Bruins cutting down playbook

Ben Howland, long known for his methodical halfcourt offenses, said he once used as many as 45 different sets.

In Saturday’s win at Stanford, the UCLA coach cut that number down to nine. After using around 18 to 20 for most of the season, he wanted to simplify the playbook even further for his young team coming off a quick turnaround.

Two days earlier, the Bruins had shot just 30.3 percent in the first half 76-63 loss at Cal. Against the Cardinal, UCLA shot 54.4 percent from the field.

“It’s all about execution and reading,” Howland said. “You have different reads: ‘If he trails me, I’m going to curl. If he goes ball side screen, I’m going to fade. If he fades, I have to shorten the pass. If he goes underneath, I have to re-screen.’” Continue reading

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Should Shabazz have celebrated more?

Larry Drew II made a buzzer-beater to beat Washington last night, his second game-winner of the season. Most of his teammates mobbed him. Shabazz Muhammad, who openly clamored for the ball, did not.

“Yeah, I wanted the ball,” Muhammad explained last night. “But Larry is such an aggressive player. When the ball went up, I knew it was going to be good. Everyone was on him and attacking him. I was like, I know Larry is going to have something broken or he’s going to have some scratches. I was going to wait until he got up to congratulate him.”

Head coach Ben Howland agreed today with Muhammad’s concern about potential injuries, and said the star was very happy for Drew: “I think it was overblown. I really do. I think it’s, y’know, another thing that gets blown out of proportion.”

Maybe, but how often do you see players not celebrate a buzzer-beater?

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UCLA 57, Utah 53: Bruins escape SLC

Ben Howland said last week that UCLA that opponents kept missing open layups, something he’d like as a continued trend. Against Utah Thursday night, the Bruins were helped to a 57-53 road win by some inexplicable 3-point bricks.

Glen Dean took two wide open 3-pointers at 2:02 and 1:41 — allowing the UCLA bench to breathe after watching the team surrender two offensive boards. Howland had said this week that the team would lose if it couldn’t box out effectively, something that has been one of the young squad’s biggest holes.

“They missed some wide open shots late,” Howland said. “Dean missed two wide open shots by the grace of God. I was really happy to escape this place.”

The positives are that the Bruins entered a rough environment and survived. The Huntsman Center was packed with a season-high attendance of 9,510, well above Utah’s home average of 7,380. The increase may be something UCLA should learn to expect: even as they remain a flawed team, the Bruins are an entertaining team and a marquee program.

A close win against the gritty Utes also isn’t necessarily cause for alarm; they’ve now lost three conference games by a combined eight points. Continue reading

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UCLA vs. Cal: What to Watch

Ben Howland readily admitted that UCLA’s defense was “horrible” five, six weeks ago, but is relatively pleased with how well its progressed since. (Freshman Jordan Adams: “He’s said worse.”) Still, the Bruins rank 11th in the conference in field goal percentage defense and have allowed 80.6 points in their past three games.

Right now, they’re still a team that relies on firepower — something both Howland and his players said will have to change as they enter conference play against Cal at 8 p.m. Thursday.

“That’s not really our mindset right now to go and outscore people,” point guard Larry Drew II said. “That saying: offense wins games, defense wins championships. We’re not going to be able to just outscore everybody that we play. At some point, we’re going to have to stop people from scoring as well. It’s definitely something we’re aware of.”

What’s at stake: UCLA is on a roll right now, having won five straight and six of its last seven. Continue reading

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Extra numbers from UCLA-CSUN

Some tidbits from the Bruins’ 82-56 win over the Matadors:

— Larry Drew II had a career-high 13 assists to just two turnovers. His previous high was 12 against James Madison this year.

“He’s not focused on scoring. … He’s a playmaker,” said sophomore shooting guard Norman Powell. “We count on him to pressure the ball on defense, get on the break, find the open man.”

— Kyle Anderson had his best offensive night of the year, scoring a career-high 15 points. Like he does on most nights, the point forward filled up the stat sheet with seven rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks. His shot was still iffy coming out of high school though, and that’s showed so far. Still a small sample size through seven games, but he’s 34 percent from the field and 50 percent from the line. The latter number is particularly atrocious, especially considering that he has taken more free throw attempts (26) than anyone on the team except Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams.

— Against CSUN, the Bruins had an 8-4 edge in fast break points and a 24-16 edge in points of turnovers. “Every time we were in transition we made good plays,” Muhammad said. “Guys like me, and Norman and even Trav are really athletic.”

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UCLA 82, CSUN 56: A post-Smith world

LOS ANGELES — In beating Cal State Northridge 82-56, UCLA finally played the way it was supposed to against the Big West. The Bruins still had sloppy moments on both ends of the court, but after recent debacles against Cal Poly and UC Irvine, the Wednesday night victory appeared to be a long stride forward.

But the news everyone wanted to discuss was the departure of Josh Smith, the second player to leave the program in four days. (Tyler Lamb announced his intent to transfer on Sunday.) Ironically, Smith was plastered all over the cover of the game program.

UCLA now has just eight scholarship players on its roster. And with Tony Parker’s sprained ankle, they may even have just seven available against San Diego State on Saturday.

Program gone wrong? Quote of the night, courtesy of Shabazz Muhammad: “I think Ben is the perfect guy for us.”

The players, predictably enough, tried to dismiss any talk of bad locker room chemistry. Travis Wear said that the guys all like each other and hang out together. Norman Powell said that UCLA will continue to be a top destination for recruits.

But it’s hard to argue against the recent exodus, all since 2008: Chace Stanback (UNLV), Drew Gordon (New Mexico), Mike Moser (UNLV), Matt Carlino (BYU), J’Mison Morgan (Baylor), Brendan Lane (Pepperdine), De’End Parker (USF), Anthony Stover, Reeves Nelson. Some were dismissals, but the sheer number is still stunning.

At this point, the Bruins have effectively cleared the roster of anyone involved with the program during the time documented by Sports Illustrated. The main holdover? Ben Howland.

Shed weight: It’s easy to make jokes about how much thinner the Bruins are in the frontcourt without Josh Smith. Travis Wear even made a few puns in the postgame press conference, although those could have very well been unintentional.

Smith hasn’t contributed much on the court, his numbers declining each year since his All-Pac-10 Freshman introduction that ended with a third-round NCAA loss to Florida. His 5.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game are hardly irreplaceable. (His career, both the good and the bad, are summed up well in this airballed layup. Skilled enough to take the ball upcourt, too heavy to finish.)

But just who exactly will replace them? The obvious candidate is Tony Parker, but he was bothered by back spasms last week and sprained his ankle during Wednesday’s warm-ups. He ended the game with a boot on his left foot, playing just one minute. Howland said the trainer didn’t believe the injury to be serious.

With no true big men available, UCLA was able to run a relatively effective up-tempo offense for the first time this season. Playing CSUN helped, of course, but there still were moments like Muhammad shaking a defender to go up for a dunk. Or a wild sequence that saw Norman Powell tipping the ball away at halfcourt, Jordan Adams diving to the ground to grab it before flipping it to Larry Drew, and Drew then swinging an alley-oop pass up to Powell.

Zone defense: Howland confirmed that the team will indeed play more zone defense, although it will not completely abandon man-to-man. Nearly every player looked more capable in the zone, but Kyle Anderson stood out in particular. His utilized his length well and didn’t have to fight through screens. The result was three steals and two blocks — all in the first half.

The caveat is that Cal State Northridge was having an absolutely atrocious shooting night. The Matadors front-rimmed shots from all over the court, from uncontested 3-pointers to running floaters. Few teams will be so kind as to convert just 32.9 percent of their shots.

Starting lineup: Ben Howland said he put both Kyle Anderson and Larry Drew in the starting lineup because he expected more pressure and wanted both his ballhandlers on the court. He then continued to emphasize that the starting five doesn’t matter that much because everyone will get minutes. (This is especially true now that Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb are both gone.) Jordan Adams also started for the first time, but didn’t see an uptick in looks: 8 points on 3/5 shooting.

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UCLA defense lacking effort, players say

Blowing an 18-point lead can be done. But to do so in eight minutes, against a team that had never before made the NCAA tournament? That takes a special kind of defensive nonchalance.

The general consensus among the Bruins two days after their 70-68 loss to Cal Poly was the team simply didn’t try hard enough. There were some factors with the youth adjusting to the college game and learning defensive principles, but the bottom line for everyone seemed to be effort.

“When teams run ball screens, sometimes they’ll switch them and sometimes we’ll trail it,” said freshman Jordan Adams. “Sometimes we’ll get confused. (We need to) just play harder. There’s no excuses. We need to play harder.”

Some players said more zone defense would be a good addition to the playbook, but Adams maintained that the team had the talent and athleticism to run a man defense properly. It all just comes down to — you guessed it — effort.

Point guard Larry Drew said that looking at film from the Cal Poly loss, it looked like players were putting more effort in on the offensive end than defensive — something many viewers likely picked up on during the first viewing.

Asked if that lack of effort traced back to practice, he agreed.

“Sure,” Drew said, sighing after a long pause. “I guess you could say that it starts in practice. I don’t think we had our best practices leading up to the prior game. You practice how you want to play and I think it showed.”

Some of this again points back to Howland. In addition to not having his talented players pushing themselves at the peak, he said that the Bruins haven’t been able to run fast enough because opposing teams are playing slow, patient basketball. When you allow unranked teams to dictate the pace, you’re probably not in a great place.

Wake-up call?

An overtime win against UC Irvine two weeks back should have snapped the Bruins into their expected selves. Then they lost to Cal Poly, which was picked to finish four spots behind the Anteaters in the Big West preseason poll. With one-loss Cal State Northridge coming up Wednesday night, UCLA players said that they’re not about to let up against another team from that conference.

“I think we took the team real lightly,” said freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who added that he was only about 80 percent of the way to full game shape. “Just really thought we won the game. You can’t come out like that, even when we’re playing teams that are not as talented as us.”

Added Adams: “This was a huge wakeup call. UCI almost upset us, but we were still in the same mode. This definitely was a wakeup call.”

He added that Muhammad’s recent return helped them brush off the close call against the Anteaters. Can’t use that excuse anymore.

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Larry Drew keeps TOs down, but needs to speak up

Ben Howland emphasized that, while he is still tinkering with lineups, Larry Drew II is the team’s starting point guard. The UCLA head coach pointed out Drew’s assist-to-turnover ratio — which is currently an exemplary 6.29.

The team’s lone senior is also leading the Pac-12 with 7.2 assists per game, and dished out nine without a single giveaway in the Cal Poly loss.

“Even though, we are playing more of an up-tempo style game, it definitely is a slower pace than I was playing at North Carolina,” Drew said. “Even back in high school, my game in general was never really a 100-mile-per-hour guy, up and down the court.

“Every possession, I like to slow down at times and see the floor. Read things and use my speed and change of direction. I’m just more comfortable within this offense.”

Howland added that Drew’s assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the best he’s seen through what his now his 10th season in Westwood. Given that Drew’s career average there is exactly 2.00, it won’t be surprising if he dips from his current pace.

The one criterion is also not the greatest indicator of point guard prowess. Jerime Anderson’s assist-to-turnover ratio last season was 2.33. Darren Collison’s in 2008-09 was 1.91. A year before that, Russell Westbrook’s was 1.74.

Howland did remark that Drew’s personality doesn’t have him harping on his teammates as much as he should — something the player is working to improve.

“I tell the coaches all the time. Whatever they want me to do, to just make sure that they stay on me about it,” Drew said. “If it’s something on the court, off the court, being a leader, being more vocal. I want to do whatever it’s going to take for us to grow as a team.”

Drew, the team’s lone senior, is also one of the team’s three captains, with David and Travis Wear being the two others. All three are UNC transfers. Take that as you will.

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UCLA vs. Indiana State: What to Watch

No. 13 UCLA opens its new stadium Friday night against Indiana State, a team picked because it was John Wooden’s only other coaching stop. The Sycamores return only one starter from a squad that went 8-10 in the Missouri Valley Conference. Here are some things to keep an eye on as the Bruins face an opponent that will provide more symbolism than challenges. Continue reading

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