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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT | FINAL FOUR | Bill
Plaschke

Shotmaking is the missing ingredient under Howland

April 01, 2007|Bill Plaschke

ATLANTA — Six points forward, one step backward.

The faces were knotted tighter, the shoulders were slumped deeper, and it was so quiet in the UCLA locker room you could hear the rustling of a bag of potato chips.

The Bruins were half a dozen points closer to college basketball's best, yet it felt like they have never been further away.

"It's not enough," said Arron Afflalo, wiping away a slow rolling tear. "It's just not enough."

After losing to Florida by 16 points in last year's national championship game, the Bruins came within 10 of the Gators in Saturday night's national semifinal, losing by a 76-66 score that was little consolation.

Two years, and zero progress.

"I feel a lot more disappointed," Darren Collison said softly. "Last year we didn't know what to expect, but this year I felt we could take it all the way."

Two years, and identical problems.

"I came here to win a championship," Afflalo said. "Just making the Final Four is not enough."

Last year, the Bruins' Final Four appearance was the sweetest of dreams. This time, it was a sweaty 3 a.m. startle.

Ben Howland's defense is good enough to get close, but his offense is not good enough to close.

Ben Howland's defense can survive two tournament weekends, but he needs to find an offense -- and the players to carry it -- to survive the final two days.

For 20 minutes Saturday, the Bruins bumped and grinded the Gators into stomps of frustration.

Joakim Noah shook his ponytail. Al Horford chomped madly on his orange mouthpiece. Walter Hodge screamed.

"We knew they would be tough," said Chris Richard. "And, man, they were tough."

It would have been a perfect blueprint for a Bruins victory, but it was ruined by this team's nagging imperfection.

They could get stops, but they couldn't shoot. They were fighters on defense, but flighty on offense.

For every terrific double-team, they was a dumb off-balance shot. For every swat, there was a clank.

In the first half Saturday, UCLA allowed just 16 Florida shots, held the Gators to zero offensive rebounds, pushed them all over the court.

But the Bruins trailed by six points at halftime because they missed 20 of 29 shots and all eight three-point attempts.

Folks will blame the lack of offense on the early departure of the foul-ridden Afflalo, but, c'mon, when he left with 11:26 remaining in the half, the Bruins had scored only six points.

I wrongly picked UCLA to win, and I'm guessing Howland picked them too, and here's hoping we were watching the same game.

It's not about one guy. It's about a mind-set. It's about Howland loosening the reins a little more and finding an offense to match his defense.

"It was our inability to score that caused us the most problems," Howland acknowledged.

He said it, but does he believe it? Will he be willing to open up the offense next season with the arrival of 6-foot-10 star Kevin Love?

"Yeah, I'll always look to go back and try to learn and see what we can do better," Howland said. "Our biggest inability, and I take responsibility for it, is that we didn't attack their switching man defense very well."

Afflalo, with three fouls, oddly remained on the bench for the first 2 1/2 minutes of the second half. What happened during that time, and quickly afterward, ended the game and should establish a mandate.

The Bruins clanked two layups, had one shot blocked, a traveling call, and two airballs. By the time they settled down, a six-point deficit had become a 16-point deficit, and the rest was calisthenics.

"We've got to do a better job of being able to get better spacing and also to not be so reluctant to throw the ball to the post," Howland said, later adding, "We're always looking to tweak and to try to get better at what we're doing."

Good. They need to tweak it. Everyone sees it.

"They need a more balanced attack," said Jason Kapono, the former UCLA shooting star who was here on a night off from the Miami Heat.

"The system is in place, they just need guys who can make plays in the system."

In other words, a great defensive mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Could an unleashed Afflalo be that playmaker they need? Maybe, maybe not. Though Afflalo scored 17 points Saturday night, all of them came in the final seven minutes, meaning he virtually disappeared in both of the Bruins' last two losses.

Afflalo should learn from the Florida stars and stay in school and give it another chance. And if not him, then maybe Josh Shipp could become the focus.

But the Bruins definitely need to alter a philosophy that creates the playmakers who can carry them on only one end of the court. With all those great defensive stars eligible to return, next season could be a balanced blast.

Because for all his misses Saturday, Afflalo was right about one thing.

This is still UCLA. And just making the Final Four, even in consecutive years, will never be enough.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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