LAS VEGAS -- Long before they were champions of the Pac-12, the UCLA Bruins were dogs. Or at least that was one popular description.
Ben Howland figures his players heard it all in November and December, when a loss to Cal Poly and ugly wins over UC Irvine and Texas prompted fans and pundits to all but give up on the Bruins and their roster of future NBA draft picks. And their coach.
Three months later, look at UCLA now.
One week away from the NCAA tournament, Howland’s team has a new identity, and it’s a far cry from the one that hovered over UCLA’s program earlier this season. There’s a confidence in the locker room, a swagger on the court, a pride in the huddle. The Bruins have always been skilled.
But now they’re defined by toughness, too.
Just ask Arizona State, which built a 15-point lead in the second half of Thursday’s Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal with UCLA, only to watch the Bruins storm back for an 80-75 victory. The win was the sixth in the past seven games for UCLA, which had five players score in double figures. The Bruins outrebounded Arizona State 36-28.
“We have to play physical to win,” Howland said, “and we did that today.”
So revved up were the Bruins that a few of them (Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson) even got into a little tussle with Arizona State’s Carrick Felix in the game’s closing seconds. Howland certainly won’t approve of any on-court altercations, but he had to have liked the fire.
Howland, who led UCLA to three Final Fours in his first nine seasons in Westwood, said he isn’t surprised by his team’s new-found toughness.
“I never worried about it,” Howland said. “Everybody’s got it that’s in our program. It was our job to bring it out of them.”
It seems almost amusing now that Howland had been rumored to be on the hot seat during a season in which his team won the outright Pac-12 title. UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero can’t fire Howland now.
Heck, he ought to give him an extension.
This is far from Howland’s best Bruins team. It may not even rank among his top five. Still, the job Howland has done with this bunch has been masterful considering how disjointed and lackadaisical UCLA looked in December and January. Long known as a strong defensive coach and game tactician, Howland is clearly a strong motivator, too.
“It’s all about evolving,” Howland said. “Their attitude has been tremendous. It’s always, 'What do we have to do to win, coach?' I haven’t had a better group of guys to coach in my 10 years at UCLA. It’s been absolutely fantastic. They’re coachable, they listen ... it’s been unbelievable. So fun.”
Indeed, there were certainly plenty of smiles following Thursday’s victory, which catapulted the Bruins into Friday’s semifinal against Arizona.
The Bruins grabbed 14 offensive rebounds that led to 15 second-chance points. Six of the offensive boards came from Muhammad, the future top-five draft pick who scored 16 points playing in front of hometown fans in his native Las Vegas.
“We were all just really composed,” Muhammad said. “That’s what happens when you’re composed and relaxed.”
UCLA doesn’t have a true center or a traditional big man, so rebounding is often a struggle. That’s why Howland was so pleased that his team won the battle of the boards against an Arizona State squad that features 7-foot-1 center Jordan Bachynski and standout four-man Felix, who combine to average 14.3 rebounds.
Most of Howland’s praise, however, was reserved for point guard Larry Drew II. A senior, Drew II was highly criticized when he left North Carolina -- where he was starting -- midway through the 2010-11 season and transferred to UCLA. The easy assumption was that Drew II would underachieve in Westwood just as he did in Chapel Hill.
Instead, Drew II has improved as much as any player in America. He scored 20 points on eight-of-10 shooting Thursday and also dished out four assists. Drew II leads the country in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“Larry Drew is so good,” Howland said. “He looks like he’s going to be playing at the next level.
“He’s the best passer in the history of UCLA basketball, including all of [John] Wooden’s teams. I’m talking about great players. He’s the best of all of them. That’s an incredible statement. I couldn’t be happier for the kid, as maligned as he was. He’s improved throughout the year and he’s playing his best basketball of the year.”
So, too, are the Bruins, who knew they had this in them all along. Even if no one else did.