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Ben Howland keeps cool on the UCLA basketball hot seat

BILL DWYRE

John Wooden's legacy hangs over Howland, as it is for all UCLA coaches, and his current team is a work in progress very much like the Pauley Pavilion renovation project. But look under the radar and you'll find an interesting Bruins team that's looking like NCAA tournament material.

February 11, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • UCLA Coach Ben Howland has done an admirable job living up to the Bruins' storied past even if his current crop of players can't be compare to John Wooden's legendary teams.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland has done an admirable job living up to the Bruins'… (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles…)

Questions put to Ben Howland always seem to add up to the same thing: What have you done for us lately?

He is the steward of the most storied college basketball program in the land. John Wooden made UCLA basketball exactly that. Win 10 NCAA titles and they write poetry about you. Sit in the same sideline seat as Wooden and they watch your every move while still writing poetry about Wooden.

You don't fill Wooden's shoes. You light candles next to them.

Howland is seven coaches removed from Wooden and he is honored just to be there. He knows nobody can replace the man or the legend. He knows that, after Wooden, they'd boo St. Peter.

Of those on the hot seat following Wooden, only Jim Harrick had success similar to Howland's. Harrick won the school's 11th men's basketball title in 1995. Howland took the Bruins to the Final Four three straight years, 2006-08.

But that's ancient history now. The world moves at iPhone and BlackBerry speed. If you can't get it by clicking it, you don't want it. Instant gratification is too slow.

Howland coaches in a megalopolis whose first love of basketball is now the professional brand. Kobe is king. Pau is no pauper. And Blake Griffin has the city buzzing, even while playing for a 20-win team that just ended the Cleveland Cavaliers' NBA-record 26-game losing streak.

The Lakers and the Clippers play in a Taj Mahal. The Bruins play in a construction site that leaves the impression that final renovation payments may have to come from students standing on corners with tin cups. When the Bruins played Oregon on Thursday night in once-lovely-but-now-lumpy Pauley Pavilion, there were two constants: basketball and begging. Pregame and halftime presentations, live and on the video board, quickly got to the point: Write your check now.

The Pauley renovation project will cost $100 million. The amount collected so far is $67 million.

So Howland coaches on, with a $33-million deficit and the memory of John Wooden hovering nearby. Ah, what a run to an NCAA title would do to bolster the Wooden tradition. Ah, what a nice incentive for donors.

An afterthought is this season's production of Bruins basketball, which could be a hit. This is not a great UCLA team, but it is interesting and entertaining. And these Bruins are playing in an era when parity has become the norm as young superstars — some real and some delusional — take the money and run.

Were the allure of the NBA and its pot of gold not so strong, UCLA would have just graduated Russell Westbrook last season, and would have senior Kevin Love and junior Jrue Holiday leading the way this season.

In their place, Howland has put together a fairly talented, quirky group that ran UCLA's record to 17-7 Thursday night, beating Oregon for its fourth straight win and eighth in nine games. Seven conference games remain, starting Saturday at Pauley against Oregon State and leading to the Pac-10 tournament at Staples Center, March 9-12.

An NCAA bid is more likely than it was a month ago, and while another march to the Final Four appears to be a pipe dream, the Bruins' effort against a decent Oregon team seems to bode well for the future. So did the victory over Steve Lavin and St. John's last Saturday, considering the Red Storm has now beaten national powers Duke and Connecticut, and several other ranked teams.

In the past, Howland's teams seemed to play like they were on a leash. Not this group.

It features pro prospect Tyler Honeycutt, who is 6 feet 8, sees the court like an airport search light and glides like a guard. It also has center Joshua Smith, who is 6-10 and 305 pounds but moves more like a sleuth than a sumo. The problem is, referees see a fat guy and automatically exhale on their whistles. Smith, a freshman, sits a lot.

Then there is Reeves Nelson, a 6-8 sophomore who locates rebounds as easily as tattoo parlors. His left arm is mostly ink, his knees and ankles are huge packs of ice after games, and his desire to win with full combat is obvious. Nelson is about as inhibited as Adam Sandler.

There are others. Howland's team goes eight deep, and there is an attractive helter-skelter feel to this bunch. Thursday night's leading scorer was Malcolm Lee, who was averaging 13 points and who often picks up the heavy lifting on defense. Against Oregon, he had 25 points.

These Bruins play every minute on defense, contest every shot and like to push the break. Oregon pressed them all night and ended up depressed.

Howland says he likes this team. He doesn't always say that. He says he is looking only to Saturday against Oregon State, not on to the bigger fish Feb. 26 (Arizona) and March 3 (at Washington).

"I know that's boring," he says. "I get accused of that a lot by you guys."

We do that when we aren't asking what he has done for us lately.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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