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UCLA Basketball: Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss?

If you ever watch a Ben Howland post game press conference, he always reviews the stat sheet. And I think it is fair to say, his favorite stat is the opponent's FG%. As a phenomenal defensive coach it is a matter of pride for him to keep  the opponents FG% under 40%. And every game of this most recent win streak the opponent has shot under 40%.

In fact, taking away the last 1:39 when UCLA clearly let up and briefly played the walk-ons, Oregon State was shooting 29%. That's right, not even 30% for the game. Sounds like a CBH team doesn't it?

And the fact of the matter is the Bruins are becoming a defensive force.  In the four games before that of the current 5 game win streak, every opponent shot under 40%.

  • Oregon shot 39%.
  • St. John's shot 39%.
  • U$C shot 39% 
  • ASU shot 37%

Earlier this season, Tracy Pierson of Bruin Report Online had been disgusted with this Bruins team because they win games, like Cal who shot 58%. and lose games like VCU who scored over 80 points.  He wrote in November:

I wrote last season that the UCLA basketball program had gotten away from its identity under Ben Howland and, so far this season, it's the same story. Greg Hicks, in his review of the VCU game, covered the subject well, how this year's team, like last year's, doesn't emphasize the things that garnered Ben Howland success at UCLA, like defense, rebounding and playing hard.

It's a strange phenomenon, too, because it seems to defy Howland's philosophy. When Howland arrived at UCLA he stressed these staples, and it was clear that he was right; UCLA climbed back up the college basketball mountain because of them. But in recent seasons, Howland hasn't held his players accountable for their defense or for playing hard and it's no coincidence, then, that the UCLA program has dipped in that time, recruiting has fallen off, and the future of the program is relatively in question.

Howland built the UCLA program and took it to three Final Fours in a row because of those principles, the first and primary one being: UCLA is going to play tough man-to-man defense. In Howland's first five years, it was UCLA's defining characteristic, and we thought it was because Howland demanded it from his players.

And much of the reason the UCLA program doesn't adhere to those principles anymore has to do with a fundamental shift in UCLA's recruiting.

More reaction after the jump.

But now Tracy has come full circle and says of the recent Oregon State game:

UCLA has had a number of unsatisfying wins this season, in which they unconvincingly beat an inferior opponent with very inconsistent effort on defense.

. . .
So, really, it's a matter of taste, but the win over Oregon State isn't nearly as unsatisfying as some of the ones where UCLA's defense stunk up the joint. For me, at least, a game is easier to watch when UCLA's defense is holding its opponent to 33% shooting, rather than allowing them lay-ups off dribble drives or backdoor cuts like we saw so often earlier in the season.

. . .

It is, again, a testament to the team - and specifically UCLA's improved defense -- because, really, they should have lived up to the axiom and died by their outside shot this weekend, shooting just 31% from three in those two games. Honeycutt was 1-for-5 from the three-point arc, and Lee was 3-for-10. But (and I'm a bit dumbfounded that I'm actually writing this) the team beat Oregon and Oregon State because of its defense. It's a dramatic turnaround from the beginning of the season, when UCLA's offense carried it to these types of wins. And it's actually a good sign, because, as we've repeated ad nauseum, defense is what's going to carry you through and keep you in games when your offense just isn't working. We said earlier in the season that this team will go only has far as its defense can carry it, and even with the offense looking like crap Saturday, it was encouraging that the team had another good defensive effort and performance.

All in all, the team's development has taken a bit of a surprising turn. You never would have thought that, on February 13th, I'd be writing that UCLA's defense was carrying it, Nelson was playing good defense (and help defense, too), the team's offense was faltering, and that Lee and Smith had overtaken Honeycutt and Nelson as the team's leading scorers. With this team, it makes you a bit wary of what else could possibly change over the remaining month of season. No matter, at the very least, this year's unpredictable and fairly erratic version of the Bruins, the one where they play solid defense and even throw away the ball 26 times, is far more palatable than the version earlier this season.

I take a bit of an issue with the concept of "unsatisfying wins" in regards to this team.  This team has been learning and improving throughout the season and winning along the way.  That is all you can ask of a young team.  I think it safe to say the Bruins of November 2010 would lose to the Bruins of February 2011.  I think that is a good sign that CBH is doing that part of his job well.  Further, CBH's good teams were all efficient on offense as Pomeroy's statistics have shown.

But the larger point is CBH has been slowly making this team into a classic Ben Ball team. Malcolm Lee is becoming the wing defender that AA and RW were. He is even scoring a little bit like AA the last 7 games and as a result he is now the team leading scorer.  Tracy's point about "UCLA's shift in recruiting" does not ring true, the problems have been some misses and issues at PG.  However, those left, like Malcolm Lee, are becoming CBH style players.

More surprising to people like Tracy is the development of Reeves Nelson. Reeves is no longer a black hole on offense. He has 39 assists this year to 11 for all of last year. But most shocking to his critics is Reeves' offense has suffered a bit recently because he is focusing more on defense. Reeves was the key on DEFENSE in the SUC victory and against Oregon State he had seven defense rebounds in the first half when the game was in doubt.

Of course, all is not perfect.  The "push it" Bruins, have all but disappeared. There is one negative similarity to the Kevin Love Bruins where there were at times problems feeding the post (Smith is potentially even more dominant on offense than Kevin Love down low due to his size but much more limited in that Love was more rounded and could do it all). The bottom line is that this team needs to get Smith more touches in the post.

But maybe CBH was brilliant in that he focused on offense earlier and has been bringing the defense along as the season progresses.  Anyway you look at it, the Bruins are in a good spot going into their arguably toughest six games of the season. 

Go Bruins.