Ben Howland's challenge: Turning cubs into Bruins - LA Times

BY foxsports • November 9, 2009

LOS ANGELES- His voice carries above the squeak of sneakers, the chatter of players, echoing into the corners of a mostly empty Pauley Pavilion.

"Make those cuts hard," he barks. "Hard."

This is what Ben Howland lives for, the hard cut and the hedge, the close-out and the jump stop, fundamentals of the game.

Watch him at UCLA practice, clutching his notes, stopping mid-drill to nudge one of his guards aside and personally demonstrate defensive technique. A 52-year-old man in shorts, he crouches low.

"One hand up," he says. "One hand down."

This could be a long season for the Bruins, precious few upperclassmen sprinkled among a preponderance of freshmen and sophomores, no proven floor leader. They looked utterly rattled during much of last week's narrow victory over an NAIA opponent, Concordia.

If Howland is a teacher at heart, he faces the challenge of his career. And class is back in session Tuesday night with a final exhibition game against Humboldt State before the regular-season opener against Cal State Fullerton on Nov. 16.

"We're behind right now," he says tersely.

Coming into this season, UCLA's predicament was no secret. So much talent has jumped to the NBA in recent years that Final Four appearances are but a memory, the Bruins nowhere to be found in most preseason top 25s, picked to finish third in the Pacific 10 Conference.

"I think the biggest thing is the reloading process," Oregon Coach Ernie Kent said. "They've got some excellent talent in their program."

Through the preseason, the three seniors on the team have noticed an unmistakable "back to basics" theme.

Most important, Howland needs to mold sophomore Jerime Anderson into a reliable point guard, filling the void left by Darren Collison's graduation, but there are other pressing issues.

Guard Malcolm Lee must hone his shooting technique to provide much-needed offense and forward Drew Gordon must control his emotions to become a consistent presence inside. UCLA needs immediate contributions from its freshman class.

"Basketball is a game of habits," Howland said. "In order to get good at something, you need a lot of different opportunities to get repetitions."

During a recent practice -- the one session each year that outsiders are allowed to watch -- the coach put that philosophy into action.

Shooters were lectured on keeping their balance, jumping straight up and down, holding form. Big men were coached on setting the double-screen, shoulder-to-shoulder, timing it just right.

An inveterate worrier, forever sweating the details, Howland overlooked nothing.

"What do you say in the post?" he called to center Anthony Stover. "Ball, ball, ball."

The freshmen had been warned by older players to expect a lot of coaching, not always delivered in a gentle tone of voice.

"He's tough," Reeves Nelson said of Howland. "He'll definitely get in your face."

The big forward, accustomed to working inside, is learning to defend on the perimeter. His classmate, Mike Moser, faced a tough week after allowing Concordia players to penetrate repeatedly, thereby breaking a tenet of UCLA's defense: Stay in front of the ball.

The coach was not happy, saying, "We've got to have better practices and understand how hard it's going to be."

Seniors such as Michael Roll and Nikola Dragovic are not exactly thrilled about the remedial work, but they see value in it, even for themselves.

"Maybe none of us have really done it over the summer, you know, the close-out drills or box-out drills," Roll said. "They just kind of sharpen up your skills."

This is not the first time Howland has encountered a dearth of experience -- he recalls a similar squad during his early coaching years at Northern Arizona.

It was suggested that, as a teacher, he might actually enjoy the task.

But mentoring a young team in Flagstaff isn't like undertaking the same job under a microscope in Westwood. And, given last Wednesday night's performance, all the work yet to be done, Howland is hardly jubilant.

"It's different, it's not fun," he said. "I wouldn't describe it as fun."