There has been a fundamental shift in the philosophy and approach in Howland's program -- not only in recruiting, but in a tactical sense, style of play and theory on how to win.
It's been a few years in the making, but make no mistake: Howland's old-style UCLA program is gone, and the new one reigns.
There are, of course, some holdover philosophies in terms of what it takes to win. But the primary emphasis in how to win has shifted.
Here's how it happened...
Howland took UCLA to three Final Fours emphasizing a tough man-to-man defense. It was the cornerstone of Howland's success at UCLA from 2005 to 2008. Howland generally put athletic teams on the floor that would play his style of pressure man-to-man, and that was the theory on how to win -- suffocate your opponent, keep them around 38% shooting from the floor or worse, and then generate enough offense in a controlled, highly-structured offense that emphasized execution and taking care of the ball to minimize turnovers.
You need a team predominantly made up of good athletes who have the will to defend to pull this off. It all starts with a very good defensive point guard, one who could pressure the ball at the point of attack, and generally disrupt the opposing offense and take them out of their rhythm. It then was dependent on at least one very good wing defender who you could trust to most of the time take away the opposing team's best perimeter scorer. Then, it needed athletic, active posts, who could hedge screens 20 feet from the basket, and be quick and strong enough to play great man post defense and double the post. And it took a commitment to team defense from everyone on the floor.
This style was also effective because Howland is an excellent defensive coach, truly. He is completely in his element teaching defense, and got his best results in his career through his defensive coaching. He made a name for himself at UCLA with his defensive coaching, and recruits who had their goal on the NBA recognized that Howland is a coach that could help them get there. The NBA only plays man-to-man (well, with a very limited zone allowed), and every college player with NBA potential -- or aspirations -- would have a leg up in the League (and in the NBA Draft) if they were far along in their man defensive development, and they recognized that Howland was the guy to make that happen.
UCLA, under Howland during those Final Four years, wasn't a great offensive program. The offenses weren't horrible, but they weren't great. Whether that was because of Howland's offensive approach or not is up for debate. What matters, though, in this analysis, is that Howland recognized this -- and recognized that the type of offense he was playing wasn't truly his style of choice. He was forced to play this style because he had players that were limited offensively -- namely, the majority of them couldn't shoot. Howland's Final Four teams dramatically lacked shooters. If they had had them they very well might have won a championship or two. Who knows?
Again, though, what's important is that Howland, then, after not being able to climb the championship mountain, wanted to return to the style of offense he preferred ideally and one he thought would get him over that mountain -- one that emphasized shooting, first and foremost. He had it when he was the head coach at Northern Arizona. His Lumberjack team led the nation in three-point shooting one season. But at Pitt -- and at UCLA -- he had to change his offensive approach to make due with the players he had -- ones that couldn't shoot. He garnered a rep for being a bit of a boring, grind-it-out offensive coach, and that really wasn't what he was at his core.
But then he went on a three-consecutive year run to the Final Four and Howland now thought he'd be able to get elite shooters/scores, and recruiting changed its focus accordingly. It changed from valuing athleticism in order to play defense as the highest priority to shooting and scoring. Now, of course, this doesn't hold true with every single player UCLA has recruited in the last four years, since every situation every year is different. But the priority has definitely changed to shooting and scoring first and athleticism second.
What this has done is make UCLA go out nationally to look for a very elite level of prospect that is not only a good shooter but a good athlete also. Those that are both generally are top 40 national prospects, or McDonald's All-Americans or potential Lottery picks. UCLA, naturally, missed on a good number of those guys, thus its recruiting hasn't been stellar in the last several years (except for 2012, of course).
But that hasn't stopped the fundamental shift in focus and emphasis in recruiting and in style of play in the program. It's what Howland is, and it's what UCLA will be regardless of whether it's successful or not in the future.
So here it is:
UCLA will no longer first emphasize defense, not just in recruiting but on the floor. That doesn't mean it won't be a good defensive team in any given year. Howland, as we said, is a superior defensive coach; he'll make a bad defensive team better, and he'll make a good defensive team excellent. But UCLA will have less of a chance to get the type of athletes with the defensive mindset it had in the mid-2000s.
The priority now in the program is shooting, and scoring. UCLA will try to win games by simply shooting the ball really well -- having a team full of very good shooters that get open shots in Howland's offense. The defense might not be as good, but UCLA's offense will probably score more points in future seasons because it will be populated more with shooters/scorers.
To be candid, as we've been for the last four years as this fundamental shift in Howland's program has been occurring, we can't say whether the new philosophy will be successful. We were perplexed over this time period when it seemed that UCLA under Howland had changed the philosophy that took it to three Final Fours. It was perplexing, and even unprecedented, for a coach to have gone to three Final Fours in a row fundamentally de-value the approach that got him there. It did seem like you were throwing out a proven approach. To us, it seemed that if Howland had kept prioritizing athletes who could defend and put superior defensive teams on the floor, with his defensive coaching, they'd have a chance to get back to a Final Four. And once you're there it's pure randomness whether you win the National Championship.
But that doesn't mean that the new approach can't be successful. It just means that it's less proven. There are indications, too, that it could be successful. First, we think Howland has yet to put the type of shooting/scoring team on the floor that he wants. He was also tripped up in the transition by some problematic players in the program. Also, if you know Howland's offensive scheme, it really is made for good shooters. Howland's offense is based on set plays that are mostly designed to get outside shooters open for looks as a result of good screening and execution. His sets worked to get shots for Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Mike Roll and even Tyler Honeycutt. That's what it was designed to do. One of the biggest gripes surrounding Kevin Love's one year at UCLA was that UCLA's offense didn't get him enough touches in the post -- and that was a valid criticism -- because it mostly isn't designed for it. It's one of the reasons why UCLA's offense has struggled to get Josh Smith touches in the post -- because to do so it has to get out of its fundamental intention of opening up a look for a perimeter shooter. In other words, Howland has been running an offense while at UCLA designed for shooters -- without shooters. If Howland actually had a team full of shooters it'd be interesting to see just how well his offense functioned. The theory, then, too, goes that if you have an array of perimeter shooting threats the middle then opens up for your post player, and doesn't allow opposing defenses to pack it in on him.
Howland wanting to run more, too, is consistent with this philosophy. It's not only that Howland wants to get more easy lay-ups on the break, but transition basketball means you're attacking a defense that hasn't set itself yet -- and there are open perimeter looks that good shooters can exploit.
So, UCLA fans, you need to shift your orientation to UCLA basketball. It's, really, as if UCLA hired a new coach with a different approach. The old defense-first mindset is gone. Again, that's not to say that UCLA won't put a great defensive team on the floor in the future under Howland. If he ever happens to get a court-full of athletic defenders it could still definitely happen. But that would be an added bonus to the court-full of shooters that is now the objective for UCLA basketball.