Ben Howland’s ice is melting
The “standoffish” coach kissed a reporter on the forehead.
The “inflexible” coach shrugged off a disdain for zone defenses and instructed his players to use one.
The “unfeeling” coach cried in the locker room, then broke down twice more when meeting with the media.
Watch Ben Howland long enough this season, and the UCLA basketball coach just might shatter a few perceptions about the man who has brought the Bruins back from the brink of irrelevancy.
His team is 22-9 and a trendy pick to win the Pacific Life Pac-10 Conference tournament it opens Thursday evening, only one year removed from a 14-18 season. UCLA is winning with a team that features no seniors, two juniors and one coach who is unafraid to reverse long-held philosophies if he thinks it will benefit his team.
“He is changing and adapting to the personnel we have to give our team the best chance to win,” longtime assistant coach Scott Garson said. “Anybody who is saying he is inflexible or stubborn doesn’t know what he is talking about in terms of changes, especially this year with this team.”
Long a proponent of hedging, in which a defender runs to cut off a player moving around a screen, Howland realized that system was ill-suited for Joshua Smith, a plodding 305-pound freshman center. Smith repeatedly picked up fouls as smaller players ran into him on the perimeter, so Howland instructed Smith to stay back closer to the basket early in Pac-10 play.
The coach later used the same scheme with all of his post players, solidifying a defense that has propelled the Bruins to 13 victories in their last 16 games while holding opponents under 40% shooting 10 times during that stretch.
“If you looked at our team and the way we played defense three years ago to now, it’s different,” Howland said. “And I still think our defense is good. I think we’ve really improved, especially since finally making that change” in defending screens.
Howland also removed the foul-prone Smith from the starting lineup because he believed officials like to set a tone by calling fouls early in games. After fouling out in back-to-back games he started early in conference play, Smith has fouled out once in his last 15 games coming off the bench, and that was in overtime against California.
Smith and fellow Bruins big man Reeves Nelson have often left opponents in a foul mood because of Howland’s insistence on working the ball inside to utilize his two best scoring options. Garson said the inside-out philosophy has been emphasized even more than it was when UCLA had Kevin Love, an eventual NBA lottery pick.
“Once me and Josh get going down there,” said Nelson, the Bruins’ leading scorer, “it opens things up for our shooters.”
Conversely, Howland has utilized a small, three-guard lineup against teams that play zone defenses because it has allowed UCLA to attack more efficiently on offense.
The Bruins even came out in a zone themselves in the second half of a game against Cal because Howland, who typically abhors zones, wanted to keep Smith and Nelson from fouling out. The Bruins rallied to force overtime before losing by four points.
Howland has had to adapt to his players as much as they have to his coaching, a challenge given the Bruins are a team of self-professed goofballs who like to eat chicken chili cheese fries, horse around during media conferences and shave each other’s heads into mohawks.
“I’m about to start my barbershop called Honeycutts,” sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt, the team hairstylist, joked earlier this season.
The childishness has manifested itself on the court in repeated lulls and an inability to play consistently hard for two halves. Howland responded by coaxing and cajoling, holding his players accountable but not overreacting to turnovers or bad shots.
“He’s on me all the time whether I’m on a high or a low,” Nelson said, “just encouraging me or just telling me to keep doing what I’m doing, so he’s just been a big help.”
Known for his icy exterior, Howland has run an emotional gamut recently. He cried after walk-on Tyler Trapani made the final basket in Pauley Pavilion, the arena Trapani’s great-grandfather John Wooden made famous, before its renovation. A week later, Howland kissed a reporter on the forehead, fulfilling his promise to do so if the Bruins won 22 games.
“I don’t always show my emotion,” Howland said later. “You don’t always get to see it.”
Actually, he has been plenty revealing.
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