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Howland Needs To Find His Team (The One That Plays "Ben Ball") Again

Let's relieve these sequences again:

Those moments are imprinted in our memory banks for rest of our lives. Those were the moments that symbolized the essence of a Howland coached basketball team. A team the foundation of which would be based on defense, passion, intensity and most importantly HEART. In the world of college athletics it is all about heart. That's what differentiates great programs from the good ones. We had that and more few years ago when Ben Howland ushered in a new era of prosperity in UCLA basketball by bringing in the class of AA, JF, JS, and LMR.

Those four kids and the recruiting class immediately after it (made up of DC, LRMAM, PAA, MR and Ryan Wright) came in with a chip on their collective shoulders. Except for AA and JF, none of them were McDonald All-Americans. JS was somewhat highly recruited,Wright was being pursed by Stanford, PAA by Georgetown (during their mediocre years), but that was about it. Those two classes anchored around AA and JF came into Westwood with the purpose of redefining UCLA basketball under Ben Howland and bringing it back to where it belongs.

They all came in with the overall purpose of winning and contending for championships with Wooden's program. Yes, number of them went on to the NBA, but those goals came in later years after they had established themselves in Westwood. We all got the sense of what those freshmen were made of very early in their careers when AA and JF took the team into Tucson and almost pulled off a huge upset against a very good Arizona team (at the time). We knew something special was brewing within JF and AA when they went toe to to with Salim Stoudamire in the desert. It was the ferocious intensity and drive of those two guys that infected Dijon Thompson and later on inspired Bozeman, Hollins and the entire team in their second season.

Those guys wanted "it." BADLY. Look at that video again. See how those guys hedged and rotated back on their man. Remember how those guys dove on the floor for every freaking loose ball. One thing we knew about those Howland teams in early years. We knew going into every game that there was 95 percent change that our warriors were going to outwill and outhustle the other team every time out.

That is not happening with the team "led" by Dragovic, Roll and Lee. All of these guys are mentally soft. You can read it in their body language every time the going gets tough. Dragovic has always been a terrible shooter except for the decent nights he has one every few games. Roll has good fundamentals and a sense of Howland's scheme but haven't seen him make a clutch shot or a play since a mid range jumper he sank against Pitt in a tourney game few years ago. Lee has shown signs of being a decent defender (relatively speaking here) but his offensive skills are not there, and at least from what we have seen he is no where to close to level of AA, RW in terms of bringing passion, intensity and leadership on the basketball floor.

You can sense it when you watch these guys. Every time we face an adverse situation you can sense from their body language how they are ready to crumble under pressure. They got incredibly lucky against Arizona State down the stretch as their un-leader like plays almost cost us in crunch time. So what exactly is going on?

The easy way out is of course to solely blame these guys and point to their lack of heart and desire. However, I also think we have to wonder why they are looking so lost, dispirited and frankly often either uninterested or nonchalant on the basketball court. None of these guys (and their team-mates except for Nelson at times) have shown any sense of urgency.

While watching these guys I often get the sense they know they are not athletic enough to play man to man defense. The team Howland has at his disposal doesn't have both the physical or mental make up of the teams he had put together to play the ferocious, inside-the-jersey defense night in and night out basis. I wonder if going through the same insanity over and over again is sapping their moral and causing them to look so dispassionate on game days.

Yeah, after some soul searching in next few days, I am sure these guys are going to come out and play with a little intensity (perhaps) against Berkeley in our next game. However, does any one really expect our guys to handle Christopher, Roberts and Randle all at once? Uh yeah, perhaps Howland will throw in a zone once again here and there, but what good that will do when he stubbornly goes back to man-to-man with the same dreadful results again?

I am not worried about this season any more. I did have a little false sense of hope after seeing the zone defense against ASU. I thought perhaps Howland for once was showing genuine commitment to making adjustments and adapt to the personnel he has at his disposal (which btw is his responsibility). However, all of that hope was quashed yesterday afternoon when we saw a team sleep walking through the same insane routine we have witnessed earlier in the season.

Moreover, I thought Malcolm Lee's comments were pretty disturbing:

"We were physically ready, but our mindset wasn't," said Lee, who along with guard Michael Roll led the team with 15 points. "Better preparation would have made a better outcome. Getting up, getting loose, getting pumped.

"Last time we played early in the morning it was a bad game, too. We just have to be better prepared."

WTH? The guy, who the coaches are counting on to be the next "AA" of this basketball team is openly questioning the level of preparation they undertook before what was their biggest game of the season. These guys needed to "get pumped" to play Arizona? Get that? A UCLA basketball player has to "get up" and "get pumped" to play Arizona at Pauley? Again, something is terribly wrong with this picture.

I think after Gordon left many of us were hoping and praying that it had solved issues impacting the team. I am not entire surely that is the case right now. Except for few fleeting moments this season, I have been watching a UCLA team that has been playing zombie basketball, led by bunch of role players who are not worthy of taking up the leadership mantle of Ben Ball warriors. Meanwhile, the underclassmen seem thoroughly dazed, confused and often demoralized without any sort of leadership on and off the court.

It is up to Ben Howland right now to find the right mix again. It is not happening with the current personnel on the court. There was a time in Westwood, when Howland had no problem with reducing the minutes of upperclassmen like Brian Morrison, and allocate them to his eager freshmen. He had figured out a way to make his freshmen hungry, inspired, and tenacious enough to battle like warriors. He needs to find a way to get that formula back. He needs to find a way to get his current group of underclassmen hungry and instill in them a sense of urgency, the same way he was able to do with his first two classes in Westwood.

Yes, the Gonzaga moments were something special. They were also not on aberration. They typified the Ben Ball warriors, we all fell for years ago. I want to have that team back which played its hearts out on defense, dove after every lose ball, went after every rebounds like bunch of junk yard dogs, played with unmatched ferocity living up to their obligations to the four letters in front on their jerseys.

I want that team back which dug deep, played defense when chips were down, instead of taking stupid, dumb, three pointers to get back in the game. I want that team back which was together, on each other, when chips were down, instead of just drooping their heads, and lollygagging on defense when the game got close. We lost all of that somewhere along the way last season and it has exacerbated into an unwatchable, ugly form this season which sullies and insults everything that was all pure and holy about Ben Ball.

I hope Howland figures it out and find that team again. He needs to do it with the guys who will be around for him next season and beyond, not with the ones who will go through the motions, playing a brand of "basketball" that is anything but Ben Ball.