Is Howland Playing It Safe?

Columnist Kennedy Cosgrove analyzes UCLA's recent performances, the wins over USC and Arizona and the deflating loss against Arizona State. It has brought UCLA fans back to earth, and made it fairly clear -- again -- what is probably the key to the Bruins' season...

Lots of history going on lately -- and not just the important kind in Washington, D.C. In case you missed it, a little hoops market correction recently took place in Westwood. Just when UCLA basketball fans were starting to think Yes, we can, they had to endure a seemingly interminable, 12-minute offensive recession in Pauley Pavilion. Call it a Saturday that will live in infamy -- at least for a little while.

By my unofficial tabulation, the Bruins' 61-58 overtime loss to Arizona State was their inaugural choke job since the Ben Howland Era really got rolling in 2005. I hate to use the "c" word, but what else do call it when UCLA had the game in hand -- up 11 with eight minutes left, at home -- and let it slip away, in a vortex of listless offense, mostly ineffective defense, and a sub-par coaching performance.

It was kind of shocking, because Bruin fans hadn't seen that kind of plot twist in a long time. But then Sun Devil star James Harden went all Lincoln Osiris ("I don't read the script; the script reads me") on UCLA. The sophomore from Los Angeles, who got away from the Bruin recruiters two years ago, added another plank to his platform for Pac-10 Player of the Year by taking over down the stretch, just as the UCLA offense went into cold storage, and a game that the Bruins always, always win under Howland... they lost. What a change. And I guess you had to believe in it.

If the loss to Arizona State didn't quite ruin the previous week -- which included another scrappy win over USC at the Galen Center, and a disturbingly easy eighth consecutive drubbing of once-proud Arizona -- it rained on a Bruin victory parade that was just getting rolling.

Matter of fact, I was surprised how much this one bothered me, and nearly every Bruin fan I talked to. It wasn't just the loss; the early-season defeats to Michigan and Texas didn't overly affect my view of the team. It was the way UCLA lost this one that truly rankled.

But to be honest, the Bruins -- and we fans -- probably had one of these coming. When I think back over the past three and a half years, it's fairly amazing how many of these kind of games that UCLA, so physical, poised and mentally tough under Howland, has closed out and won. Even when the Bruins did lose, it wasn't like this. Usually, the pattern was that they'd come out flat, trail most of the game, and leave themselves too much ground to make up.

But up 11? With eight minutes left? At Pauley? Can't even remember a similar Bruin defeat since Howland came west six years ago (though that horrific first season is a bit of a blur).

So what happened? And what does it mean? We'll get there. First let's go back to the previous Sunday, the first of three games in a seven-day stretch, when the Bruins took on USC.

USC has been the Bruins' toughest conference foe the past three seasons. Other than a blowout at Pauley in 2006, every game against the rival Trojans has been a serious dogfight. USC often looks just as (or more) athletic than UCLA. But the Bruins play with more poise, don't make as many mistakes, and have gone 5-2 against USC in that time.

After Sunday's 64-60 dubya, make it 6-2. The skinny: another tight game, with multiple second-half lead changes, but the Bruins make more plays, and fewer mistakes, down the stretch. The keys: Nikola Dragovic, Jrue Holiday, and UCLA's depth.

Dragovic, the 6-foot-9 junior from Serbia, had his first career start, taking over for the struggling James Keefe. Howland looked prescient with the move, as Dragovic scored a career-high 14 points, including six straight points and a couple of big defensive rebounds in the last few minutes. And basically, he looked like a starter, more comfortable and effective than Keefe has been at any point this season.

Holiday stepped up by playing lock-down defense on Trojan freshman Demar DeRozan in the second half, taking his former AAU opponent out of the first-half groove he'd been in, and rendering DeRozan a non-factor down the stretch. Plus, Holiday hit the biggest shot of his young Bruin career, a difficult lefty layup over Trojan center Taj Gibson, to give UCLA the lead for good, 55-53, with about four minutes to play. He scored 13 points.

Lastly, a big factor was fatigue. USC played four guys for 36 minutes or more, really only used one sub, and simply got tired, which was evident late when they kept clanking their jumpers.

At this point, the Bruins were feeling good: 3-0 in the Pac-10, with all three on the road. Hold serve at home vs. the Arizona schools and life would be good.

Thursday came Arizona. Now, the cratering of the vaunted Wildcats program has been well-chronicled. The complete reversals of fortune the two schools have undergone in the past four seasons is well-known. And thus, the Wildcats were a bit fixated on the Bruins. Apparently, interim Arizona coach Russ Pennell has been trying to inspire his team at each practice by saying "We can beat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion!"

Truth be told, the Wildcats simply don't concern the Bruins anymore. Even one season ago, ESPN picked the Bruin game vs. Arizona for its visit to Pauley for College GameDay, and UCLA's dominant performance served unequivocal nationwide notice that the Arizona of the past quarter century was no more. This year, Arizona's legendary Coach Lute Olson has officially retired (amidst the sad news that he's had a mild stroke), the game was relegated to the non-marquee Thursday night slot, and the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

The details? An 83-60 blowout, in which UCLA never trailed, never looked threatened, and shot 60% against a disinterested Wildcat zone "defense."

The telling post-game quote from Darren Collison: "We didn't overlook Arizona even though we have a big game on Saturday (against ASU)." Implied in the quote: Arizona no longer qualifies as a big game for UCLA.

It was so one-sided that the in-game texts from the boys had reached a new, post-gloating equilibrium about Arizona. Gone were the days of worrying. Now, it's more about almost feeling sorry for Arizona, with a touch of wistfulness when the game meant more, and a serious concern about the near-term future of the Pac-10. Tell me anyone foresaw the extent of this five years ago in Coach Howland's first season, while his Bruins were being dismantled at the hands of Arizona by 25 points at Pauley, and by 24 at Tucson.

One last thing about Arizona. They have a surefire NBA first-rounder in Jordan Hill, who really is a beast inside. They have Chase Budinger, who has talent and likely will be drafted. Both are juniors; both figure to be gone after this season. Due to the coaching staff chaos, they have zero -- repeat, zero -- players who have signed with the Wildcats this year. Did I mention zero 2009 players? Meanwhile, UCLA has another top-five class inked for this year. So extrapolating out, next month's game in Tucson is the only time in the next few years that Arizona can probably even conceive of playing a competitive game against the Bruins. It doesn't matter who Arizona hires as coach at the end of this season; its roster next year, and for the 2010-11 season at least, will be a disaster. At that point -- if Arizona loses to UCLA again next month -- we could be talking about 13, 14, or 15 consecutive losses to their longtime rival. And if they don't hire a really good coach who can get things turned around in 3-4 years, who knows how long the streak could go? As someone who has sat through many ‘Zona beatdowns of UCLA during the Lute years, it's astounding to think about. It really is.

Another astounding thing was what happened two days later. With the Bruins poised to beat Arizona State, to go 5-0 in the Pac-10, and hand ASU its third Pac-10 loss -- essentially ending any realistic hope the Sun Devils had of challenging for the conference crown -- things just fell apart.

UCLA went up 54-43 with eight minutes left. Over 12 minutes later -- the last eight of regulation, and the first four of overtime -- the Bruins finally scored another basket. All the telling analysis and reasoning can't get around this fact: you don't score a single basket for 12 minutes, you probably lose. And they did.

It was hard to watch. Possession after possession during those final eight minutes UCLA dribbled and passed aimlessly around the perimeter and mostly settled for contested jump shots late in the shot clock. The ASU zone defense suddenly seemed smothering. UCLA suddenly seemed hesitant. And Coach Howland really didn't do anything obvious to change up things.

Senior point guard and team leader Collison took "full responsibility" for the collapse, in his post-game interviews. All well and good. A class move by a class player. And he didn't play great (4-14 from the field, 0-4 on treys, three turnovers). But neither, to my mind, did Howland coach that great.

And while that stagnant stretch re-ignited some grumbling and questions of Coach Howland's offensive system, to me that game brought something else to the fore.

Now, this is just an impression I've had. I have no readily-available numbers to back it up. And Coach Howland, he who wins about 85% of his games the past three and a half years (111-20 overall, 49-10 in the Pac-10), has plenty of numbers to back up his approach.

But let me throw this out there. In the 2006 Final Four against LSU, at the end of the first half, in the biggest game of his career, Howland threw out the following lineup against a Tigers squad which had been the hottest team in the nation: A walk-on (Janou Rubin), and four freshmen (Collison, Roll, Aboya, Mbah a Moute). Foul trouble had made him sit some starters, true. But Howland just seemed to coach unafraid. He kind of coached like he had nothing to lose. And it worked.

Since that season, an impression I've had is that with the pressure on UCLA to keep winning Pac-10 titles and making it to the Final Four, most games have kind of seemed like a must-win. I've heard him consistently say that he wants to limit the minutes for his starters so they don't wear down. But all too often, the game is tight, and every possession seems vital, and he goes with the veterans, the starters, the guys he trusts. And the backups and freshmen keep seeing their opportunities and minutes dwindle.

Anything wrong that? In one sense, no. Howland keeps winning.

But if there were ever a season to play the young guys -- the conference is down, and UCLA lost so much talent that expectations are nowhere near the Banner or Bust season a year ago -- this is it.

When the Bruins go with an upperclass lineup of Collison, Roll, Shipp, Dragovic and Aboya (three seniors, two juniors), the experience, savvy and perimeter shooting of that group is a nice combination. But here's the catch: by going with Roll, Shipp and Dragovic at the two, three and four positions: the Bruins are giving up a lot of quickness and athleticism. A lot. And they're getting tired. And the dynamic freshmen -- Holiday, Drew Gordon, Malcolm Lee, and Jerime Anderson -- are all on the bench.

A huge advantage that the Bruins can potentially have this season is throwing waves of athletic young studs at other teams, mixed with the veterans, and just wearing out teams. We saw it a bit against Oregon (Anderson and Gordon both logged eight minutes), and vs. a noticeably fatigued USC (Gordon-15 minutes).

But against ASU? Gordon: three minutes. Anderson: three minutes. Lee: zero minutes. Dragovic: 36 minutes. Shipp: 42 minutes. Collison: 42 minutes. Depth, that potential team strength, is thus essentially rendered non-existent. And can it be a huge shock that none of the tired Bruins could hit a jump shot down the stretch? A week earlier, neither could USC.

So this is just one fan's opinion, but a team with Shipp, Dragovic, and Roll getting overwhelming minutes will be very good, but I'd think it will have a very definite ceiling, and I'd bet it's lower than the Bruins and their fans would like. But a team with Gordon, Lee, and Anderson getting significant time, and Holiday having the ball in his hands when it matters, well, that ceiling is more unpredictable.

Sure, it could drop a bit due to freshman mistakes. Or, it could go up. Way up. And shattering ceilings, as we've seen lately in this country, is a pretty cool thing to witness.

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