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UCLA pushes for steals but with caution

Take it from a man who has been there before: The best thing to do is put your head down and run in the other direction.

That’s what Darren Collison does whenever he goes for a steal, misses and gives up an easy basket. The UCLA guard heads upcourt and doesn’t dare look toward the bench, where he knows his coach will be glaring.

“Coach hates when we gamble for steals,” Collison said.

It is a tightrope Bruins players walk.

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Four games into the Pacific 10 Conference schedule, they lead the league with an average of almost nine steals a game. But they must answer to Coach Ben Howland, who hates unnecessary risk in any facet of the game.

As senior Josh Shipp explained: “We’ve got to be smart.”

Larceny could play a significant role in this afternoon’s Pac-10 showdown involving No. 9 UCLA and No. 16 Arizona State at Pauley Pavilion.

The Sun Devils have James Harden, who leads the conference in steals. Collison ranks right behind him, with two other Bruins -- guard Jrue Holiday and Shipp -- in the top five.

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Though the UCLA coaches don’t keep statistics on points off steals, it is no surprise that the Bruins’ offensive output -- a frequent topic of discussion -- increases the more they snatch the ball from the other team.

So far this season, they are averaging 76 points. In the six games when they have had double-digit steals, that number rises to 87.

“There’s a lot of value to it,” Howland said, insisting that he likes the easy fastbreaks that usually ensue. Then he quickly adds a “but . . . “

His conflicted view dates to a previous incarnation as the newly hired coach at Pittsburgh. Someone mentioned that he had inherited a talented defensive player, a guy who made many steals.

“He was terrible,” Howland recalled. “Gambled every time. For every steal he got, he gave up four points.”

The lesson learned? Steals don’t necessarily equate to good defense.

To some degree, the act of intercepting a pass or slapping the ball loose relies on athleticism.

“Good teams will show your weaknesses,” Loyola Marymount Coach Max Good said after the Bruins victimized his team for six steals.

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But Holiday said that Howland has impressed on him and fellow freshman Jerime Anderson that they need to be smart about taking chances.

“I think he harps on us the most about that,” Holiday said.

There are times when Holiday feels almost certain he can make a steal but chooses to play it safe, the operative word being almost.

“I might be guarding the best shooter,” he said. “If I gamble and miss and he gets it, it’s automatic points.”

Each choice must be weighed in terms of system and situation.

“When you’re playing just straight-up [defense], you don’t necessarily want to reach or go for the home-run steal,” Collison said. “Because if one person breaks down, everybody else is going to break down.”

It’s another matter when the Bruins double-team in the post or on the perimeter, which they like to do. With the ball handler under duress, the other three defenders watch for an errant pass.

“It comes about by playing pressure defense and playing hard,” Howland said. “Guys look at that as an opportunity.”

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An opportunity that suits a small, quick team hungry to run.

Against Wyoming, the Bruins scored an uncharacteristic 113-62 victory with 40 points off turnovers and 20 off fastbreaks. Even in an early-season loss at Texas, they benefited from nine steals and had a 2-to-1 advantage in fastbreak points.

Today, against an Arizona State team shooting 51% from the field, the players say that solid defense, staying in front of their men, will be the first priority.

But there will be times when they decide to take a chance. Anticipating a pass. Reaching to disrupt an opponent’s dribble.

And what happens then?

“When you go for it,” Holiday said, “you pray and hope that you don’t miss.”

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david.wharton@latimes.com


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