There are those giving the program and the coaching staff a great deal of credit for rebounding from the losing season in 2009-2010, and they certainly deserve it.
But, as evidenced by our season preview, the season went just about as you might expect. Given the talent and degree of experience the team had it didn't really perform beyond expectation.
But I guess after the 2009-2010 season a great deal of credit is due to the coaching staff for bouncing back and not performing below expectation.
Before the season we cited many of the issues that the team would need to overcome – mostly inexperience, immaturity, a question of leadership and the ability to focus and play hard. You can definitely make the case that the team developed in all of these aspects during the season. It was quite a different team you saw play against Florida in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament than the one that lost to Montana in December.
You wouldn't perhaps, say, though, that it really took an unforeseen jump ahead in any of those elements. It developed as, well, you might have predicted. As we did, in fact.
The one most prominent issue throughout the season was the team's struggle to consistently play hard from game to game. That was easily the result of many of the other issues – inexperience, immaturity and a lack of leadership. Progress isn't made in a straight line but in a jagged one, and this team moved up the graph in starts and stops, but it did, indeed, progress in terms of effort. It played hard far more consistently by the end of the season than it did at the beginning. Many individual players seemed to make strides, and they collectively did as a team.
The one barometer of a team's development – and specifically this team – was the effectiveness of its defense. At the beginning of the season it generally played poor individual and team defense. It averaged 41.8% in field goal percentage defense on the season, which is decent, but in the second half of the Pac-10 it averaged 39%, which is exceptional. The team had some defensive issues throughout the season – defending screens, help defense, a few players being able to stay in front of their player and transition defense. Most of the players got quite a bit better in their individual defense, staying in front of the ball, by the end of the season. Transition defense, at the beginning of the season, was a glaring issue. Early on, opposing teams would have their primary ballhandler dribbling up the court with no one stopping the ball to get easy baskets, but that was practically a non-issue in the second half of the season. The team's help defense evolved into something different than what we were accustomed to see with a Howland defense; instead of players rotating over and plugging a lane and hopefully drawing a charge on a dribble drive, this team utilized its shot blocking ability as its weapon of choice more predominantly in help defense. Understandably so, since the team wasn't exceptionally quick laterally, but was a particularly good shot-blocking team (Ieading the Pac-10 in that statistic). UCLA allowed far less easy lay-ups as a result of their helpside defense in the second half of the season than it did in the first couple of months.
Perhaps the biggest defensive issue was defending screens. It was the season's defensive bugaboo, with each player struggling in his own individual way to do it. When Josh Smith was getting into foul trouble consistently in the first half of the season, much of it was because he was expected to come out 23 feet from the basket and hedge on a screen, and that big body was just so easy to call a foul on for referees. Howland changed that halfway through the season, and had Smith plug instead of hedge, and that definitely cut down on Smith's foul issues. But it did kind of throw the team into confusion on what the standard procedure was for defending screens. Some bigs would hedge, others would plug, and then sometimes they'd switch, and it all was based on their individual match-up for a specific game. The problem is the UCLA guard didn't seem to always been on the same page, so that would leave two Bruin defenders following the same player out of a pick and roll, allowing the rolling player an open lane to the basket. UCLA got much better at it in the last dozen games or so, seemingly getting on the same page more often. But you could see that opposing teams definitely kept going to the fundamental high-ball screen to try to exploit UCLA's glaring defensive weakness. Oregon mastered it in the Pac-10 Tournament game, and UCLA players seemed almost dizzy trying to remember what they were supposed to do – hedge, plug or switch – on every screen when the screens were coming fast and furious.
It will certainly be interesting to see if next season Howland goes back to standardizing his approach to defending a screen – the approach he generally had throughout his first 8 seasons at UCLA – that is, hedging a screen. You would have to believe that UCLA's young bigs will have gotten much better at it. Anthony Stover is perhaps the best UCLA big to do it in the Howland era. Brendan Lane was proficient. I would suspect that Travis and David Wear, who are fundamentally sound players, are pretty good at it, too. If Smith and Reeves Nelson could improve at hedging, it would certainly go a long way next season to bolstering UCLA's defense, and making them far less susceptible to a screen. Or Howland could very well choose to keep it the way it is – either hedge, plug or switch – and believe that the team will continue to improve at it next season, as it did this season.
UCLA's defense improved in all of these tactical facets, but its improvement definitely paralleled the defensive advancement of Nelson. UCLA had two big defensive problems on its hands at the beginning of the season – Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt. It wasn't that anyone said they couldn't be good defenders, but that they didn't seem very interested in it. When the two guys on your team who are getting the most minutes are lazy defenders your defense is bound to suffer. Honeycutt's defensive effort and focus didn't improve much as the season progressed, but Nelson's did. In the first half of the season, he looked disinterested in helping on defense, and commonly jogged back in transition. But then, in the second round of the Pac-10, when he asked Howland if he could defend USC's Nikola Vucevic and then he shut down Arizona's Derrick Williams, Nelson had clearly taken on the challenge of being a good defender, and generally succeeded. He showed far more effort and focus defensively since that second USC game than he did at the beginning of the season. And that included help and transition defense. It seemed that the challenge of defending Vucevic and Williams provided Nelson some defensive inspiration. Then, with just that advancement in defensive effort and focus from Nelson, even without Honeycutt jumping on the defensive bandwagon, it seemed put UCLA over defensive critical mass, and the Bruins actually became one of the best (or the best, according to Arizona's Sean Miller) defensive teams in the Pac-10 by the end of the season.
Of course, it would be incredibly remiss to not credit Malcolm Lee when doling out credit in terms of UCLA's defense this season. While Nelson might have been a huge catalyst in UCLA's defense improving, Lee was UCLA's defense. Without Howland being able to utilize him to shut down each opposing team's best scorer, nothing could have turned around UCLA's defense this season. His defensive performance was one of the best ever in recent UCLA memory, being right there with the defensive performances of Russell Westbrook and Arrron Afflalo, if not surpassing them. Lee did his without the great supporting defensive cast that Westbrook and Afflalo had. Just for that alone, Lee was the team's clear-cut MVP.
The issue of playing hard was easily the most recurring theme of the season. You didn't know what Bruin team would show up game to game, the Bad Effort Bruins or the good Bruins. So much of that was the result of the de facto leaders of the team, Honeycut and Nelson, and their personalities. Honeycutt is naturally a too-cool type, and he's admitted to be. He's the type that, to stay loose, will be smirking when he goes to the free-throw line in the last few seconds of a game. Sometimes that works – most of the time when you're not the team's leader. Nelson is moody, sometimes something happening during a game where you could clearly see his mood and effort level deflate. Sometimes you could see he was deflated when he took to the court. Nelson is also a little quirky, exhibiting some off-beat behavior. Now, we're not condemning these two for either of their personality traits, but merely making the case that when you hand over the keys to the car of the team's leadership to players with idiosyncrasies like this, you're going to have an indiosyncratic team. And that's exactly what Howland had this season. It definitely smoothed over by the end of the season, mostly as you could plainly see Nelson's maturation.
Honeycutt, on the other hand, didn't seem to mature. He seemed about as too-cool at the end of the season as he was at the beginning. Many observers speculate it's because he has been set on going to the NBA after this season and that kept him from caring a great deal about UCLA basketball. We know for near certainty that Honeycutt does, in fact, intend to put his name into the NBA Draft. Everyone we know in the UCLA basketball program considers it a done deal. Now, perhaps something could change between now and June, but that's just how it is now, in March. Perhaps Honeycutt's mind being in the NBA did indeed affect his effort level. We're more inclined to believe that, while that probably did affect his play, it's more just a result of his personality. It's just who he is.
It's interesting, too, because we've heard quite often that NBA scouts are giving Honeycutt the benefit of the doubt – as a result of being coached by Howland. Scouts have indicated that being a Howland player Honeycutt will come into an NBA team far more advanced than other college players, like Westbrook or Kevin Love were. But what many of the NBA scouts are missing is that – yeah, he might have more basketball knowledge as a result of being coached by Howland -- but just because he came from the same program as Westbrook or Love doesn't mean he will play as hard as they do.
Offensively, UCLA had a fairly good season. Howland is getting better at constructing his offense, with far more variety in his offensive sets, and more attempts at exploiting his offensive strengths, while also employing more motion elements. The offense flowed more often this season, especially against a zone defense, which had always been a weakness for Howland's UCLA teams. This season, however, there were times when the Bruins tended to operate better offensively against a zone. It took the Bruins a while to find its offensive identity, though, with a new starting point guard and new, freshman center. By the end of the season, the offense seemed to have found that identity, moving the ball inside-out, and trying to get its big as many touches as it could. Howland has always been, and always will be, too enamored of the outside jumper. Many of his sets are designed to open up an outside look, but he definitely got it this season that UCLA's offensive strength was in getting his bigs touches in the post. The problem, though, when you have an offense designed to free up outside looks is that you need a team that can shoot well from the outside, and this year's UCLA team just wasn't that. It shot 32.7% from three, which got it ranked 231st in the nation. The guy who took the most three-pointers on the team, Honeycutt, was inconsistent, and shot just 36%. Lee, who is the "shooting" guard, shot a paltry 29%. And it doesn't appear that next season UCLA will get an influx of outside shooting prowess. Honeycutt, as we said, is almost certainly leaving. The team will collectively improve with an off-season of work and natural development, but it'd be a reach to expect UCLA to suddenly be a very good outside shooting team. In other words, the Bruins are going to have to play to its clear offensive strengths next season, and that's getting Smith and Nelson touches in the post.
The public relations campaign at the beginning of the season that UCLA was going to run more was just that. It was first a misconception that UCLA didn't run before Howland started saying they were going to run more this season, just as much as it was a misconception that they did run more.
Looking toward next season, here's a breakdown of each of the players:
Nelson – As we said, his maturation this season was a big reason the team stabilized in the second half of the season to a degree. He's now shown a clear indication that he's willing to work to improve the aspects of his game that were lacking, and that's perhaps one of the most promising elements of next season. If Nelson stays on his maturation trajectory, it's pretty exciting to consider what kind of player he could be by the end of next season. Offensively, the idea that Nelson can play the three simply needs to be put to an end; the more he focuses on being a better post scorer, the better. He showed that he's very good playing off Josh Smith, cutting to the basket away from the ball, and he should get more of those opportunities next season as Smith becomes even more of a low-block monster. His rebounding sputtered a bit mid-season, but then he found that inspiration and he finished off the year with a renewed sense of hitting the boards. He has a habit of falling asleep on blocking out, which goes back to the issue of sustaining effort, but if the second half of the season is an indication, and he remains on that maturation trajectory, it appears that the lapses will continue to become less frequent. He averaged almost a double-double on the season, at 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds, and to imagine him playing with increased maturity next season, while being dedicated to defense, is a great proposition. It will also be very good for Nelson that he won't have Honeycutt on the team, in our opinion; without Honeycutt, Nelson will probably be less likely to fall into his rut at times to lose effort and focus. In terms of whether Nelson will return, we've heard rumors that he could leave the program at the end of the season. But everyone we've spoken with who's close to the situation has no idea where those rumors are coming from, and are certain he's returning.
Lee – It's highly unlikely that Lee isn't in a UCLA uniform next season. There are just too many factors that would deter him from putting his name in the NBA Draft: 1) his injured knee, having just had surgery Tuesday to repair the torn cartilage, projected to be out 4 to 8 weeks; 2) The impending NBA lockout, and 3) His draft projection being in the second round, and probably an inability to go to NBA draft camps to improve upon that with his injury. Also, while Lee is our MVP for the team, he still has quite a bit to improve, and he doesn't really translate that well to the NBA. At just about 6-4 and probably 185 pounds, he's better suited physically to playing point guard in the NBA and, after attempting to play the position as a sophomore, it's pretty clear he's not suited for it. So, if he's a shooting guard, he shot 29% from three this season. His shot definitely improved, looking cleaner and more polished, but that's not a very good clip for a shooting guard. He definitely improved in his feel and approach to the game, making far less bad decisions with the ball, in both driving and passing. If you remember, if he put the ball on the floor in his first two seasons at UCLA he was a turnover machine. That was a distant memory this season, having more assists (67) than turnovers (56), which is good for a shooting guard. He clearly developed in his movement away from the ball, too, making great cuts to create opportunities all season. His defense, of course, was stellar throughout the season, and it's his calling card that will, in our opinion, eventually enable him to play professionally. Some of the defensive performances he turned in this year were incredibly impressive, and it's even more impressive to think he achieved some of them with damaged cartilage in his knee that required surgery. If you're considering the team for next season, he perhaps is the most vital part – being the guy that Howland can, game after game, put on the opposing team's best offensive player. In years past, UCLA always had a couple of defensive guys like this on the team at the same time; in the last couple of seasons, it's only been Lee holding down that responsibility, and that's put even more pressure on him, which he has responded to very impressively. He, too, has been the consistent example of playing with effort on this team this season, while others were vastly inconsistent, and he leads by example. When he returns next season, if he can get his three-point shooting rate merely into the 35%+ level, he will potentially be an All-American candidate.
Smith – Talking about the prospect of a players' development being exciting, Smith embodies it. And when you're talking about bodies, Smith's might be the biggest key to his development, and UCLA's season in 2011-2012. Smith weighs about 325 pounds right now, having lost about 50 pounds between the time he came to UCLA last summer and the beginning of the season. He now has between March and next October to get down into the 300-pound range. Just those 25 pounds could be the difference between UCLA having a decent season in 2011-2012 and potentially challenging to make the Final Four. Those magical 25 pounds. Without them, it's fun to imagine the improvement in Smith's mobility, which is already pretty nimble for a 325-pounder, and his ability to get off the floor quicker. This season it was one of the most dynamic aspects of the team – watching Smith develop, particularly offensively. He started the season playing tentatively, and as he began realizing that those little gnats on his back couldn't defend him he began asserting himself. He threw down a couple of monster dunks, and that seemed to bolster his confidence. He still went up soft far too often in the second half of the season – but c'mon, the boy needs some room for growth, right? If he does get in better shape, and his offensive game continues to improve at just a decent rate, it's not a stretch to project him as one of the best handful of centers in the country next season. While still taking his baby steps, he averaged 10. 9 points per game, playing just 21.7 minutes per game. Merely increasing his minutes to 28 per game next season he'd average 14 points per game, without any offensive improvement. If he could improve his free-throw shooting alone (he shot 61% on the season), he'd be far more dangerous, with opposing teams perhaps not so fast to employing the Hack-a-Shaq approach the did this season. So, it's completely reasonable to expect that Smith will be a major offensive force next season, a game-changing type, where opposing offenses are going to have to attempt various things to stop him. Perhaps a bigger key for Smith will not just be finishing, but his ability to carve out space in the post, because you could see that many opposing teams' best defense against Smith was to deny him the ball. UCLA could be seeing quite a lot of zones next season to keep Smith from touching the ball. Smith's defense clearly improved, as it does with every freshman big, throughout the season. He committed foolish fouls early on, and less as the season progressed. He became a good post defender, being able to move that considerable girth and not get beat to the spot. He also showed he's a very good shot blocker, being second on the team with 34.
But for Smith next season it all comes down to those 25 pounds.
Jones – While he didn't have a great second half of the season, we have to give him a pass. He was clearly inhibited by the injuries to both hands. Howland said in the press conference Tuesday that he should be 100% within just a few weeks. He shot almost 39% from behind the three-point line up until the second game against USC when he injured his wrist, and then 27% after that. It also didn't just affect his shooting, but just about every aspect of his game, even things that were mostly mental, like defense and decision-making. What was encouraging, though, was that his assist production increased after his injuries. He averaged 3.6 per game for the season, but 4.2 in the last 13 games with the injuries. While, of course, you don't want to see anyone get injured, there are some around the program that believe Jones' injuries could benefit him in the long run – that it forced him to think and play more like a point guard. Before the injuries, though, he had seemingly found a good offensive niche for the team, being able to drive the lane and score, and then be a good option on the perimeter for a kick-out. His defense was a bit inconsistent at times, especially after the injuries. He seemed, too, to go the way of the Honeycutt-Nelson path; when they were in their little-effort mode, Jones tended to float into it too. Overall, there's much to be positive about in terms of Jones next season. Howland said, even though he was a JC player, it's just like a freshman coming to UCLA for the first time, having to learn so much and get accustomed to the higher-level of D-1 play. If he's healthy, and he can combine the improved vision and passing of the second half of the season, with the outside shooting from the first half, and continue to improve his defense, Jones could very well have a chance to be an all-conference performer next season. At the very least, from what we've heard, he's a player who very much recognizes his role on the team – and next season that will be getting the ball to Smith and Nelson inside.
Anderson – He was perhaps UCLA most improved player, coming off a disappointing sophomore season to then put in the type of year he did in 2010-2011. Anderson was UCLA's sixth man, being used at point guard and off-guard, and he did so many things that don't necessarily show up on a stat sheet to really help UCLA improve its play during the course of the season. First, he was a good defender, being probably the better on-ball defender of the two point guards. He is the team's most natural point guard, the guy who makes Howland's offense run the best, knowing where the shooters are, or are supposed to be. He's probably the best at feeding the post. He had the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team at 1.78. And when it came to scoring, Anderson started to assert himself, hitting some big three-pointers throughout the season, and also getting better at driving the lane and finishing. He actually finished the season with the team's best three-point shooting percentage at 38.6%. His shooting vastly improved from his sophomore season, and it's easy to project that it will continue to improve by next season. It takes him some time to get his shot off, and as he becomes someone that opposing teams are going to have to recognize as an outside threat he'll have to shorten up his mechanics. His ability to be able to play alongside Jones gives UCLA the capability of matching up with a smaller backcourt, and then getting more offensive playmaking on the court, which was probably one of the main reasons UCLA did better against zones this season. Perhaps the biggest contribution Anderson made was emerging as a true team leader, one that was vastly needed on a team that could go down the wrong path at times. Smith attributes Anderson with guidance this season, as did other players.
Lane – The sophomore forward definitely had an up-and-down season. He started off strongly, beginning the season by establishing himself as a strong defender. Early on Howland even said that Lane was probably his best post defender. He also showed a good grasp of helpside defense and the double teams. By the start of Pac-10 play he was averaging 5 points, 5 rebounds, almost two blocks per game, and had hit 4 of 8 from three, averaging about 23 minutes per game, while providing good D. Then, Lane went off the cliff. His production fell off considerably, his minutes were cut, and instead of the energy he brought to the court for the first third of the season, he looked like he was asleep out there. He then in early February took off some time from the team for his grandfather's funeral, and he returned with a renewed sense of energy. He had a few very noteworthy games in the last month, and was probably one of the few bright spots in the overtime loss at Cal. It's, then, very promising that Lane could return next season and build on how he ended the season. It's also promising to think that he'd be able to work on his game the entire off-season and what kind of improvement could come from that, as compared to missing five months after surgery on his ankle last spring and summer.
Stover – Again, if you want to talk about excitement over upside, Stover is the poster boy. As a redshirt freshman, he had a very promising season, establishing himself as a difference-making defensive presence. He is an excellent shot blocker, and once oppponents realized that, he altered every shot within the paint, which dramatically affected the game, and was one of the strongest elements contributing to UCLA's defense becoming effective in the second half of the season. And it wasn't just his shot-blocking; Stover was perhaps the best post defender on the team, with good feet and quickness, and that length. He did, at times, get too hyped up, and leave his feet on easy pump fakes but, again, he's a freshman. Compared to other freshman posts in the Howland era, he's probably the best defensive player. He was easily the best hedger on screens among the post players. He had the uncanny stat of being the only player in the country with more blocks (15) than points (12), and you'd like to say that will probably change as his raw offensive skills develop. But, on the other hand, you wouldn't mind if he maintained that distinction for the next three years at UCLA. We talk all season about whether a player is a positive or negative sum game on the court – that is, does he do more positive than negative for the team. Even with scoring just 12 points on the season, Stover was one of the players who was far in the positive column. He's such a potentially influential defensive force you don't even care if he becomes an offensive option; if he does, say by the time he's a junior or senior he's averaging 10 points a game, he's going to be the name at the top of the positive column. When UCLA decided to take Stover as along, colt-like prospect, it showed great foresight and ability to project by the UCLA staff. Recognizing the lottery picks is easy; this is the kind of scouting and evaluation that builds championship programs.
Lamb – In so many post-game interviews with Howland during the season, Lamb received that back-handed compliment: "I should have played Lamb more." On one hand it's recognizing that Lamb, as a newbie freshman, brought some things to the court that could really make a difference. Howland just struggled to consistently intergrate that into his universe. Howland's management and use of Lamb was probably his biggest personnel misstep of the season. If he had played Lamb more in the first half of the season, let him play through many of his freshman mistakes, he would have had a far better, experienced player that he could have used in the second half of the season, when Honeycutt wasn't exactly sustaining effort on the floor. You can tell that Howland, at the beginning of the season, intended to use Lamb; he averaged 19 minutes in the first seven games of the season. But then, as he tends to do, Howland gets a bit conservative in his subbing. In conference play, Lamb averaged just 9 minutes per game. He went a stretch of 7 Pac-10 games when his minutes were in double figures just once. Heck, even if Lamb hadn't played more in the first half of the season and hadn't improved, we still think he was under-used merely because he was such a good defender, something that Honeycutt failed to be so often when UCLA was struggling at times. After Lee, Lamb was UCLA's best on-ball defender. The only player in the Howland era who has been a better defender than Lamb as a freshman was Arron Afflalo, and that might have only been due to Afflalo getting 30 minutes per game in his first year. Lamb then combined Afflalo-level defense as a freshman with a Josh-Shipp-like knack for creating turnovers, and a Mike-Roll-esque feel for the game and passing ability. He could battle with Anderson for the crown of being the best post feeder on the team. Lamb has point guard-like vision, understanding how an offense works, and almost every time he was in the game he made UCLA's offense flow so much better, and always kept his eyes on the prize of dumping it low to Smith. Yes, he did make some freshman errors, but again if we're doing the positive-negative sum game Lamb was far in the positive column. He simply didn't get enough playing time this season because he shot 20% from three, and shooting is so much for Howland. The recurring theme here in this post-season wrap-up is being excited about the potential development of players, and Lamb is right there with Stover in terms of projecting what kind of player he could be a couple of years down the road of his UCLA career.
If we're talking about the future, UCLA adds four players to its roster for next year. The 6-9 twins, David Wear and Travis Wear, sat out the season due to transfer rules, and will be redshirt sophomores. Norman Powell, the athletic 6-2 shooting guard, will be a true freshman. And De'End Parker, the 6-5 wing from City College of San Francisco, will be a junior. Projecting how they'll fit in to UCLA's squad for next season is for another article, since this one was mostly concentrating on a review of the season. But with UCLA only losing Honeycutt, and adding these four, again you have to say the future is exciting. Many college basketball pundits are speculating that UCLA will be a top ten team in the country. Florida's Billy Donovan even intimated that the Bruiins would be top five.
If so, Howland will have weathered the storm of the last couple of seasons. It would be a testament to his dedication, perseverance and quality of coaching. Yes, we can be critical of Howland throughout the season, but we're mostly nitpicking, which is our job here at Bruin Report Online. If Howland can resurrect UCLA to be a top 10 program next season, and secure an elite 2012 recruiting class, you could safely say that he re-established his UCLA program as among the best in the country.
The unknown aspect of Howland's coaching was not whether he could re-build a program, but whether he could sustain one. He was the fix-it man for Northern Arizona, Pitt and UCLA, swooping in and turning around those programs in a short amount of time. But in his head coaching experience he had never stayed at a program and had to sustain a level of success. We questioned early on whether he'd be able to do it, mostly because he never had before (and never had the opportunity, really). If he does accomplish these two things – bring UCLA back to a top-ten level next season and secure an elite 2012 recruiting class – it would be safe to then say that Howland has the capability of sustaining success.
What was perhaps the most curious aspect of the 2010-2011 season was how Howland might have almost inadvertently re-established his identity. I published an article last season how it seemed that Howland had gotten away from the fundamental things that made him successful, mostly putting a team on the court that played tough defense and played hard. We thought that, even during the losing season of 2009-2010, if Howland had stuck to that identity he would have weathered the season much better. His reputation wouldn't have taken as much of a hit as it did. Then, at the beginning of this season, it again seemed that Howland was still off-track in terms of his identity, with UCLA playing poor defense and without much effort and focus. You might remember when UCLA got dominated at Arizona January 27th, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who is a Howland fan, sounded dismayed, commenting about how the lack of effort by UCLA surprised him. It was more of what we had seen the previous season, and it was baffling – how a Howland-coached team could play with such inconsistent effort. The personality of the team early on, and up to that game, and in the previous season, had been hijacked a bit. We realized that it wasn't necessarily that Howland imprinted his personality on his UCLA teams, but that the team's personality, character and heart were determined mostly by the types of players it had in any given season. The years of Afflalo, Mbah a Moute and Aboya didn't have that hardnosed personality because of Howland, but mostly because of Afflalo, Mbah a Moute and Aboya.
We're not giving Nelson credit for turning around the season, but his transformation, with the defensive light turning on for the last third of the season, was what sent UCLA over critical mass. A moody, lethargic Nelson, combined with the too-cool attitude of Honeycutt, permeated the team, and players like Smith and Jones inhaled it and were infected. But Nelson coming over to the light, being able to more frequently sustain effort and play defense with intensity, was enough to send the collective UCLA team's personality the other way. There was already Lee, Anderson and Lamb on the other side, and now there was one of the guys who really was a leader of the team in Nelson. We don't blame Nelson at all, but recognize it was part of his maturation process, and give him a huge amount of credit for putting in the work and finding the motivation to become the type of player who plays hard on both ends of the floor.
During the last two years, we armchair coaches thought there were times when Howland could have more efficiently affected this type of development and maturation – mostly through using playing time as a motivation. Howland doesn't really do that, but he tends to have a bit by tunnel vision in terms of personnel, picking guys and sticking with them no matter what. In our opinion, this was how Howland tended to lose his identity a bit in the last two seasons.
Howland, though, affected change and perhaps re-established his identity through a less direct method, but one that could be deemed as fairly successful. He was doggedly one-minded in his effort to get this team back to playing tough man-to-man defense and, instead of motivating through playing time, he got this team to play defense through teaching. This season Howland worked this young team hard in learning the fundamentals of playing tough team man-to-man defense. As they got better in their defensive knowledge, they clearly played harder.
We can't say that Howland and his current personnel have climbed all the way back up the mountain. But you can at least acknowledge that he's now climbing the mountain with these players.
So, we learned something about Howland over the last couple of seasons. He's not who we thought he was, and who most observers believe he is and he appears to be: that ass-kicking, no-nonsense P.E. teacher you had in high school. He's more of the bespectacled, cerebral trigonometry teacher. He'll get his program where he wants it to go through instruction and education, rather than through discipline and direct motivation.
The approach has him, at least, halfway back up the mountain.