D-Fense, D-Fense, D-Fense.
The chant is heard at basketball games throughout the country, but seldom is defense applied like teams guided by Ben Howland.
The coach gained a reputation for defensive excellence at Pitt, then brought the intensity to UCLA four years ago. Last season the Bruins reached the national championship game and currently they’re ranked No. 1 in the nation with an 8-0 record.
The severest test in this season came Saturday at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, where UCLA got past sixth-ranked Texas A&M, 65-62.
The game was tied at 56. Then the Bruins suffocated the Aggies with defensive pressure, and that was it.
Forward Josh Shipp scored 18 points for UCLA, which forced 20 turnovers. The Bruins overcame the second straight game in which forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has scored only four points.
Mbah a Moute was consistently excellent in his freshman season and started this season the same way. But he’s been hampered by a groin strain and has missed some practice.
Three players are missing from last year’s team and all are in the NBA – guard Jordan Farmar with the Lakers, guard Cedric Bozeman with the Atlanta Hawks and center Ryan Hollins with Charlotte. Darren Collison is the new point guard and Lorenzo Mata the center. Mata had 16 rebounds last week in a win over Cal State Fullerton.
“Ben understands that championships are built on defense, intensity, teamwork and fundamentals,” said UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero. “And those elements are the foundation of his philosophy.”
Howland makes no secret of his intensity on the defensive side of the court.
“Winning championships is all about defense,” he said. “If you look every year at the Final Four, the best teams in the country always have the best defense. Holding teams to under 40 percent from the field is something that is pretty consistent among Final Four teams.”
Although every game is important to a coach, Howland seemed especially proud that his team came through in the Wooden event.
Wooden, 96, was on hand and drew an ovation from the 15,000 fans at the Honda Center (formerly the Pond). After he spoke to the crowd via the arena’s video screen, with five minutes remaining to play, the UCLA defense intensified. Howland then spoke of his team carrying on the grand tradition established by Wooden during 10 NCAA championship seasons.
UCLA’s next major test is expected to come from Michigan December 23 in Pauley Pavilion. Then the Bruins will begin defense of their Pac-10 championship December 28 against Washington State and December 31 against Washington, also in Pauley Pavilion.
In the Pac-10 this season UCLA is favored, followed by Arizona, Washington, California and Oregon. USC, which has a 6-2 record and is coming along well in Coach Tim Floyd’s second season, could crash the top five.
All 10 teams will play in the conference tournament in March at Staples Center.
As well as UCLA is doing, there’s already an anticipation of next season when Kevin Love arrives. The Oregon high school star is a 6-foot-10 center with remarkable skills and considered the best high school player in the nation. He’s the son of former Laker forward Stan Love.
Howland says Love is an outstanding passer besides being a 20 points per game scorer and double figure rebounder. In Howland’s time, at UCLA Love is considered his top recruit.