LOS ANGELES -- Ben Howland wants his UCLA Bruins to run this year. Now if only the NCAA will let him.
Howland, as he is apt to do before seasons begin, has said all summer and repeated last week during UCLA's basketball media day that this team will be looking to run more often than his plodding defense-minded teams of the past.
This time, however, he seems to be serious. At every practice session that reporters have been allowed to watch, fast-break offense has been a major focal point because the Bruins have added some dynamic, athletic and quick players this season. An up-tempo offense suits players such as scorer Shabazz Muhammad, ball-handling expert Kyle Anderson and speedy point guard Larry Drew.
The problem is, the NCAA still hasn't told Howland if Muhammad and Anderson can play this season as the two freshmen are the subjects of independent reviews of their amateurism. That means that Howland is extolling the promise of a higher tempo even though he doesn't know for sure what players he will have available.
"We're really trying to play faster," Howland said. "That was one of the big implementations of the summer was really trying to push the ball to take advantage of the fact that we have depth but also of our speed and our ability to run."
Howland says he plans on using a rotation of nine or 10 players so it will be easier to push the pace. But that drops to seven or eight players if the NCAA rules against Muhammad and Anderson. Guard Tyler Lamb may also miss the early part of the season as he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery. At this point it could be Drew and Norman Powell, another athletic guard, playing with five guys nobody would call fleet-a-foot: center Joshua Smith, twin forwards David and Travis Wear, center Tony Parker and shooting specialist Jordan Adams.
For obvious reasons, the rest of the team is hoping for Muhammad and Anderson to be eligible. They are two of the top five freshmen in the country this season and make up half of the top-ranked recruiting class that is supposed to help lift UCLA back into the national spotlight after missing the NCAA tournament in two of the last three seasons. Muhammad can score from anywhere, and is certain to cap many a fast break with a highlight-reel dunk. Anderson is an open-court professor who facilitates the offense from a number of positions.
Without those two, the Bruins lose a great deal of skill and depth and the ability to push the tempo. With them, the Bruins could make the SportsCenter top 10 plays on a regular basis.
"I'm looking forward to running," Drew said. "We have the personnel on this team to run. It makes the game more exciting. There are going to be more highlights and dunks."
UCLA averaged 68.6 points last season, 70.1 in 2010-2011 and 66.8 in 2009-10. That's not a lot different than the three consecutive Final Four years under Howland when the Bruins averaged 67.7, 71.4 and 73.5 points. But it's not about raising the scoring average, it's about getting easy baskets when they are available.
"I think we can pick up some extra points and we want to implement that going forward," Howland said. "That's going to be big for us."
If the NCAA allows.