Ben Howland's UCLA team has been successful playing a run-and-shoot… (Rick Bowmer / Associated…)
BOULDER, Colo. — — Ross Land couldn't believe his eyes.
Land, who years ago played four seasons for Ben Howland at Northern Arizona, had seen his former coach develop a certain reputation. But now he was watching Howland's UCLA Bruins play Stanford on television when a graphic flashed on his screen: UCLA leads the Pac-12 in scoring, it read.
"Oh man, I don't know if Ben is happy about that," Land recalls thinking.
UCLA is averaging 78.5 points per game, the second-highest in Howland's coaching career. No. 1 on the list is his 1997-98 Northern Arizona team, which averaged 80.2 points per game.
Standard operating procedure for Howland's teams back then would make any UCLA fan do a double take. "We outscored you," Howland says.
The coach's motto: "Recruit to shoot."
Defense was emphasized, but Northern Arizona won with offense.
"He always said, 'Take good shots,' and if you did, he was OK with you firing it up," Land says of Howland.
It would be simplistic to say Howland has unleashed his inner Lumberjack this season. The mantra around the UCLA camp remains, "defense, defense, defense," freshman guard Jordan Adams says.
But there is a small shift in gears. The Bruins play more run-and-shoot this season than the plod-and-pick style of recent years. UCLA entered action this week ranked 14th nationally in scoring.
Howland is in his 10th season at UCLA. Before that, he was coach at Pittsburgh for four seasons, which changed him. Competition in the Big East Conference was part basketball, part Ultimate Fighting. Defense became the obsession and Howland toted that with him to Westwood.
But this season, UCLA players are being reminded that you can't spell Howland without a little "o."
"We're trying to run a lot," forward Travis Wear said. "We're trying to shoot a lot. We're trying to get easy buckets. We have a ton of scorers on this team."
It gives Land flashbacks.
"We didn't have quite have the athleticism that Ben has now, but he put together the right pieces," says Land, who has been an assistant coach at Chico State, Northern Arizona and UC Irvine. "We shared the ball and took good shots. We had the freedom to fire it up."
Northern Arizona led the nation in three-point shooting for three consecutive seasons, from 1996-97 to 1998-99, and the Lumberjacks earned their first NCAA tournament berth in 1998.
In 1998-99, Northern Arizona became the only team to lead the nation in field-goal percentage and three-point shooting. "We had to understand what a good shot was," Land says.
Land recalls Howland's instructions to 'pass up a good shot for a great shot.' Land also says "about 90%" of a Lumberjacks' practice was defense. "At the end of the day he would say, 'OK, let's execute some offense.' We'd do 10-15 minutes on half-court and transition."
Asked about his Northern Arizona teams, Howland says, "We shot it really well."
Asked about this season, Howland says, "This is one of the better shooting teams I have had at UCLA."
The Bruins have averaged 80.1 points during their current eight-game winning streak, though things have become a little more gritty in Pac-12 play.
"Coach has placed a lot of emphasis in offensive transition," Wear says. However, freshman guard Kyle Anderson notes, "When it's time to get things under control, he steps in."
One of those moments came in the second half against Utah on Thursday. After the Utes cut into what had been a 13-point lead, Howland signaled for the Bruins to slow down. UCLA hung on for a 57-53 win.
"Defense is most definitely still stressed," Anderson says. But, he adds, "Coach kind of lets us play sometimes. He trusts us."
There is a lot to trust.
Anderson ran down the options, from Adams to Travis Wear to David Wear to Larry Drew II to Shabazz Muhammad and concluded, "It's a lot to worry about when you play us."
As for Land, he watches and remembers. "It's neat to see Ben let the guys go," he says.