TAMPA, Fla. -- Ben Howland is one tough nut to crack.
His armor-plated exterior enables him to go into lockdown mode at a moment's notice, shutting down outsiders the way the defenses of his Final Four teams at UCLA did from 2006 to '08.
So when you ask him just how much stress and pressure he felt the past five months during a roller-coaster season that was as close to being a disaster as it was to being great, he doesn't offer much.
"It's always tough every year," Howland says. "It's always stressful."
From all indications, though, this season provided for a great many more anxious moments than usual. In fact, you might argue that no other coach in UCLA history has been under as much pressure as Howland was this season.
Things ended up OK. UCLA is back in the NCAA tournament and the No. 7-seeded Bruins will open play against No. 10 Michigan State on Thursday at 6:20 p.m. PT at the St. Pete Times Forum.
But coming into this season, it was far from a given the Bruins would be in the tournament. Nobody had much idea of what to expect from this team, and that was a scary place for Howland considering UCLA went 14-18 last season.
UCLA coaches have been fired for such offenses. Steve Lavin, for instance, was sent on his merry way after going 10-19 in 2002-03 -- the only losing season in his seven-year tenure. Walt Hazzard didn't even make it past a 16-14 season in 1987-88.
Howland's string of three consecutive Final Fours most certainly earned him a pass for last season, but nobody knows better than Howland about the high standards at UCLA. Howland loves UCLA. He grew up in Southern California during the 1970s, so he knows the history and tradition surrounding the program and he embraces all of it.
Had there been another losing season in 2010-11, it might have been the beginning of the end for Howland at UCLA. Entering the season with an unknown quantity littered with youth and inexperience didn't help matters. UCLA starts a freshman, two sophomores and a junior college transfer and it was supposed to be a season away from contending for the Pac-10 title.
Those aren't exactly the most sturdy blocks upon which to build a team coming off a losing season with your job potentially on the line.
"This was an 'I don't know year' for UCLA basketball," redshirt freshman center Anthony Stover said. "I think that made it pretty stressful for him."
And it was an "I don't know" regular season right down to the end, with the Bruins eventually settling for second place in the Pac-10.
Perhaps that uncertainty down to the wire is why we have seen emotional sides of Howland that we have rarely seen before. He openly wept in front of his players and then in front of the media after UCLA trounced then-No. 10 Arizona, 71-49, and Tyler Trapani, John Wooden's great grandson, scored the last basket in Pauley Pavilion before a year-long renovation project shuts down the arena.
After defeating Washington State in a game Howland said secured a spot in the NCAA tournament, he was openly giddy and kissed a reporter on the forehead. Early in the season, he was nearly as happy with a victory over Pacific, so that just shows how much the standards changed over the course of the season.
"Winning here at UCLA is one of the most important things to him and he pretty much had a lot of stress built up this year not knowing how things were going to turn out with this team," junior guard Malcolm Lee said.
The Bruins did little to help ease Howland's mind during the course of the season.
UCLA often played with fire, blowing big leads one night then turning around and falling behind by a large deficit the next. UCLA went 13-4 in games decided by nine points or fewer, but just as easily could have gone 4-13.
Highlight victories interspersed with lowlight losses became the theme of the season.
But Howland reacted to the inconsistent play the way many great coaches would: He strapped on his work belt and kept busy trying to mold the team into a cohesive unit. He preached the importance of team chemistry and beat the Bruins over the head with his staunch defensive philosophy.
He steadfastly refused to look past the task at hand, routinely shunning questions about future opponents and focusing only on the next game. For most coaches, "one game at a time" is coachspeak, but for Howland, it's a way of life.
"Any time you're thinking any further past what's at hand, in terms of your opponent, that's when you set yourself up for disappointment and failure," he said.
There was no single breakthrough moment for this season's team, but there were signs throughout the Bruins were getting better: a standout defensive performance here, a total team effort there, gradual improvement in the fundamentals of individual players up and down the roster.
"It has been a rebuilding process, especially with all the youth on our team," Howland said. "It's a very young team. The way we developed as the year progressed, that's what you're always trying to do."
Rebuilding went much quicker than expected because of improving defensive play. Howland began the season telling anyone who would listen that the Bruins would run more and he continually yelled "Push, push" from the sidelines early this season, but that seemed to disappear because Howland couldn't keep his defense-first mentality from taking over.
His "Ben Ball" style helped produce those three Final Four appearances and catapulted players such as Kevin Love, Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Jordan Farmar and Russell Westbrook into top-notch NBA players.
"He puts in so much time and effort into preparing for every detail that an opponent can throw at you that you feel like you know what they are going to do before you step on the court," Afflalo said. "He's a great defensive mind and once players truly understand that, they begin to have success as a team."
Slowly but surely, this season's team started to realize Howland's way was the right way and a group that can sometimes be immature began to buy into his philosophy.
Nine of UCLA's first 15 opponents shot 45 percent or better, and five of those shot 50 percent or better as the Bruins started the season 9-6. UCLA gave up 70 points or more seven times during that stretch.
The Bruins then went on a defensive tear, limiting 10 of its next 16 opponents to 40 percent or less. They were 13-3 in those games and held nine of those 16 opponents to fewer than 60 points.
That type of defensive improvement has Howland's fingerprints all over it.
"Coach Howland is the No. 1 reason why our team turned around this year," junior guard Jerime Anderson said. "He wanted more out of us this year and he was able to bring a lot out of us. We're still looking for him to bring more out of us."
Howland still isn't satisfied. Just getting to the NCAA tournament hasn't been enough at UCLA since the days of John Wooden. That's why, despite returning to the tournament after a one-year absence, Howland would like at least a couple of wins and a little run toward a title.
Certainly that would go a long way toward lowering the stress level.
"Look at my hair," said Howland, whose head has almost been overtaken by baldness. "My brothers have their hair. How is that fair?"
Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.