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Ben Howland's challenge: Turning cubs into Bruins

With one exhibition game remaining, the UCLA coach faces the prospect of molding a team out of many freshman and sophomores. 'We're behind right now,' Howland says.

November 10, 2009|David Wharton

His voice carries above the squeak of sneakers, the chatter of players, echoing into the corners of a mostly empty Pauley Pavilion.

"Make those cuts hard," he barks. "Hard."

This is what Ben Howland lives for, the hard cut and the hedge, the close-out and the jump stop, fundamentals of the game.

Watch him at UCLA practice, clutching his notes, stopping mid-drill to nudge one of his guards aside and personally demonstrate defensive technique. A 52-year-old man in shorts, he crouches low.

"One hand up," he says. "One hand down."

This could be a long season for the Bruins, precious few upperclassmen sprinkled among a preponderance of freshmen and sophomores, no proven floor leader. They looked utterly rattled during much of last week's narrow victory over an NAIA opponent, Concordia.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 11, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
UCLA basketball: A chart in Tuesday's Sports section listed the Bruins' Pacific 10 Conference record under Coach Ben Howland as 75-32. The record under Howland is 76-32.

If Howland is a teacher at heart, he faces the challenge of his career. And class is back in session tonight with a final exhibition against Humboldt State before the regular-season opener against Cal State Fullerton on Monday.

"We're behind right now," he says tersely.

Coming into this season, UCLA's predicament was no secret. So much talent has jumped to the NBA in recent years that Final Four appearances are but a memory, the Bruins nowhere to be found in most preseason top 25s, picked to finish third in the Pacific 10 Conference.

"I think the biggest thing is the reloading process," Oregon Coach Ernie Kent said. "They've got some excellent talent in their program."

Through the preseason, the three seniors on the team have noticed an unmistakable "back to basics" theme.

Most important, Howland needs to mold sophomore Jerime Anderson into a reliable point guard, filling the void left by Darren Collison's graduation, but there are other pressing issues.

Guard Malcolm Lee must hone his shooting technique to provide much-needed offense, and forward Drew Gordon must control his emotions to become a consistent presence inside. UCLA needs immediate contributions from its freshman class.

"Basketball is a game of habits," Howland said. "In order to get good at something, you need a lot of different opportunities to get repetitions."

During a recent practice -- the one session each year that outsiders are allowed to watch -- the coach put that philosophy into action.

Shooters were lectured on keeping their balance, jumping straight up and down, holding form. Big men were coached on setting the double-screen, shoulder-to-shoulder, timing it just right.

An inveterate worrier, forever sweating the details, Howland overlooked nothing.

"What do you say in the post?" he called to center Anthony Stover. "Ball, ball, ball."

The freshmen had been warned by older players to expect a lot of coaching, not always delivered in a gentle tone of voice.

"He's tough," Reeves Nelson said of Howland. "He'll definitely get in your face."

The big forward, accustomed to working inside, is learning to defend on the perimeter. His classmate, Mike Moser, faced a tough week after allowing Concordia players to penetrate repeatedly, thereby breaking a tenet of UCLA's defense: Stay in front of the ball.

The coach was not happy, saying, "We've got to have better practices and understand how hard it's going to be."

Seniors such as Michael Roll and Nikola Dragovic are not exactly thrilled about the remedial work, but they see value in it, even for themselves.

"Maybe none of us have really done it over the summer, you know, the close-out drills or box-out drills," Roll said. "They just kind of sharpen up your skills."

This is not the first time Howland has encountered a dearth of experience -- he recalls a similar squad during his early coaching years at Northern Arizona.

It was suggested that, as a teacher, he might actually enjoy the task.

But mentoring a young team in Flagstaff isn't like undertaking the same job under a microscope in Westwood. And, given last Wednesday night's performance, all the work yet to be done, Howland is hardly jubilant.

"It's different, it's not fun," he said. "I wouldn't describe it as fun."




Howland at the helm

Ben Howland is entering his seventh season as head coach of UCLA. Before UCLA, Howland was at Pittsburgh for four seasons and Northern Arizona for five seasons:

*--* Season Team Overall Conference Standing Postseason 2003-04 UCLA 11-17 7-11 T-7th Did not play 2004-05 UCLA 18-11 11-7 T-3rd NCAA first round 2005-06 UCLA 32-7 14-4 1st NCAA runner-up 2006-07 UCLA 30-6 15-3 1st NCAA Final Four 2007-08 UCLA 35-4 16-2 1st NCAA Final Four 2008-09 UCLA 26-9 13-5 2nd NCAA second round UCLA totals 150-54 75-32 *--*

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