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Is Great Defense the Only Way CBH & UCLA Basketball Can Win ?

As UCLA likely heads back toward .500 with a tough game at Kansas this week it is an easy time to start questioning UCLA Coach Ben Howland and whether UCLA can win again.  Bruin Report Online leader Tracy Pierson does just that in an interesting but ultimately flawed analysis of UCLA Coach Ben Howland that I think is worth discussing.   The whole article is here.  The main point of his article, made in different fashions, is that CBH can only win and bring UCLA back again by focusing on recruiting athletes that can play stifling great man-to-man defense and by committing to the same defense first and foremost approach that led to three final fours.  CBH can't win with his current personnel or his "push it" offense.  As Pierson concludes (emphasis in original).

Perhaps he’ll realize again that the fastest track back to competitiveness is to play defense, and that, for him and his system, defense isn’t just the fastest track back to competitiveness, but the only track.

I have to respectfully disagree because the last sentence is flawed on many levels.  I don't think CBH or any truly great coach is a coach who plays one system and one system only. 

First, take CBH's own record which proves he can win more than one way.  No, not at Pittsburgh whose team played the tough man defense that UCLA has played, but his first head coaching job where he was known for offense and 3 point shooting.(emphasis mine):

During Howland's tenure, Northern Arizona emerged as one of the top shooting teams in the country. In 1999, NAU became the first team in NCAA history to lead the country in both overall field goal (52.3) and 3-point field goal (44.5) percentage in the same season. Additionally, the Lumberjacks led the nation in 3-point shooting in 1997 (41.9 percent) and 1998 (43 percent), while finishing second in the NCAA for overall field goal percentage (51.6 in 1997 and 51.1 in 1998). From 1997 to 1998, not only did Howland's teams produce back-to-back conference titles, but also consecutive Big Sky Player of the Year awardees in Charles Thomas and Andrew Mavis.

That is a completely different identity than that of Pittsburgh and UCLA. 

While CBH is definitely not in the top echelon of truly elite coaches whose teams  have won it all years apart, you will notice those teams did not play the same styles. 

  • As always start with Coach.  The Lew Alcindor (KAJ) teams were completely different from the press-first guard-led first two championship teams of Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich. 
  • Similarly between Bobby Knight's first and second championship teams there was a huge difference between a total team approach with a defense first PG who couldn't shoot (Quin Buckner in 1976) to the team led by a Hall of Fame offense-first defensive liability little-PG named Isiah Thomas in 1981. 
  • Or more recently,  Duke.  Duke won their first championship with Christian Laettner, their Center, as the star and a defense-first little scoring Thomas Hill as the small forward .  More recently Duke won the title with a likely future professional wrestler (Brian Zoubek) as their Center and Kyle Singler a small forward/power forward three point shooter who was the NCAA Tourney MOP.  Duke of 1991 was a complete team where the PF Grant Hill was the backup PG while Duke of 2010 was a three point machine with a rebound specialist best fitted for a post college life as a Rugby player as their Center.   

Obviously I am making broad imperfect analogies but the point is great coaches don't win the same way.  If CBH is going to be a great coach he has to adept. 

Now taking this to 2010.  Right now, Kansas is the number 1 in FG percentage in the country and number 3 in scoring.  They are at home Thursday night where they have the longest home winning streak in the country.  This would be a tough game for any UCLA team let alone a young and learning team.  By the end of Thursday night's game it may well look like we have given up on Defense which is why it is so easy for guys like Tracy to write this now; he will almost certainly be proven right to some extent on Thursday night against Kansas.   But CBH has not given up on defense.  He is adapting to his personnel to push it more and working on improving the defense

Keep in mind the following facts:

1.  Lazeric Jones is a young kid that is learning the speed of D-1 the hard way.  He has played just 5 games against D-1 opponents. He will likely never be a great defender but he is trying hard and learning

The UCLA junior guard and his teammates had been repeatedly beaten by Villanova's breakneck backcourt tandem of Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns, a blur unlike anything the Bruins had experienced in three season-opening victories over mid-major teams.

"I tried, I guess," Jones said. "I didn't do a great job at it. I guess we have to go back in practice and correct some things." . . .

"They are a fine team and we'll get better with experience," Bruins Coach Ben Howland said. "Lazeric's playing in a big game really for the first time against a top-10 team. … We have to learn from it and bounce back."

Zeke is no DC, JF, RW, or even Cameron Dollar. We can't be the level of the final four teams with him as PG . But he is by far the best we got right now and is better than what we had last year:

"We're much better than a year ago," Howland said of the Bruins, who went 8-10 in the Pac-10 and failed to reach the postseason. "It was hard to watch last year's team while getting ready to play Pepperdine again. We're more athletic and have a better point guard."

2.  As Tracy implies in his article the one common thing of three final fours was starting Power Forward,  Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.  Tracy correctly points out our PFs since have not measured up to the Luc standard.  LRMAM was awesome but no one would think of him as an offense first.  Since then the starting Power Forward have been Nikola Dragovic and Reeves Nelson.  While Drago was offensive in the literal sense, he was supposed to be a good three shooting and offense first power forward.  (Drago replaced Keefe in the starting lineup for more offense.)  Reeves is offense AND Rebounding first.  I think the latter is overlooked.  Reeves is a very good rebounder which is important to defense as well as offense. 

But Tracy's point still stands, CBH traded defense for offense at PF. But does that mean his conclusion that we will never be good again is also true?  Again no player in the near future is likely to equal Luc but it is way too early to compare Reeves and there is no way Reeves should be mentioned in the same breathe as Drago.

That said Reeves is to critics a crappy defender who does not care and to others a work in progress.  I will go the latter route.  On Friday against VCU, I watched Reeves a lot and saw him make more of an effort on defense but he still had lapses and make mistakes.  Reeves received two fouls in the first half when he slid over to help just a bit too late and was called for blocking fouls. It showed that Reeves is trying but has a lot to learn. 

I have no doubt it is Reeves CBH is talking about when he said (emphasis mine)

The one thing he regretted was switching to a zone defense from his trademark man-to-man defense midway through the season. At the time, Howland made the switch because it had become glaringly evident that UCLA didn't have enough athletes to play man-to-man defense at the level it would need to be successful in the Pacific-10 Conference.

"That was just doing everything we could to try to win games," he said. "But looking back on it, I wish I wouldn't have played zone because it really retarded the growth of some of the players we have now and they would be a little bit better at their man-to-man.

And I think Reeves is starting to get it.  Reeves has been talking about defense 

"We just have to get better on defense,’’ said UCLA sophomore forward Reeves Nelson. "We’re starting to play a lot of good teams. We also have to get off on better starts. We got down 8-0 right away [against VCU]. We’re better than last year. And these games will help us. If we can go to Kansas and win, that would give us great momentum going into the Pac-10.’’

 Reeves is not anywhere close to the defender of Luc but he is a slightly better rebounder and a superior offensive player.  (I would take Luc in a heart beat over Reeves, don't get me wrong, but I am saying Reeves is a good and improving player.)  Like Drago he thinks offense first but unlike Drago Reeves makes most of his shots, draws fouls, and rebounds.  He also has become a better passer this year.  He needs to keep working on defense and there are some good signs that he will.  

Point 3.  This team is not comparable to the final four teams PERIOD.  Right NOW we have one guy, maybe 2 guys, who could break into the regular rotation (the top 8 players)  on the last final four team.  (It is a different issue if you want to debate why UCLA failed to stay at that level.)  We can't play defense at that level.  So why not take advantage of the one thing this team does have over other UCLA teams, relatively fast and good in transition and rebounding players at the 3 and 4 slot?   The key question is not do they compare right now on Defense (they don't and won't) but  do they grow and become better players and a good team?  Where are they in March as a team entering the PAC 10 Tourney? Of course, on the way, they can't embarrass the four letters.  Right now they are a young team learning and improving.  But it is important they are a team, as Reeves Nelson said:

"I do feel more comfortable with this team this year because these guys are all my friends, not just my teammates," he said.

Obviously liking teammates, talking about Defense, etc. is just talk right now.  But the proof is not going to be in the  Kansas game but in the later games.  These Bruins need to win over 20 games, compete for the PAC 10 title and never give up (which of course means playing as hard  on defense.)  The latter will be the key against Kansas.  If they keep working, this will be a good UCLA team.  If they don't,  it may well prove Tracy right that CBH can only play one style with one type of player.  I hope and think Tracy is wrong and that this team will be competitive.  That is what I will be watching all season not just on Thursday. 

Go Bruins!