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UCLA basketball team plans to pick up the pace on offense

Ben Howland thinks a faster tempo will take advantage of his returning players' strengths.

November 11, 2010|By Ben Bolch

A giant bulldozer carrying asphalt plodded along outside Pauley Pavilion this week, creating a low rumble.

Not far away, a hole big enough to hold a house had already been dug. Bags of concrete mix and stacks of rebar were piled high, ready to be used in the construction of locker rooms and a main concourse.

All of the work on the 45-year-old building might be just a touchup compared with the overhaul of the team that plays inside.

When UCLA opens its basketball season Friday night at home against Cal State Northridge, Coach Ben Howland's Bruins will be looking to push the pace on offense.

You read that right. Mostly deliberate in the seven years Howland has been coach, the Bruins will now go for transition dunks and layups in the time it takes to do a one-eighth clap.

"We're trying to score easy buckets when we can," Howland said, "and I think this team will be good at it."

A faster tempo, Howland reasons, will capitalize on the strengths of his returning nucleus — the speed of guard Malcolm Lee and forward Tyler Honeycutt as well as the improved conditioning of forward Reeves Nelson.

Nelson was a blur in transition during a recent scrimmage against Westmont, scoring many of the Bruins' 26 fast-break points on dunks and easy baskets around the rim.

"It's good for me," Nelson said of the new philosophy. "Everybody likes to run."

When Howland announced on the first day of practice last month that the Bruins were quickening their pace, guard Jerime Anderson thought his coach would revert to his old ways within a week. He learned otherwise.

"When we started doing it every day and he was really preaching it," Anderson said, "I was like, wow, he really wants us to run now. … It was a big change. But it's a change that is really going to help our team."

The proof is in the pounding UCLA inflicted in its exhibition games, averaging 89.5 points in two blowout victories. Last season, while posting a disappointing 14-18 record, the Bruins averaged 66.8 points, albeit against much stiffer competition than Westmont and Cal State Los Angeles.

The speedier offense will require a few stylistic tweaks, particularly for Lazeric Jones. Howland said the junior college transfer, brought in to stabilize the Bruins' point guard spot, must become more adept at advancing the ball by passing rather than dribbling.

Lots of passes figure to end up in the hands of Nelson and freshman center Joshua Smith, whom Howland labeled the best interior scoring duo he has had at UCLA. Smith, a 6-foot-10 McDonald's All-American who appears heavier than his listed weight of 305 pounds, gives the Bruins the wide body in the middle they have lacked in recent seasons.

"They're going to have a hard time guarding him on the block," Lee said of Smith. "He's three-plus bills. That's hard to move."

As fluid as they looked at times in their exhibitions, the Bruins realize success will come in the Pacific 10 Conference only if they can be more rigid on defense. They were continually beaten off the dribble against Westmont and yielded 40 second-half points to Cal State Los Angeles.

"We don't want to be compared to the Phoenix Suns or the Golden State Warriors and average the most points but lose," Smith said.

Howland insisted there was no recruiting element to his new offense, saying the top priority of the high school players he targets is preparing for the NBA. Nevertheless, his current players said the faster pace could bring in a different breed of Bruin.

"This style is fitted to a more athletic team," Anderson said, "and that attracts the more athletic players out there."

A year from now, UCLA's newcomers will join the returning cast in playing home games at the Forum while the interior of Pauley Pavilion is renovated. It just so happens that the Bruins' offense may be ready for the home of Showtime a year ahead of the move.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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