New brand of Bruins
WESTWOOD, Calif. -- The grunts came from one UCLA player after another taking a charge during practice and could be heard up to the last row of Pauley Pavilion. The thumping of bodies and the sound of backsides slapping the court was as common of the squeaks of sneakers and bouncing of basketballs.
So, too, was Ben Howland's booming voice, instructing and ensuring the cuts and screens were set strongly, with feet planted as if they were rooted into the lane.
UCLA wasn't scrimmaging or shooting. No, this was a drill on how to take a charge. The week before, the Bruins were instructed on how to dive for loose balls during their first official week of Camp Howland. It was the stuff created by a coach to instill toughness. So what if it resulted in a few floor burns and sore muscles.
"The hardest thing is, physically our bodies aren't used to it," UCLA junior Dijon Thompson said. "Everyone has a nagging injury. Now my lower back hurts. But mentally we're getting through it ... The one I hate the most is diving on the court for the ball. I don't really like that drill."
"It's just like I was playing at Penn State, like the Big Ten," said UCLA senior guard Jon Crispin, who transferred to the West Coast last season after two years as a Nittany Lion. "I love it. It's actually setting screens. It's like we'll be a Big East team in the Pac-10."
Crispin didn't have to compare these UCLA practices to those found on the East Coast. It's how UCLA was going to play basketball as soon as it hired Howland as its 12th head coach since 1919, but eighth since John Wooden stopped winning championships in 1975. Call Howland's troops the Pittsburgh Bruins or the UCLA Panthers if you must, but the Southern California native returned with a new brand of basketball for the Pac-10 under the guise of UCLA colors.
Say goodbye to the decades of finesse that has become all too commonplace in Pauley. If the Pac-10 officials let Howland's boys play the way his Panthers did in the Big East (remember Dick Bennett is going to play physical at Washington State as well) the Bruins have a legit shot to make a remarkable turnaround from a 10-win season of a year ago under Steve Lavin.
"We'll play physical, but we'll play within the rules," Howland said. "You have to beat your guy to the spot first, and hold your position. You win by playing good defense, rebounding and being efficient on offense by taking good shots. You win by being a team. We should play that way whether it's at UCLA or Pittsburgh."
Like the rest of the Bruins a year ago, Crispin found the Pac-10 to be a severe challenge. Not so much the talent level -- which is certainly high -- but in adjusting to the Pac-10 way of play. Coming from a Penn State squad that reached the Sweet 16 in 2001, Crispin averaged only 8.4 minutes a game for UCLA, but it was enough court time to figure out the difference between the Pac-10 compared to the Big Ten, which is closer to the East Coast brand of basketball Howland's squads play.
"Any bump or hand check got called," Crispin said. "Playing physical shouldn't be about fouling, but being aware of people putting a body on someone hard. It's about setting solid screens, and running through screens.
"I'm sure we'll have guys foul out the first few games. We've got a lot of guys here who think hacking is being physical. If somebody hits you, you don't punch them back. You play hard. We're getting back to basketball, getting on the floor, and it's a new and exciting thing here."
Thompson said he and his teammates are still struggling with the difference between fouling and playing hard, especially sophomore center Ryan Hollins.
"He has to understand between hacking and physical play," Thompson said. "Right now he's hacking. He's going to foul out of a lot of games if he doesn't stop that. You've got to move your feet to play strong."
Howland is candid when it comes to evaluating his new players. To put it bluntly, he had tougher personnel at Pittsburgh to play his style. And, to that end, he will recruit accordingly. But Howland can see the potential of Hollins and freshman forward Trevor Ariza within his system. Still, he said these Bruins lack a mean streak that might be needed to play tougher -- even out West.
"You can enhance it, to try and bring it out of people," Howland said. There is no doubt the Pac-10 calls games tighter than the Big East. Howland sought out Pac-10 officials to let them know he plans on playing a Big East style that essentially got him this job. The question remains, however, whether Pac-10 officials will let his Bruins play his style.
Pac-10 officiating czar Lou Campanelli is expected to speak to the Bruins this week when he's in Los Angeles for Pac-10 media day. He's not going to give Howland cart blanc when it comes to contact. It'll likely be a trial and error process with the officials.
"I loved the Big East and the consistency of officiating," Howland said. "The Big East has the best officials in the country. I used to love games that Tim Higgins or Jim Burr did."
Thompson said he hopes the Pac-10 officials let the Bruins follow Howland's lead, otherwise it "would be bad if they don't let us because that's what we're practicing to do now."
UCLA would be wise to mimic Stanford to a certain degree. The Cardinal dispute claims that it is the most physical team in the Pac-10, but the consensus among the Bruins is that Stanford plays a brand of basketball it hopes to this season. The argument could be made that Stanford does so because it doesn't have the athletes that other teams have had in the past, but Pac-10 teams like Arizona State, USC, Oregon -- and at times, Arizona -- play just as hard in the halfcourt.
Still, the team Howland is trying to emulate remains his former one in Steel Town.
"I miss Julius (Page), Jaron (Brown) and Chevy (Troutman)," said Howland. "I miss those guys. If we had them we'd be a tournament team for sure."
Longing for Panthers of his past isn't going to make the Bruins any tougher. But it's not as if Lavin left Howland's current squad void of talent.
Sure, 6-9 senior T.J. Cummings is out for the first semester because of grades. But he's expected to return by mid-December and help beef up the interior. The Bruins still have 6-6 junior Cedric Bozeman, a combo guard who was highly coveted out of high school; a 6-7 junior in Thompson, probably the Bruins' best scorer; and 6-11 sophomore centers Hollins and 7-foot Michael Fey, who would be in most teams' rotations.
Role players like 6-1 junior Ryan Walcott, the 6-foot senior Crispin, 6-8 junior Josiah Johnson, 6-3 junior Janou Rubin and 6-8 freshman Matt McKinney are all capable of contributing in some form (an assist, rebound, perimeter shot, or timely charge) when they're on the floor. UCLA also gets junior guard Brian Morrison eligible, who started at North Carolina. Howland despises the way Morrison jumps in the air to make passes, but he's probably the toughest guard on the team and should adapt to Howland's style quickly.
"If we do everything he says, we'll win games," Crispin said. "Across the board, we still have a lot of talent. At Penn State, when we went to the Sweet 16, we didn't have this kind of talent."
And that may be the key to UCLA's success. Howland, combined with UCLA tradition, will get better talent than he did at Pittsburgh. Add talent to toughness and suddenly the Bruins are back in the top 10. But it'll take time.
For now Howland will stress field-goal percentage defense (UCLA was sixth last season in the Pac-10 at 44 percent), rebounding margin (6th at plus 0.4) and free-throw percentage (5th at 69.7 percent), as well as turnover margin (10th, minus-2.31 a game). Those will be the numbers he'll check after every game. If those numbers are good, Howland will have started the process that proved so successful at Pittsburgh.
And the players know what his intentions are after watching Pittsburgh the past three seasons. Bozeman said he was impressed by the Panthers' tough defense, especially in the halfcourt. He said this team has the athletic ability to pull off a similar stingy philosophy.
"We're following our coach and we believe what he says is right," Bozeman said.
Remember, it's not as if UCLA is a program in disarray, either. Lavin did lead the Bruins to the NCAA Tournament six straight years before last year's collapse ultimately cost him his office space in Westwood. It's not entirely unthinkable that Howland can start up a new postseason streak in 2004.
"I personally had a fun year last year, even though we were losing," Thompson said. "I had a great time. Everyone had a great time. We just didn't capitalize on the wins."
(UCLA beat Arizona in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament, only to lose the next night in the semifinals to Oregon).
"Right now we've got a clean slate," adds Thompson. "And that's a great spot to be in."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.