In Westwood, winning is the cure to everything
LOS ANGELES — Funny how quickly things can change.
Last month, the world seemed to be closing in on UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland. To simplify things, media and fans wanted his head on a platter.
The Bruins, with the second-best recruiting class in the nation, including two of the top three recruits in Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, had just lost their third non-conference game. They finally were playing at full strength — Muhammad missed UCLA’s first three games after the NCAA declared him ineligible for receiving improper benefits during recruiting visits — yet still, one of the nation’s most talented teams blew an 18-point lead and lost to lowly Cal Poly.
Two players quit the team in a week. Coming on the heels of last season’s Sports Illustrated story that painted UCLA as a program that had gone off the rails and adding to Howland’s reputation as a man with rather sharp edges, it seemed like the coach’s decade at UCLA — which included three Final Fours in a row — was grinding to a halt.
Not a peep of that sort is being heard around Westwood these days. All Howland had to do is win.
“We hear it all. It’s hard to deal with, but you can’t think of it,” said high-scoring guard Jordan Adams, another of UCLA’s highly rated recruiting class. “The last couple years (UCLA) hasn’t been all that great. Us coming in this year and trying to change all that, of course we’re going to hear it. Tweets. Media. Everything.”
All that calms down a bit when you win, though. Doesn’t it?
“And as soon as we lose, it’s back to the same thing again,” Adams said. “We try to stay away from that kind of stuff. It can bring you down.”
Just as winning can bring you up. Since the Bruins’ Dec. 1 loss to San Diego State dropped Howland’s team to a disappointing 5-3, the Bruins haven’t lost a game. UCLA has 10 wins in a row heading into Saturday’s contest against 21st-ranked Oregon. After missing the NCAA tournament last season and veering toward a perceived train wreck this season, Howland’s young men are back on track. Apparently, all they needed was a little bit of tough love from their grouchy father figure.
“I can’t control that,” Howland said of the outside rumblings to have him canned. “I just work to do what I can control, which is my effort, my staff and how hard we work at our job and help our kids improve and get better. We have a very young team. We had a shaky start. Really, we had one bad loss. The other two losses we had were to top-25 teams. Sometimes you’re dealing with people who are coming after you, trying to stir things up, and I can’t control that.”
Coaching often is described as a form of teaching. But a more apt analogy might be something closer to parenting. A college basketball coach’s job is to nurture his players. Sometimes nurturing means building up a player’s confidence. Sometimes nurturing means lighting a fire under the rear end of a huge talent. A coach must make the lesser talents play better than they ever thought they could, and the greatest talents learn to play as a team instead of as five separate units.
What Howland has done so far with this extraordinarily talented group of UCLA players has been something uniquely suited to his rather prickly personality. He used that old parental trick of tough love. With tough love, he got these young men to buy in. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that six of the stars on this UCLA team — Muhammad, Adams, Anderson, Larry Drew II and Travis and David Wear — were coached by their fathers in high school.
You can’t deny the results. Not just the three Final Fours in a row, not just Howland’s role in developing NBA stars like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love, but more crucially this season’s team. After a rough beginning, in the past month UCLA has played a looser brand of basketball; several of the players even brag about attending yoga classes. Muhammad started slowly but dropped 27 points on then-seventh-ranked Missouri in late December and is now averaging more than 18 points. Fellow freshman Adams is shooting the lights out, netting more than 16 points a game. Senior point guard Drew ranks second nationally in assists and, more importantly, first in assist-to-turnover ratio, with an astounding rate of nearly five assists to each turnover.
“It’s just about jelling more as a team,” Muhammad said. “If you look at it back with Cal Poly and Georgetown, everybody wasn’t on the same page. We were just playing pickup. Now we just know each other’s games and know what we’re going to do on offense and defense. Our team chemistry is getting to where we want it to be.”
Where this team wants to be is back in the Final Four. As for Muhammad? Howland has had to kick him out of the gym recently. Muhammad, who has lost some 10 pounds in a recent conditioning drive, has been working too hard, shooting late at night, lifting weights after 2½-hour practices. It’s that sort of drive, Howland said, that turns a great raw talent into a great player. And that’s what Muhammad says he wants to be. He doesn’t just want to be the best freshman in college basketball this year. He says he wants to be the best player.
And he wants UCLA, the team we all wrote off last month, to be the best in college basketball come March.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.