No need to give up on UCLA just yet

HOUSTON -- UCLA coach Ben Howland was stopped by a familiar face as he walked toward the team bus at Reliant Stadium on Saturday.

His boss.

Thankfully, athletic director Dan Guerrero was smiling. Beaming, actually.

"That was huge," Guerrero, his cheeks rosy with excitement, said as he shook Howland's hand. "That was huge."

A few years ago, a 65-63 victory over a struggling Texas team wouldn't be cause for much celebration in Westwood. But not much is going right for the Bruins these days. UCLA has missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons and has not advanced to the second weekend since 2008.

Fueled by buzz surrounding the country's No. 1-ranked recruiting class, the 2012-13 campaign started off with so much promise. But Howland's squad has already fallen out of the AP poll after being ranked as high as 11th.

Howland is quick to point out that four of UCLA's top eight players are freshmen.

"They're still learning," Howland said after Saturday's win. "It's all new to them. Everybody is just out to get these guys because they're highly touted. Give them some time."

The Bruins aren't the only ones who deserve a little patience from fans. Howland does, too.

For the past eight months, it has almost become cliché to rip Ben Howland. Former players chastised the coach in a Sports Illustrated article last spring, and their words were hailed as gospel. Howland fought back and signed a pair of top-five players in Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, and some folks labeled him a cheater.

The cherry on top came last month, when Cal Poly upset UCLA at home. Now Howland supposedly didn't know anything about X's and O's.

Some of the criticism was justified. Some of it was insane. At this point, though, only one thing is fair.

Leave Ben Howland alone. Let the man coach his team.

If UCLA doesn't finish in the top four of the Pac-12 -- if it fails to make the NCAA tournament or have any success while there -- lash out all you want. But the right thing to do now is to give Howland the benefit of the doubt.

He has earned it.

It was less than four years ago that Howland guided UCLA to its third straight Final Four. People seem to forget that, so let's say it again: Howland led UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours. Only two other active coaches (Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo) have accomplished that feat, which is almost unheard of.

Four years later, it's not as if the man has suddenly forgotten how to coach. And make no mistake, maybe more so than at any point in his career, that's what Howland is doing right now. Coaching.

Star-studded as UCLA's roster may be, it's not easy to get freshmen to play at a high level during their first month of college basketball. The game is rougher, more complicated and faster. And if you play for a good coach such as Howland, you have to share the ball and play defense. Just because the Bruins' newcomers haven't done all of those things doesn't mean they won't eventually.

Saturday brought some progress. Even though this is clearly the worst Texas team in Rick Barnes' 14-year tenure, UCLA can still take a lot from the win. The Bruins trailed 61-53 with 3:02 remaining before battling back and ending the game on a 12-2 run.

Freshman Jordan Adams keyed the march with consecutive three-point plays to force a 61-61 tie. A free throw by Muhammad moments later and then a fast-break layup by Anderson following a Texas turnover gave UCLA the lead for good.

"We gave the game away," said Barnes, whose squad also missed two point-blank, uncontested layups on breakaways. "They didn't beat us tonight. We gave this one away."

That's one way of putting it.

Or you could say Texas got punked in the end by a UCLA squad that played tougher when it mattered most. To be fair, the Longhorns are the second-youngest team in the country, so late-game lulls are bound to occur. But they've been happening with UCLA, too.

Until Saturday, when three freshmen took charge in the final minute and won a game. A baby step, to be sure. But a step nonetheless.

"They came out and competed," Howland said. "They showed me they wanted it."

Adams finished with 18 points for UCLA. Muhammad (16) and Anderson (11) also scored in double figures. After the game, Anderson was asked how he and his high-profile classmates have handled the pressures that come along with being a Bruin.

"It has been difficult," Anderson said, "but it's not something that should stop anyone from playing well. We're finding our niche and learning as we go along.

"We're becoming a good team. We have a lot more room for improvement, but we're going to get better."

It's not time to panic, UCLA.

Not yet.