LOS ANGELES -- Ben Howland built his reputation on a tough man-to-man defense; far be it from him to give up on it this early in the season.
Howland acknowledges his team this year is better suited to play a zone, and he has reluctantly used a zone in the past few games. But that doesn't mean he's giving up on the style of defense the UCLA Bruins rode to three consecutive Final Fours from 2005 to 2008 and that earned him a reputation as one of the top defensive coaches in the country.
He also believes he can turn this collection of players he dubbed "not super-athletic" into a solid man-to-man team.
"I think we can, but I think we’ve got a lot of work to do," he said. "I think we’ve got to be able to mix it up and keep people off-balance by changing defenses a little bit with this group. We’ve got to continue to evolve defensively with our man."
The problems with this year's man-to-man defense go right down to the most basic levels. Players are having trouble staying in front of their man while guarding the ball; and away from the ball, they are getting lost in the traffic of motion and screens. Opponents are finding clear paths to the basket because UCLA's defenders are not reacting in time to help or are simply out of position to do so.
In each of UCLA's three losses this season, its opponent has shot 57.7 percent or better in the second half. It's an indication the opponents have adjusted to UCLA's defense and the Bruins have not been able to counter.
"We still have some things we have to work on," forward David Wear said. "We have a little ways to go. We need to stop the lapses in defense. We need to get better at trailing and extending and help-side defense, but that will come. And a couple of more practices and we’ll really see improvements in our man-to-man defense."
Many of the issues stem from using so many players new to the system. Howland employs a complex man-to-man strategy that takes time to fully understand and usually gets better as the season goes on. Players who stay in his program for several years tend to leave as much better defensive players. It's a principle that not too long ago was called the "UCLA effect" and was helping Bruins players get drafted higher because they were thought to be better prepared to handle the defense required at the NBA level.
But with so many players leaving school early and transferring over the past several years, there aren't too many left who have been through the ringer of Howland's system enough to fully understand it. The result is a cycle of players who have to learn on the job, many of whom are never around long enough to grasp all of the concepts and help pass them down from one team to the next.
"It makes it a lot harder, because we haven’t found our niche," said freshman Kyle Anderson.
Howland is using four true freshmen in major roles this season. Sophomore Norman Powell and junior forwards Travis and Davis Wear are the only regulars with more than a year of game experience in Howland's system. But Howland's system is a major reason why he was able to land the nation's top freshman class this season. Anderson, Shabazz Muhammad, Tony Parker and Jordan Adams have all cited Howland's ability to coach defense as a reason why they wanted to come to UCLA.
They see former UCLA players, such as Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, flourishing in the NBA after stellar defensive careers at UCLA and are looking to learn those defensive skills. One look at the current UCLA freshmen on defense and it is clear that they need all the help they can get. In high school, they were all offensive standouts, but none was lauded for his defense.
Muhammad recently called Howland "the perfect guy for this team" because of his ability to coach defense. And each player on the team who has been asked recently said he prefers to play man-to-man over zone.
"I think we’d like to be able to rely on our man-to-man a little more," David Wear said. "Especially in games coming up against Texas or Missouri and once we start getting into conference play, we know we’re not going to be able to rely on our zone at all. So I think it’s really important that we start working on our man and really working out the kinks so that can be our first option when we’re playing."
After using mostly zone for two games in a row, Howland stuck to exclusively man-to-man Tuesday in an exhibition against Cal State San Marcos. UCLA won 83-60 and held San Marcos -- an NAIA school in its second year with a basketball team -- to 37 percent shooting.
"You can see that our man defense, even though we held them to 37 percent, still has a lot of work to do," Howland said. "It’s a work in progress."
The Bruins will get more work Saturday against the Texas Longhorns, who without quick point guard Myck Kabongo lack some of the quickness that has hurt UCLA's man defense. Howland sees it as a good opportunity to use a man D against an upper-division team. He knows he'll still have the zone in his back pocket and said he will continue to mix in the zone until the team shows the ability to effectively defend in man-to-man.
"My preference as a coach is man," Howland said. "But we also have to put ourselves in the best position to have a chance to win games."