Westwood's new look
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
March 29, 2006
It's all or nothing at UCLA, with memories of 11 NCAA championship titles (10 won by John Wooden) serving as a reminder of proud days of the past and of great expectations for the present.
"You should see our wall out there," UCLA coach Ben Howland said Monday while describing the plaques near the Bruins' basketball offices. "We have every All-American."
He looked out and began reading them off. He could have gone on for half an hour. Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor, Sidney Wicks, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Marques Johnson, Reggie Miller.
"Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor are the two greatest college basketball players of all time," Howland said. "They both played here. John Wooden is the greatest basketball coach of all time. He coached here."
"(With) UCLA, you think you go out and fast break, throw it off the backboard, alley-oop, all sorts of stuff," senior Cedric Bozeman said.
Things that Ben Howland's UCLA teams almost never do. The Bruins are two games from a 12th title because of the system Howland brought from Pittsburgh in the bruising Big East. UCLA plays physical, intense defense. They'll bang you, maul you, wear you down, barely give you room to breathe. And we say of all that in the best possible way.
On offense, they are deliberate which has allowed them to advance in this tournament despite terrible shooting.
They beat Memphis in an ugly regional final 50-45, despite shooting just 4-of-17 in the second half, missing 19 free throws in the game and committing 17 turnovers.
UCLA may be enjoying the success of the 1970s, but this isn't your father's UCLA.
"(Howland) told us, 'Defense is going to win championships,' " Bozeman said.
And championships are all that matter at UCLA. Play as pretty as you want, sign all the smooth, prep All-Americans Los Angeles can produce, but if you don't win championships, national championships, you can't survive in Westwood.
You just can't.
Howland is no fool. He has a passion for UCLA basketball history, culled when he was a kid in Cerritos, Calif., watching on KTLA when the Bruins were winning every single game. But he also knows that he is the eighth coach to give this job a try in the post-Wooden era. The average tenure of those guys is a meager 3.9 years in a long string of talented coaches who failed, fled or crumbled under the pressure.
He knows you have to win it all to survive. He knows in today's NCAA, all those All-Americans that Wooden and his chief booster, Sam Gilbert, brought to campus would flee to the NBA draft at first chance. So this is the only way to build a real program, even at a place such as UCLA.
He isn't going to repeat the mistakes of the past, even if it means winning ugly. If UCLA values only championships, and defense wins championships, then the formula is pretty simple. The days of UCLA stocking up on sizzle but not steak (say, Boston College bruiser Craig Smith, an L.A. native who Steve Lavin didn't recruit) are over.
"I'm looking for tough guys," Howland said. "I recruit toughness. We try to encourage that aspect of the game, but it starts with the guys you recruit, and that's why we are where we are.
"We're not going to recruit soft kids."
Howland rejects the notion that UCLA didn't have tough guys before, and the truth is, for all that talent, there were plenty of blue-collar players.
But the transformation of Bozeman may be the best example of this program's changed philosophy. A McDonald's All-America out of Orange County, he was signed to be a 6-foot-6 point guard, compared favorably by Lavin to Magic Johnson. But he was always injured, never seemed capable of running the offense consistently and often tried to do too much. He seemed the poster child of everything wrong with Bruin basketball, possessing questionable toughness both physically and mentally.
Then came Howland, and Bozeman embraced the change. As a fifth-year senior, the days of open-court lobs and daring passes are over. Bozeman plays on the wing now and is regarded as the team's glue guy, a defender, a rebounder, a scrapper.
It isn't about highlights. It's about championships.
"(Howland) comes to work with his hard hat on and it rubs off on us," Bozeman said. "We really don't care about the media and all that limelight. We just want to get Ws. We're focusing in on defense and that's what's winning us ball games."
Two more wins and the new system in Westwood will deliver the same old result – the only result that ever matters.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Wednesday, Mar 29, 2006 5:05 pm, EST