Ask most national writers or fans around the nation what they think of when they hear the name Ben Howland and besides "UCLA" the first thing out of their mouths will be "defense". At Pitt and then at UCLA, Howland built winning teams on the defensive end, playing a tough, physical man-to-man defense that caused havoc for opponents. It became his trademark.
For years, Howland's teams were measured by their defense. Hold a team to 35% shooting, which wasn't particularly rare, and his teams would win. It was a style and hallmark that earned UCLA three trips to the Final Four. LSU was befuddled by it in Indianapolis and one of the nation's media darlings, Big Baby Davis, was completely overwhelmed by it. John Calipari's high-powered Memphis offense fell victim to it in one Elite Eight, too. Even Kansas, led by Brandon Rush and a handful of players that would later win a national title couldn't figure it out.
Somewhere in the last five years, though, defense has become an afterthought in Westwood. Howland's teams still lived and died by it, but it became a lot more death than life. It wasn't a focus, as more offensive-inclined players who couldn't hack it on the defensive end earned playing time. The athletes that once made the defense go weren't around anymore either and more than anything, the mentality wasn't there.
Whereas the Howland Bruin teams of old took pride in shutting down teams and leaving them wondering if it was even possible to get an uncontested shot, UCLA started taking breathers defensively. They just stood around waiting to get out and run. But as they found out, and what the losses drove home, was that you have to play defense and get stops if you want to run.
But David Wear said at Pac-12 Media Day that things were different this year.
"Defensive is going to be the backbone of this team," Wear said.
This season, Howland has made running and playing quickly a priority again, but he said that starts on the defensive end. You can't fastbreak when you're taking the ball out of the basket so for every time you hear "we're going to run", that "we need to get stops" prefaces it is implied. Everything starts on defense.
And Howland is going back to the trademark man-to-man defense to get those stops, too. The high ball pressure, trapping and big-to-big double teams? The Bruins will do them all, but Howland emphasized that the doubles on the post are going to be a big part of the defense.
"We've only spent one day doubling the post so far," said Howland. "We definitely want to look at doubling the post more, which means we have to get better at it. We weren't very good at it last year so we need to practice, but it's something that plays to our length."
"Pressure" was one of Howland's favorite words of the day. Be it up top with the point guard, in the corners or down on the post, the Bruin defense is going to be predicated on pressure. That is what will force turnovers, hurried shots and poor floor balance for UCLA to run off of.
"We're going to try to pressure the ball," Wear said first when asked about defense. "We'll do big-to-big doubles. We'll trap"
Despite it all, and how much Howland harped on getting back to basics, which is his man-to-man defense, he did not rule out playing zone. In fact, both he and Wear said they expected the team to play some zone this year, too, in homes of taking advantage of the talent on the team. While not a guarantee that the Bruins will play zone, acknowledging it as a possibility is a step forward for Howland, who in the past has ruled it out until he had seen his man-to-man get beat for at least the first month of the season.
"Long-term it's not what I want to do, but we may have to just because of our length," Howland explained. "There may be instances based on certain games where we go to it."
That's new from Howland, but it makes sense. Josh Smith isn't exactly the fleetest of foot, and Tony Parker still has to work himself into better shape, but they are both space eaters that can make it really tough to get to the rim if camped out in the paint. The length of the Wear twins, Kyle Anderson, Shabazz Muhammad (if he gets eligible) is also something that could make for an effective zone and even the guards, from Larry Drew to Norman Powell and Tyler Lamb, can make for a zone that take away the middle.
Howland isn't all talk either. While he may not play zone, the Bruins did play it in China and did touch upon it in practice, making it more than lip service, if not a tool put to use yet.
"We may play some zone too", according to Wear. 'We did a little bit in China and with the length and quickness of this team, we create a lot of issues for other teams' offenses."
It is all defense, all the time for UCLA now. Sound familiar? That was the talk about the Howland-led Bruin teams that were winning Pac-10 titles and going to three consecutive Final Fours. That is coming back this year, or at least that is the plan. When you hear "run", that starts with defense. It starts with pressure. It starts with ... zone? Maybe so.
Whatever the case and whatever the defense, UCLA will only be as good as they are on the defensive end. The pressure is on the Bruins this year. The pressure is on Howland. Pressure is the hot word around UCLA basketball now and that's the hot word on defense, too, which holds the key to everything.