When UCLA reached the national championship game in college basketball last season, Ben Howland’s reputation as an exceptional defensive coach grew.
It was a reputation already well established from the years when he guided Pittsburgh to prominence.
Now he has a UCLA team doing even better.
After UCLA opened defense of its Pac-10 championship last weekend with a grinding 55-52 win over Washington State and an inspiring 96-74 rout of Washington at Pauley Pavilion, Howland gave his team’s defense high marks.
“We’re forcing twice as many turnovers as a team of mine has ever done,” he said. “We’re far ahead of last season at this point.”
Asked how that’s possible, Howland replied: “We’re just better at it.”
The key is double-teaming any opposing post player as soon as he receives the ball. Passing correctly out of double teams is a skill most big men don’t learn until they’ve played three or four years professionally. Challenging a college player to do it leaves the opponent at quite a disadvantage.
UCLA was good on offense too Sunday, and Howland credited UCLA’s ability to score 96 points on forcing 22 turnovers and shooting 72 percent in the second half.
Guard Arron Afflalo scored 27 points. Howland said the junior played his best game at UCLA.
Reserve forward Michael Roll made a big contribution with 15. Following a brilliant high school career in Orange County, Roll gave a verbal (non-binding) commitment to UC Santa Barbara.
“I chose Santa Barbara but then Coach Howland called,” said Roll.
UCLA is ranked No. 1 in the nation with a 13-0 record but will play its next three games on the road – at Oregon State January 4, at Oregon January 6 and at USC January 13.
USC split its first two conference games, defeating Washington in double overtime and losing to Washington State on a last second shot.
“The Pac-10 is the best basketball conference in the country,” said Howland. “Whoever wins our conference will get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.”
Although UCLA is unbeaten, few authorities expect it to last. Considering the strength of conference teams, a 15-3 record would be regarded as a superb performance.