Sunday, January 6, 2013

UCLA wins 7 straight in beating Stanford

The rumor was that after the loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Howland was on the verge of being axed.  Had he lost to CSUN the following game, boosters would have demanded his head.  Though UCLA won that game easily, they lost the next game vs a ranked SDSU in a nationally televised exhibition, which also exposed the lack of fan support.  Quietly, Howland continued to teach his defensively challenged squad, even using a strangely scheduled exhibition game to work on playing and attacking man-to-man defenses.

His 2 best recruits, Shabazz and Kyle, had been relative disappointments, not to mention that the big man with the most pro potential had suddenly transferred (eventually to Georgetown - good luck motivating Josh, JT).  Then starting with a sparsely attended game at Reliant Stadium, Howland found a way to win.  Then he beat 3 pushovers, scoring an average of 91.7 points a game.  In a measuring stick game, UCLA beat #7 Missouri in overtime, which included two enormous OT 3 pointers from a now-in-shape Shabazz.  Honestly, I would have taken that W over the bowl game vs Baylor.  Maybe its because I'm more a UCLA basketball guy, but a win over a top 10 team pre-conference goes a long way when it comes to tournament selection time.  The last time we beat a ranked team was over #10 Arizona 2 seasons ago.

UCLA proceeded to handily win its Pac-12 openers vs Cal and Stanford (albeit in ugly fashion) and all of a sudden, Howland finds himself 12-3 with perhaps just a couple more wins away from cracking the top 25 again.  Has the team arrived, ready to make a run at Final Fours for the next few years?  No, this is not like any Howland team we've ever seen.  I remarked earlier in the season that perhaps he has sold his basketball soul to keep his job.  They say in his first 9 seasons, his teams had only scored 90 or more points, 10 times.  This season in 15 games, they've already surpassed that mark 4 times and scored 89 in another.

However, defensively, it is clear that all our new additions (minus Parker) are improving immensely.  Shabazz is in much better game shape and responds well to coaching.  Kyle has become much more comfortable on the court and is far and away the best rebounder on the team (which is an indictment on the Wears).  Jordan Adams' offense has returned to earth a bit, but he's made up for it with notable defensive efforts.

But perhaps the most important defender is Larry Drew.  PG penetration is pretty much the key to basketball, and he's literally stepped up to opposing guards in key moments.  Nobody on our team is a lockdown defender (Powell is the closest we have), but with nearly half our season gone, we are much improved.

Against Stanford, the Wears again fell in love with their jump shots early, but were extremely ineffective on the boards.  In 50 minutes of combined play, the Wears TOTALED FIVE rebounds at the center position.  FIVE.  They were each outrebounded by 4 other players, including the point guard (Drew) and backup shooting guard (Powell).  Thankfully, Shabazz had 10 boards while Kyle had 12.  Most disappointingly, our clear weakness is the lack of interior defense - again, an indictment on the Wears.  Tony Parker might be our strongest defender, but he's only getting a couple minutes a game.

Shabazz is obviously going to leave us after the season.  He might not have the explosive ability that some of the elite athletes - Westbrook or Wade - possess, but he fills up the stat sheet game after game.  His game might not be pretty, but he's effective.  And he's been hitting big jumpers in crunch time, exactly what we expected the #1 recruit in the country to do.

Ultimately, I still think Howland needs a Pac 12 title (or at least contend with Arizona until the last weekend) and a Elite Eight appearance to keep his job.  Now he's put himself in position to make a run at it.

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