Ben Howland takes measured approach
UCLA coach is excited about his team and playing in New York, but it's also early
LOS ANGELES -- It was probably the song that really got him going.
Frank Sinatra has that effect on people.
And where UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland came from, it's usually a very good year when "New York, New York" comes on the loudspeakers after a win.
So you couldn't blame Howland for wanting to be a part of it again when his Bruins defeated Pacific last week to advance to the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off against No. 7 Villanova on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
After walking off the court at Pauley Pavilion with Sinatra at his back, Howland burst into the UCLA locker room with as big a smile as any of his current players had seen, then asked each of them whether he had ever been to New York.
"I've never seen him that excited," junior point guard Lazeric Jones said. "I've heard about it, but I've never seen it before and it's encouraging how positive he is about it."
A few minutes later at his postgame news conference, Howland was still buzzing.
"I'm really, really excited about this win," he said. "I'm excited for our players to play in Madison Square Garden, because to play there is a real honor and a treat for anybody that's done it. All the greats have played there. It's a special, special venue.
"The Big East tournament, having been involved for four years as a coach at Pitt, it's a tremendous experience to go back there.
"And for you beat writers, I'm happy for all of you that you get to go to New York. What a great place to visit."
So start spreading the news?
"I'm really happy about how we've started," Howland said. "You can see that we're a much better team than we were a year ago at this time."
A couple of days later, I revisited the question with Howland.
His tone softened some.
"It is too soon. Let's see how we do here," Howland said in his office, pausing to drink from a bottle of water after going through a workout to strengthen his ruptured Achilles tendon.
"We've got three really tough games coming up here in a row."
It wasn't for a lack of confidence in his team. Or because of what he'd seen in his initial scouting of Villanova.
It's just that after last season, when the Bruins went 14-18, only the third losing season at UCLA since 1948, Howland has allowed himself very few moments of joy.
There has been too much work to be done.
Last season's NCAA tournament?
"I wasn't really watching it," he said. "I followed it, but I wasn't sitting there watching every game. I was focusing on recruiting.
"I don't know how many days we were out, but basically every day that we could be out, we were out."
He also spent countless hours watching game tape from last season, analyzing what went wrong and trying to come up with some adjustments to change things.
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Too much had gone wrong for a shortcut to change things enough.
It was exhausting work, but Howland enjoyed it. Because at the end of the day, he found answers, not more questions.
The one thing he regretted was switching to a zone defense from his trademark man-to-man defense midway through the season. At the time, Howland made the switch because it had become glaringly evident that UCLA didn't have enough athletes to play man-to-man defense at the level it would need to be successful in the Pacific-10 Conference.
"That was just doing everything we could to try to win games," he said. "But looking back on it, I wish I wouldn't have played zone because it really retarded the growth of some of the players we have now and they would be a little bit better at their man-to-man.
"At the time, and you're always living in the moment, but for long term I wish I wouldn't have.
"I just think you need to be committed to what you do. In other words, if you're a zone team, like Syracuse or Arizona State, you have to be committed to it."
With incoming freshmen such as the rangy Tyler Lamb and ultra-quick Jones, Howland knew he'd have the athletes to go back to the high-pressure, man-to-man style that helped take UCLA to three Final Fours in four years.
He also thought this season's team would be better off as an up-tempo offensive team, instead of a half-court, set-play oriented attack.
"It definitely surprised me," Lamb said. "UCLA's been known as a half-court offensive team.
"And since I committed to UCLA, I've heard everything [negative recruiting] you could possibly hear. Like, 'He's not going to let you play offense like you want to.' All that stuff.
"But none of that means anything. Because how we're playing right now shows that he will adjust."
There are some who will suggest Howland has opened up his offense because the negative recruiting worked. That the top high school players backed off from UCLA because of Howland's "Big East" mentality.
Howland shrugs when confronted with the too-familiar question. He's annoyed but not bothered.
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"People are always going to have negative slants to everything," he said. "They were probably saying something negative about John Wooden. That's how ridiculous it is. You could find negativity in anything.
"But at the end of the day, the guys that we had here are doing very well in the NBA. That's a credit to them and their hard work. So I just feel, not vindicated, but blessed and honored to have worked with some of these kids.
"I think [becoming more up-tempo] is something we need to do. Our personnel is good for this right now. Our wings can get out and run. We got a lot of easy baskets the last few games.
"It's not like we haven't run before. The image of that is created by I-don't-know-who?
"But if you just go back and look at the points per game, and even more importantly, the field goal percentage offense versus field goal percentage defense and rebound margin, you can see it in the stats."
I want to ask more, but I can tell Howland already is pulling up statistics in his head. He loves details. Because buried in some obscure statistic only he has the patience to crunch and the intuition to look for, there are answers.
It's early still. The Bruins are just 3-0 with three huge tests ahead of them.
But for a few minutes, for the first time in a long while, Howland felt good enough about his team to feel as if he'd found something.
"I'm excited about this group," he said, allowing himself only the excitement of possibility.
"If we're able to stay healthy, I think we can be a very competitive team."
Just don't start spreading the news yet.
Frank Sinatra can have that effect on people.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.