As an avid reader of BN, I felt like giving back and relating my recent experience at two UCLA basketball practices. I got lucky - the team practices at SAC and my buddies and I had just started a pick-up game. Knowing that the students have no access to bball facilities (Wooden is now used for volleyball, ect.), they let us stay on and use the last court for a little while. Afterwards, we all stopped playing and watched the practice. We had a former player, which probably helped. We saw over an hour total of scrimmage time, and lots of conditioning work. It has definitely given me better perspective on our team's current problems, and as a triple bruin, I feel everyone's pain with the state of our revenue sports. A couple points:
Who is Ben Howland? This has been one of my biggest concerns over the past few years. On one hand, we have a guy who the media consistently notes as a top-10 collegiate basketball coach and took us to three straight final fours. On the other, we have the ridiculous demise of a number one recruiting class and the wonderful experience of Mr. Dragovic's three-ball. I don't know Howland, but I can say this -- he works and coaches HARD during practice.
Ben Howland is your hard-nosed boss. He has been in the business forever, knows what he wants, and doesn't spend a lot of time consoling you when he tells you to do something different. He doesn't coddle you when you mess up -- he points it out in front of everyone and says let's get back to work. When someone messes up, he blows the whistle, tells the player what he did wrong, and gets back to it. This happens a lot. I don't think he's malacious, he's just, for lack of a better phrase, a hardcore perfectionist. As many of you know from your jobs, this type of boss is generally okay for the secure and usually requires pretty thick skin. His coaching style is not for the weak hearted player.
Josh Smith and Reaves Nelson: The first practice occurred early in the year - right before RN's first suspension. First, RN does not engage well with BH. The kid is a beast, but as the practice wore on and he made several defensive mistakes, his aggression dwindled. Every time BH pointed him out, you could tell he was legitimately peeved. BH approaches basketball in a very specific way, and RN pretty much discounted anything he had to say with his body language and effort. I have friends who pout when they do not get there way, but RN's disregard was pretty apparent. Honestly, it made me feel uncomfortable. I love the kid - maybe it was one bad practice -- but, man, it was passive aggression in its purest form. At one point, BH got on RN for missing the same defensive switch twice. The offensive ran the same play again and RN missed the switch again -- same exact play after just receiving instruction. BH looked visibly perturbed and had the team continue playing. It was awkward in that gym after this.
As for JS, he was the best player on the floor for the first fifteen minutes of a scrimmage. Then, he becomes the worst player. This kid cannot be stopped in the low post. His conditioning issue is obvious, but he is also a very emotional player. At one point during the second practice, he missed two defensive assignments that led to dunks for TW. BH stopped play and got on him pretty hard -- UCLA hedges on screens, and the weak side player has to come over and help the hedging big man, or else dunks happen and we lose. JS totally lost confidence after this experience. You could just look at his face and tell he just wasn't into it. In this instance, I can't necessarily blame BH for the way he went about things. I'm not going to speculate on an answer to the problem -- maybe BH needs to be less harsh, maybe JS needs to grow thicker skin. All I know is that JS doesn't seem to be getting better. This leads me to the next point.
Conditioning: Playing BenBall requires ridiculous conditioning. I've played basketball competively, and although not a big man, the hedging approach he employs on defense is completely draining. First, Josh Smith cannot last ten minutes in this defensive set. If he is forced to hedge three times in a row, he is winded and out for the count. When I say out, I mean he can't run down the floor. As for the team . . .
If there is one thing my buddies and I all agreed on - this is not a team that can last 40 minutes with that type of defensive pressure. I don't know why they aren't conditioned. At practice, these kids run hard for long periods of time. BH and his coaches work them, and at one point, I thought JS was literally going to pass out. Is it non-practice conditioning that's the issue here? I mean: DC, RW, KL, AA, The Prince, Alfred -- these kids looked ready to play hardcore defense for 40 minutes. AA actually got stronger in the last minutes of a game. Our current team just doesn't have that extra level -- many players were dragging after an hour or two of practice. Something is wrong, although I'm not in the finger pointing business. My friend who played on two of the final-four teams (practice squad) was bewildered by the conditioning level at the end of practice. The Texas game exemplifies this -- definitely a tale of two halves.
The Wear Twins: Besides JS for the first 15 minutes of a scrimmage, these two guys are the best players on the practice court. They shoot lights out and move pretty well on the defensive end of the floor. Obviously, this hasn't translated perfectly to our games, but I think they are improving. LJ comes in second here -- he had one great practice where he made a ton of buckets during the scrimmage breaking people down off the dribble. I think the Wears are still getting accustomed to the intensity of D-1, as they sat out a year, but they looked awesome during these practices. Hopefully that will start transitioning on the floor more. The key is learning BH defensive system, which requires a ton out of the big men, and being in top notch shape.
Powell: Super athletic, pretty good shooter, NOT in defensive shape yet (but he'll get there). The best of all is that he cares. He practices hard. I'm excited about this kid, although he is mistake prone when he has the ball in his hands -- had 2 pretty terrible back-to-back turnovers and looked a bit out of control sometimes. He's DC fast -- and in basketball, there is such a thing as too fast. He'll figure it out, and realize that explosive speed is only required in certain situations. Reminds me of a DC/RW combination. If he hits the weight room over the summer, watch out.
Hopefully that gives everyone a little perspective. I cannot believe RN is gone - he was my favorite player on the team at the start of the year. I'm not justifying the decision, but his attitude during that practice made me (a bystander) feel uncomfortable, so I can see why BH finally pulled the trigger. Obviously, criticisms/critiques about my post, as well as your insightful comments, are appreciated. Hopefully this adds some perspective our current troubles.