filled preseason when no other Bruin proved capable.

"I hadn't ever thought about it until he told me I'd be the rebounder," Mbah a Moute said.

Just as he'd never thought about playing in an NCAA Tournament until three years ago when he watched teams like Marquette and Michigan State in the Final Four.

Now he's one of five freshmen in Howland's top 10, along with three sophomores now that Lorenzo Mata has returned.

"We had to play them," Howland said, as if there were no choice.

To play with the intensity he demands, there was no other way, he figured. Only there is. Look at Duke. All-American J. J. Redick puts in more than 37 minutes a game for the Blue Devils, one of the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 seeds.

Contrast that with Howland's approach. Only two Bruins, Arron Afflalo (34) and Farmar (30.5) put in more than 30 minutes a game. All 10 players in the rotation average at least 10 minutes a game.

Farmar has been able to rest his five sprained ankles with freshman Darren Collison coming in, although Collison is much more than a backup. His speed on offense and his relentless defensive dogging of the opposite point guard have changed the nature of the games recently. Often he's the man UCLA opponents have been unable to match up against.

This hard-nosed approach has been noticed in a Pac-10 known more for free-flowing offense and officiating geared at times to a no-contact game featured by ticky-tack calls.

Then along came Howland.

More Physical Team

No less a figure than Lute Olson, the Hall of Fame coach whose Arizona team lost three times to UCLA this season, has noticed.

"They were just a whole lot more physical than we were," Olson said of the Bruins' 71-59 victory Friday that wasn't nearly that close. "They have great quickness, good strength and they just play really hard."

UCLA did one more thing for Olson, who is taking his Wildcats to a record 22nd straight NCAA Tournament: "It got us ready for the way they play in the NCAA Tournament."

"There were a lot of no-calls in the game, and they let us play," Arizona point guard Mustafa Shakur said. "This game definitely prepared us for that because in the Pac-10 it can go either way, depending on who you play. I think that's something we'll be prepared for because in the tournament, the refs are going to let you play."

That's what Howland demands. And what he reminds the Bruins in his policy of early and often calling timeouts, especially after a UCLA score. He wants to remind the Bruins that it's defense that matters most.

"He showed us that tape just once," Farmar said. "But we went over it play-by-play, pointing out the mistakes, the lack of effort. That's all it took."

No special motivational gimmicks. No tricks.

"I don't play psychological games with my players," Howland said.

But he does need to remind them of what he expects. They expect the criticism that will surely come.

"Definitely," said senior center Ryan Hollins, whose career has finally blossomed under Howland. "That's how we get better."

So he'll let you know when you fall short?

"Oh definitely, He's (ticked) off when we miss blockouts or throw the ball away."

Orginally published in the The Press-Enterprise March 16, 2006
(reprinted with permission)


(Photo Credit: Terry Pierson/The Press-Enterprise)


Post a Comment

<< Back To Bruin Basketball Report Home