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Encouraging Signs

Once again during this non conference season we had been hearing a lot of murmur and complaining about Coach Howland’s scheduling. We have been reading the usual complaints about Howland needs to schedule more “exciting” and “marquee” top ranked teams to come into Pauley. It’s like clockwork. We hear it every year. What critics forget every time is how there is a method to Coach Howland’s scheduling. Every year he puts together a schedule that not only prepares the team not only for conference season, but it also helps the specific team he is coaching to develop and evolve that particular season.

This year he didn’t schedule a marquee team for the Wooden Classic (then again last year we heard whining because Davidson/Curry wasn’t marquee enough for UCLA … lol). Following DePaul he schedule a string of average to below average teams heading into the conference season. After last night I hope what Howland has done will sink in with folks. He is getting his team prepared in a way so that the Ben Ball warriors can be ready for any style of play. They have already gotten a taste of that slow down/milk the clock opponent strategy against teams like Miami (OH). They faced an elite opponent presenting matchup nightmares against Texas Longhorns. They got their taste of Beilein’s 1-3-1 trap zone in MSG. They have gotten in game experiences against combo of matchup zone and man-to-man, and yesterday it was their turn to take on a team that had fantasy of running uptempo in Pauley.

The results were “startling” to those who don’t know our program too well, but not all that shocking in our Nation where we know the Ben Ball warriors can play any style anywhere. From the LA Times (which was one the source that was startled with last night’s Bruin blitzkrieg at Pauley): 

Offense has taken a back seat under Howland, the program forging its reputation on tough, deliberate play, a style that has translated into three consecutive trips to the Final Four. So Tuesday night's game was startling in many ways.

Swingman Michael Roll, one of UCLA's best shooters, had a career-high 18 points . . . in the first half.

The team's 59 points over that same stretch would have won half their games this season.

The 9-2 Bruins, who had struggled shooting at times this season, made 60% of their attempts from the field, or 11 percentage points better than their average.

"We can play that way very easily," Roll said. "We have a lot of talented players."

MR has been a revelation to number of folks last few days but not to us. We have stood by him all these years and what he has been doing is not a surprise to us. It’s not a surprise to see the kid play within the flow of the offense, play unselfish on the offensive side while playing solid defense like a prototype Ben Ball warrior. Again on the offensive side MR is proviing to be lot more than just a one-dimensional long range shooter. He is running the baseline, effortlessly moving around without the ball, and exploding to the basket. I could almost sense Don McLean was picturing himself the way MR was setting himself up for those midrange jumper (although McLean wishes he could launch bombs like MR). Seriously in some way MR was looking like a lethal combination of Murray and McLean, which we haven’t seen for  a while in Westwood.

The only thing that has changed with this kid is he is finally looking healthy and comfortable. So with some extended minutes he is just delivering on the scouting report Coach Howland and his staff compiled on the recruiting trail about three years ago. The discussion now is about mintue allocation between MR and JS (via the Daily News report): 

"(Roll) will definitely get more minutes," Howland said. "The way he's playing right now, he's playing confidently, shooting the ball great. He's playing good defense and he's letting the game come to him. None of his shots are selfish."

Roll averaged 15.3 minutes per game before Shipp's injury, but has averaged 29.5 minutes in Shipp's absence. Roll said he wasn't looking to take minutes from Shipp and offered another possibility in which his minutes could increase. Before the season Howland talked about playing Shipp at power forward.

"(Howland) could put us both in very easily," Roll said. "I think that's deservingly so. With me, Darren (Collison), Jrue (Holiday) and Josh out there, that's a lot of firepower."

How it plays out could be learned Sunday, when the Bruins host Louisiana Tech. When asked if he would play, Shipp said "that's the plan."

"(Roll) is playing great, and we need him to," Shipp said. "We're going to need him deep in the season when other guys aren't playing well, or if they're injured. I'm happy for him. I definitely could see us playing (together). Mike's been doing great.”

With Howland in charge I am not all that worried about how the minutes get distributed. My sense is that JS will continue to start but we will probably see MR’s mins go up to 20-25 mins per game, which will probably cut into the mins of either ND or JK.

MR is of course not the only one looking comfortable. It’s starting to become apparent that AA2 is playing at a higher level than any time he has done during his years in Westwood. He is driving to the basketball effortlessly without thinking too much about. He looks so much more polished on the offensive end. His touch has improved a bit which is also evident the improvement from the FT line. He is now shooting 63% from the FT line (last year he was around 53%). The only thing we ask of AA2 is not to launch those jump shots and anticipating and preparing himself a tad better to catch passes down low.

The two kids who had somewhat of an off night were JH and JK. I wouldn’t worry too much about either I think. To me it seemed like JH was pressing a little too much. More than couple of times he tried to make spectacular passes resulting in turnovers. His shot is a little off (but all of them came within the scheme of the offense). He will be fine. He just needs to make sure he doesn’t feel any kind of extra pressure. He has all the talent and luckily for him he has some great team-mates to help him out.

Speaking of great-team mates, JK needs to make sure he doesn’t get down from his performance from last night. From what I saw last night (may be others will disagree) his defensive intensity was slightly off at the beginning of the game. Wyoming was looking aggressive early because they seemed to be driving inside at will and getting their share of second chances. Once ND came in our defense actually tightened up a lot more. To his credit JK played much better later in the game. Hopefully the tenacity we are seeing from DG on both ends of the court will driving both JK and ND to be more ferocious on the defensive end.

BTW in case any one didn’t notice while looking at the dazzling 3pt and forced TO stats, the team shot 18 for 21 from the FT line. That’s a great followup from 16 of 22 performance against Mercer. I am getting the sense the team as a whole is getting comfortable. Both ML and JA were perfect from the FT line last night along with JK and MR (who was also struggling a bit from the line early in the season). Hopefully they can stay that comfortable from the line rest of this season.

Obviously, we can’t lose perspective based on just one explosive performance against a Wyoming program. I think it’s reasonable to assert that through these last few games we have been seeing some tangible signs of improvement since some of the sloppy (but not so unexpected) performances from earlier in the season. Yet I am not naïve to think that every outing from now on is going to be just as polished. We will have our share of pitfalls and stumbles down the line against tough conference opponents.

Nevertheless given the way this team is progressing, I like our chances for contending for a conference championship and preparing well for the Big Dance. Can’t really ask for more from a team slowly and methodically evolving into one unit while featuring five freshmen and upperclassmen who are taking in prominent role for the first time in their Ben Ball careers. As we say always for a good reason, in Coach Howland we trust.