Times Staff Writer

UCLA’s 6-foot-5 guard Arron Afflalo likes playing defense when he’s so close to his man that Afflalo can identify his shampoo.

USC’s 6-foot-9 center Taj Gibson has long arms, lively legs and a mind that quickly figures out the trajectory of a basketball and the best split second to knock that ball away from the basket.

Both take defense as their first and most important assignment. Their defensive ferocity figures to be important tonight at Pauley Pavilion when No. 2-ranked and Pac-10 leading UCLA (20-2, 9-2) plays No. 19 USC (18-6, 8-3).


But wait. Pacific 10 Conference teams aren’t defensively tough. That’s what they believe most places east of Pullman, Wash.

“When I was at Wisconsin,” former Washington State coach Dick Bennett said, “there was that attitude about the Pac-10 in the Midwest and looking at it now ... that might have been true. I don’t believe that is true any more.”

Bennett, through the necessity of a small recruiting pool, demanded smart, physical defense from his Washington State players. But even more, Bennett said, UCLA Coach Ben Howland and USC Coach Tim Floyd have escalated the importance of defense played with an attitude even in places with beachfront property.

“When you play against Ben Howland, it’s like stepping back into the Big Ten when the Big Ten was really, really good,” Bennett, who also coached at Wisconsin, said Tuesday from Pullman, where he is spending the season watching son Tony coach Washington State.

“UCLA is the most physical team in the league in a good way,” Bennett said. “They will man up on you, get in your face. They will disrupt your offense, get into your body in the right way, block your cuts, fight your screens, fight the ballhandler, really get on the defensive boards, contest your shots.

“I don’t think they have any weaknesses defensively and not everyone else in our league can say that. But it’s getting more and more that way.”


Washington State, UCLA and USC rank Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in scoring defense in the Pac-10 and they are also the top three teams in the conference. USC, Washington State, Stanford and UCLA also rank first through fourth in field-goal-percentage defense and Stanford (15-6, 7-3) is only half a game out of second.

“That’s no coincidence,” defensive coaching legend Pete Newell said. “I know when I first started, our guys didn’t know anything about defense until I pounded it into them. We didn’t have a great year or anything, but they learned one thing -- you’ve got to stop the other team.

“The same kids I had as freshmen won an NIT championship with defense. It’s always been the same. All kids want to do is shoot the ball. You find most championship teams, though, are usually the best defensive teams. But it takes a little bit of guts to do what, say, Ben Howland has done.

“The team he inherited was more prone to play the offensive end of the game. Some players didn’t like that the first year and fought the coach a little on it. Ben didn’t give in.”

In fact, Howland’s first big-name recruiting commitment came from ninth-grader Taylor King, then considered perhaps the best prospect in his class. After Howland’s first UCLA season, King, now a Santa Ana Mater Dei High senior and a Duke signee, rescinded his UCLA oral commitment in part, he said, because he preferred to play a more wide-open, high-scoring game and mentioned North Carolina, Villanova and Duke.

And Floyd, who got a late recruiting start when he was hired by USC after Henry Bibby was fired and Rick Majerus backed out of the head coaching job, has taken a collection of Bibby remainders and under-the-radar recruits and made them into fierce defenders who hassle the opponents by being long-armed, quick-footed and athletically relentless.


Former Texas El Paso coach Don Haskins was one of Floyd’s mentors.

“I loved defense,” Haskins said, “and Tim has carried defense a lot further than I ever did. Floyd’s kids do a great job of staying in front of their man. Everybody is moving with the ball. It’s a man-to-man defense with a few zone principles. You know what? There’s a lot of defense being played in the Pac-10 right now.”

Howland’s coach when he played at Weber State, Neil McCarthy, is retired and is an avid observer of UCLA and the Pac-10. Howland lists McCarthy, who also was a respected coach at New Mexico State, first when asked who influenced his defensive coaching style.

The admiration is mutual.

“Ben is one of the very best defensive coaches in the country,” McCarthy said. “Howland, Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Huggins, those four I’d list as the best defensive coaches in the country.”

McCarthy compared the defensive mind-set at UCLA before Howland’s arrival as “a cool California breeze. Now, I’m amazed at how good UCLA’s defense is.”

McCarthy points to Howland’s use of traps in the post and his commitment to playing only man-to-man defense as hallmarks of a sound philosophy.

“I’ve been watching UCLA basketball forever,” McCarthy said, “and I’ve never seen them play as strong defensively as right now. And they’re doing it without a windshield wiper in there. They don’t have a Walton or Kareem. They’ve adapted to Ben’s intensity and I see the league adapting.”


Jerry Pimm, a USC graduate and a coach at UC Santa Barbara who helped mold Howland when he was his assistant, said, “Bottom line, you always think of the East as supposedly way ahead in defense. That wasn’t always correct. You’d come out West and find Pete Newell teams and John Wooden’s teams played really good defense, but that got overlooked when UCLA was winning, 94-50.

“When Ben first got to UCLA, he tried to teach that defense was hard and he had guys who weren’t committed to playing defense. It takes a tremendous commitment to play man to man all the time. I think some people thought what Ben was creating wasn’t Hollywood enough, not enough fastbreaks, it will not work. Well, it works and the rest of the Pac-10 is seeing that.

“Tim Floyd grew up in that Hank Iba area where the idea was if you don’t play defense you don’t play. It’s a great way to motivate defenders. Ben has that too. USC has good athletes who guard the dribble. Ben has good athletes who get in your face. Right now, I think the Pac-10, as a conference, is playing the best defense in the country.”