Carving a New Identity

Times Staff Writer

Cedric Bozeman paused and chose his analogy.

"I feel like a rookie quarterback who's just been drafted," the junior point guard said.

UCLA basketball is under reconstruction, and the players are learning what will be expected of them as they prepare for an exhibition Nov. 12 at Pauley Pavilion, when Ben Howland will make his debut as coach.

The darkest days of the Steve Lavin era deteriorated into a freelancing offense and what seemed like optional defense. Under Howland, late of the University of Pittsburgh, the Bruins are at least aiming for offensive structure and patience and a grinding and determined defense.

"I'd just say everybody's playing a lot harder, every play, defensive and offensive," said Dijon Thompson, the leading returning scorer from a 10-19 team that lost Jason Kapono, Ray Young and Andre Patterson and will be without T.J. Cummings for at least the first three games because of academic ineligibility. "It's pretty intense on both sides of the floor."

Bozeman agreed.

"Things are a lot different," he said. "Practice has picked up -- the consistency, the intensity factor. It's intense every day. Nonstop."

Some of the hallmarks of Bruin basketball are gone. The high-post offense that has been a staple from John Wooden's day right through the tenures of Jim Harrick and Lavin is a thing of the past, with Howland turning to set plays to lead into a familiar motion offense.

"Coach Wooden was at practice, and he didn't have any complaints we're not running the high-post offense," said Howland, whose main challenge other than containing his excitement at Wooden's presence was controlling his vocabulary.

"I told the players, 'Listen, I want you guys to really work your butts off because I'm going to try to not cuss one time. I don't want to ever offend him, so I am not going to cuss at all.' "

Learning how to run what might eventually be around 20 set plays is one challenge, particularly for Bozeman, who must direct the offense. But for a group of players whose goals tend to be offensive, learning to play defense the way Howland wants them to might be harder.

"I worry about our ability to defend. That really worries me," Howland said.

He has given thought to playing some zone to compensate for the Bruins' shortcomings but already is reconsidering.

"We zoned in practice against each other and it was like a sieve," he said. "It was so easy to score it was sickening."

Size and strength are problems, particularly with 7-foot, 217-pound sophomore Ryan Hollins likely to start at center and 6-7, 194-pound freshman Trevor Ariza starting at power forward until Cummings returns.

Inclination and old habits are also issues.

Thompson, in particular, is being made to adjust.

"He's probably our best offensive player," Howland said. "He's got to get better defensively."

Thompson, who averaged 14 points as a junior, said he was "just warming up" to Howland's defensive demands.

"When I get ready to play defense, I can play defense," he said. "I don't think he understands that, but I know it for a fact myself. I can play defense when I get ready to. That's what I have to work on, is wanting to play defense every time I step on the court."

The Bruins want to be in shape because the running game is going to be part of their offense -- a layup is easier than a power move in the post -- but much of the offensive emphasis is on patience, execution and shot selection.

"I would say, at times in the past we took bad shots," Bozeman said. "The emphasis on taking good shots is very key.

"When we make the extra pass, Coach loves that -- the unselfish play."

The days of bringing the ball upcourt and launching a three-pointer are probably over.

"He doesn't want you to take a shot the first second once you get the ball across halfcourt," Thompson said. "Maybe last year we got a little anxious. But this year, he at least wants the big guys to touch it at least once before you take a shot, especially in a zone offense."

Within the offense, setting a screen won't mean just going to a general area of the floor and sticking your elbows out for a moment.

"If you're not setting good picks, it's going to be hard to score," Thompson said. "You've got to get low, get your stance wide, go to your defender and set the pick on the defender so your teammate can come right off the pick for an open shot.

"There's an art to setting picks. That's pretty much what Coach Howland has instilled since he got here. Right now, everybody is improving on it.

"I'd say maybe we'd get a C from last year. Probably like a B right now."

What sort of overall grade they will end up with this season is hard to say, considering all that was lost from a team that finished with the first losing record at UCLA in 55 years.

In the rush to bury the Lavin era, the run of Sweet 16s might be forgotten for a while, as well as the Bruins' moment of triumph at the end of last season, when they upset No. 1-ranked Arizona in the Pacific 10 tournament.

"We beat Arizona, and nobody expected us to win that game," Thompson said. "We went out with a bang. We should have beat Oregon. They came back and beat us. We should have won that game as well. But we went down with a fight."

This season's fight has barely begun.

"Everybody's adjusting well," Bozeman said. "I think a lot of people thought the transition would be tough. I think it's been a smooth transition."

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