Will Ben Howland be Vindicated?

BN said that CBH had to be get the Bruins to the tournament this year.   According to a number of sites, including ESPN bracketology, UCLA would make the tournament right now if the season were now over:

The Bruins finally moved into the projected bracket of ESPN's Joe Lunardi on Monday in the wake of a four-game winning streak that has them tied with Arizona for second place in the Pacific 10 Conference. Lunardi has UCLA seeded 12th and playing fellow No. 12 seed Wichita State in one of the new "First Four" opening-round games to be held March 15-16 in Dayton, Ohio, as part of the expanded 68-team format.

. . .

The Bruins are also gaining some momentum in the NCAA's official Rankings Percentage Index figures, moving up to No. 48 after being as low as 182 in some RPI figures before their victory last month over Brigham Young. UCLA could get another significant boost in that department with a triumph over Arizona on Thursday in Tucson. The Wildcats have an RPI of 25.

Arizona, by the way, is projected as a No. 7-seeded team in the NCAA tournament by Lunardi, who also predicts that Washington will be a No. 4-seeded team. No other Pac-10 school is currently projected to make the tournament (sorry, USC).

Obviously that is pretty precarious ranking.  But this has been a season of improvement and this is a good sign.   Good teams and coaches win the games they should (as we just did in the last four) and they get better as the year goes on as we seem to be doing. 

Which means this next game will be very important to UCLA and not just because Arizona is ahead of us in the RPI and standings.  UCLA will be facing seemingly its greatest weakness this year.

That weakness is the good "big" or bigs which every team that beat UCLA has to some extent.  The possible exception and our only "bad" loss (as defined by RPI) Montana had two experienced bigs that played well but did not put up gaudy numbers.  Kansas were led by interchangeable twin bigs.    Washington in its victory at Pauley was led by a double-double by Matthew Bryan Amaning who also led the game in scoring.  But the other three losses all have a troubling statistic by guys who are not thought of as great bigs or in two cases not even the teams best big:

  • In the Villanova loss, 6'10" Mouphtaou Yarou had his career high in rebounds with 16
  • In the VCU loss, Jamie Skeen had his career high in points with 23
  • in the USC loss, Alex Stephenson had his career high in rebounds with 16

Yarou and Stephenson are not the best bigs on their respective teams.  I was in MSG for the VCU game and was talking with VCU fans before the game.  It was a friendly conversation and no one mentioned Skeen as the key to the game.  Actually it was thought by the VCU fans, if the bigs determine game, then UCLA wins.  Yet VCU's very good coach Shaka Smart called a play for the Skeen "10, 12 times in a row" and Skeen dominated the game. 

Part of the problem is Malcolm Lee does not play inside.  Lee is so good I would rather play Jimmer Fredette and BYU again then a team with a really good big like Derrick Williams of Arizona.

Because Derrick Williams may be the best big UCLA has played yet.  Williams has had 3 straight double doubles and in 4 out of the last 5. 

So how does UCLA stop him.  According to CBH, Anthony Stover may be the best post defender.  I really feel for Anthony with his limited experience trying to cover someone as good as Williams.  Futhermore, Stover has some issues with rebounds on the defensive side because he goes for block often (In 23 minutes against Stanford with them shooting 30% he still only had one defensive rebound).  Oh, and Williams had NINE offense rebounds in his last game.

Smith certianly has the big body but with his foul issues, not sure that is a good idea.  Williams has 85 free throw attempts in 7 Pac-10 games including nights of 22 and 16 attempts!  Smith may have another six minute night if he covered Williams too long, this time from fouling out.

Lane has recently been benched and passed in the rotation in favor of Stover.  You have to believe this is because of Lane's defensive problems as Lane seems a more refined offensive player than Stover.  

Which leaves Reeves Nelson.  While I think Reeves bigger issues are with conditioning (he gets tired too easily) and attitude (he gets mad at himself and the refs too easily), he is no Malcolm Lee on the defensive side.  

Zone is not a solution either.  CBH will not play a zone.   And for those of you who want a zone, think again about that idea against Williams and Arizona:

Washington sat in a zone half the night to slow Williams. The Huskies put a player in front of and behind Williams while the fluid 6-8 NBA prospect floated from elbow to elbow.  

As much as control can be claimed when the final numbers are 22 points and 11 rebounds, the Huskies can claim it.

Another maybe better example of the zone problem is when WSU went zone for large portions of their game against Arizona, Williams had 19 rebounds (9 offensive) and the rest of the team had their best game of the year from 3 shooting 11-17 from behind the arc in a game where they shot 37% from the field.

The one thing about Arizona that no one really notices is how many outside shooters coach Sean Miller can put on the court. Guys with sweet-looking strokes if not overwhelming statistics. With the beast – Derrick Williams – down low, you have to pick your poison. WSU started in a zone and Arizona wasn't stroking it, so the Cougars stayed in it. But when the Wildcats started hurting them from outside, they switched to a man. The zone reappeared in the second half for a while but when it came to crunch time, WSU was back in man.

This is starting to sound like a preview I realize but I am bringing this up now to say that CBH has a very tough job ahead of him for the Arizonia game. 

CBH will need his best strategy since Kansas to come up with a chance for the win but keep in mind in this is the first of a pair of PAC 10 games at which CBH has been amazing:  

  • 2010-11 3-0 (so far)
  • 2009-10 6-2 (Lost at Oregon in OT in emotional last UCLA v. OR game at MacArthur Court and at AZ after Malcolm Lee got hurt and we were leading)
  • 2008-9 7-1( Lost to then #18 ASU and ASU beat us twice the only team to do so in PAC 10 play that year)
  • 2007-8 8-0
  • 2006-7 8-0
  • 2005-6 8-0

This is not just a good year/bad year statistic.  Even in the final four seasons we did lose in PAC 10 play but we never lost in the first of a pair.  Even last year in a disastrous losing season we came within an injury and OT of going 8-0 in the first of a PAC 10 pair. CBH will have a plan for Thursday and I am looking forward to seeing it.  We will need it against Williams.

This record should help prove to doubters he is a good X and O coach.  But what about everything else?  Well, there are a couple of other interesting developments on that front.  It would be great if UCLA had another strong PF type to match up with Williams, like say Drew Gordon. But the talented Drew Gordon left UCLA because he did not see eye-to-eye with CBH.  In this case, I think CBH is vindicated that the problem was Gordon's, for Gordon is having more issues at his latest school New Mexico:

The Rams are tougher than they've gotten credit for, while the Lobos, it appears, might have some chemistry issues behind their slide away from solid NCAA tournament at-large status.

More bluntly, look here:

New Mexico is now 5-6 since Drew Gordon became eligible. #UNLV passed on him b/c of chemistry concerns. Wonder if that's an issue at UNM?

It kind of pains me to think we took a player that UNLV passed on because of chemistry concerns.  Obviously, CBH and UCLA screwed up recruiting him but I think CBH is vindicated in ah the "mutual parting of the ways" with Gordon. 

It seems like CBH is working hard to correct some recruiting mistakes.  After the Stanford win, CBH immediately jumped a plane to the airport to go to Vegas to watch Shabazz Muhammad play in Vegas.  We may not win the recruiting battle for Shabazz but Shabazz has already said we are staying in contact the most and that was before CBH flew there Saturday night to watch his big game.  CBH is not going to be out worked.

CBH is also working hard to prove that last season was an aberration.  Getting back to the tournament this year is essential first step, winning a big name recruit like Shabazz would be another great step.  While I hate to quote the guys at Bleacher report what they conclude rings true, at least for today:

Conclusion

Ben Howland’s Bruins are making progress, moving back towards where UCLA is used to being. Just like the job that the Howland did when he first took over the program, he is restoring success to Pauley Pavillion. Even as the Bruins have opened Pac-10 conference play with a 5-2 record, you can see the pieces beginning to fall in place.

Basketball programs shouldn’t be thought of as elite because of a few seasons of success. Also, basketball programs shouldn’t be removed from such a status because of a couple of sub-standard years. In my opinion, UCLA is still an elite-level program that is fighting its way back to compete at the highest level.

Go Bruins!

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