Beauty turns into the beast
Maybe that’s how dynasties are built these days. Brick by brick by brick. “We did not have a great offensive game,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said Saturday evening, all the while knowing that in his system it is not a prerequisite to victory. He has the Bruins winning again, in the manner of Gene Bartow, Larry Brown and Jim Harrick, and with the nodding approval of John Wooden, but Howland’s way is not quite like theirs. Grace has given way to grit, elegance isn’t as apparent as energy, and skill has taken a back seat to strength. When Howland was hired four years ago, the first thing he told his players to do is get in the weight room. Now, “the pretty boy thing,” as Josh Shipp called it, doesn’t get tossed at the Bruins often. A sense of reassurance seems to have returned at UCLA, a soothing feeling that finally, after back-to-back Pacific-10 Conference titles, last year’s run to the NCAA Championship game – and this year’s promising prospects – the Bruins are back where they belong among college basketball royalty. The robes, though, fit differently this time. There are moments, such as Saturday’s 54-49 win over Indiana in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, that still must take some getting used to for the faithful. Well, sure, it was a win and, yes, those are the same classic white uniforms with the blue block letters and gold trim. But Alcindor, Walton, Johnson, Goodrich, Wilkes, Greenwood, O’Bannon and Edney never looked like that. Beauties now play like Beasts. Lorenzo Mata, the tattooed center, rolls into the paint as eager to make contact as a pulling guard. Alfred Aboya, the reserve forward, looks as if he got lost on the way to a Mr. Universe contest. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has a nose for the ball, and the elbows and biceps to get to it. Then there are the perimeter players. Arron Afflalo wouldn’t look out of place wearing a neck roll, Shipp is the most chiseled member of his basketball-playing family after being introduced to the weight room, and even the sprite point guard, Darren Collison, seems to have sprouted biceps as a sophomore. “Those bodies are pretty nice,” Washington State coach Tony Bennett said admiringly. The Bruins remind him of the Wisconsin and Michigan State teams that reached the Final Four in 2000, with the Spartans winning it all. “When the going gets tough, they get nasty and physical,” said Bennett, an assistant on that Wisconsin team his father coached. “They can play both ways, but they’re like a team that runs the ball in football. They pound on you for four quarters and wear you down.” This type of basketball has been rare on the West Coast. Stanford, when it was dominating the Pac-10 around the turn of the millenium, pushed everyone around, but the Cardinal were the exception. “The Pac-10 has always been a skill league and UCLA usually had the most skilled players,” said Scott Duncan, a long-time Oregon assistant. “The way they play now is what you’d expect in the BigEast. Ben likes to be physical at every spot – the 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.” So, if the Bruins have games like they did against Indiana – or the West Regional final against Memphis a year ago – it’s the cost of doing business this way. “It’s hard to look smooth and silky on offense and get five linebackers on defense,” said Duncan, noting that his team, which emphasizes running and three-point shooting occasionally suffers from defensive maladies. It is something of a surprise that this brand of basketball comes not from someone who grew up amid steel mills or grain silos, but in Santa Barbara, where life is lived by chardonnays and sunsets. So where along the road – as a player at Weber State, anassistant at Gonzaga or UCSanta Barbara, or as the head coach at Northern Arizona or Pittsburgh – did Howland come to believe that muscle mattered? “I’ve always been a student of the game, and when you study it, the guys who are the biggest, strongest and quickest are usually the guys who end up rising to the top,” Howland said. “You look at just in the last 10 years, the UConn teams, how physical they are, the Michigan State team that’s gone to the Final Four in four of the last (nine) years. Look at the best teams in the NBA – Shaq, the Pistons, the Bulls – all the physical, strong teams that play tough defense.” Indeed, since 1999, the conference most associated with physical play, the Big Ten, has sent five different teams to the Final Four and has more total appearances (eight) than any other conference. The other conference where physical play has been a hallmark, the Big East, has sent just three teams to the Final Four in that span, but all three – Connecticut twice and Syracuse – have won championships. Still not up there with Pitt If others are impressed with the way the Bruins have transformed themselves physically and stylistically, Howland shrugs. “My teams at Pitt were more physical,” he said, ticking off the weights of frontcourt players on his last team, Chevy Troutman (255), Ontario Lett (260), Torree Morris (290) and Donatas Zavackas (245). At Northern Arizona, his run-and-gun teams weren’t going to get taller or more athletic, but they could get stronger. “We had five guys who could bench press over 300 pounds, including my 5-7 guy,” Howland said. “We have two guys now. The emphasis has always been there.” That extra muscle is put to use all over the basketball court. On defense, the Bruins will check opponents with a forearm, clear out space under the basket with their lower body, and eagerly gravitate to the lane to draw charges. On offense, the Bruins continually run through screens that are true impediments. If some team’s screeners appear to be impersonating a pylon, UCLA’s are set firm and wide, as if defenders are chasing shooters around vending machines. “If they’re going to be running into that all day, they’re going to get tired, they’re going to get sore and they’re going to get beat up over 40 minutes,” said guard Michael Roll. There is a reason why UCLA’s shooting percentage improves in the second half from 46 percent to 51.1, and from 33.7 on three-pointers to 41.2. And why they’ve won six games they’ve trailed at halftime. “They make you feel it every game,” Cal guard Ayinde Ubaka said of the Bruins. “Everybody on the team has a physical game, from top to bottom, the guards, too. “When you go in to rebound, they throw you around and push you under the basket. They’re relentless. They fight and fight, and most teams aren’t ready for that. “A lot of basketball players don’t like to be physical, so they get you out of your comfort zone.” The bedrock of Howland’s philosophy is getting into the weight room. Several Bruins said they generally lift four to five times a week in the offseason, and two to three times during the season, focusing on basketball-specific strength and explosiveness exercises. Some of the weight work is required. Often, though, it is up to the players – something that is helped when the leader leads by example. “Arron Afflalo is by far our best guy in terms of weight lifting,” Howland said. “He lifts throughout the year, he takes it very serious and he’s the MVP of the league and our best player. There’s a direct correlation there the strongest, toughest guy is our best guy.” Afflalo had this reinforced the hard way. After his freshman year, he was playing in a pickup game at the men’s gym on campus, where pros, college and even some high school players have worked out in the off-season for years. One day, Afflalo found himself matched up with Chauncey Billups, who was fresh off leading the Detroit Pistons to within a game of back-to-back NBA titles. Afflalo got into him defensively as it were still Game 7. When this enthusiasm became a little too much for Billups’ taste, he called for the ball, muscled Afflalo into the lane and popped him in the forehead while scoring. “It was nothing personal,” Afflalo said. It was, however, a lesson. “Billups couldn’t do that if he was 180 pounds,” Howland said. “I think that stuck with Arron – he better be strong.” Translating that strength to the court has taken time. For the record, the floor at Pauley Pavilion is not lined with chalk and there are no first-down markers present at practice. “You can’t throw pads on and have them hit each other,” assistant coach Kerry Keating said, perhaps with a bit of regret. “We’re not going to line up across the line and turn it into a football practice.” At least most of the time. If a charge is not taken, a loose ball is not dived for, a block out is not made, then practice is stopped and the requisite drill is run by everyone. “Those are emphasis things,” Keating said. “You prefer not to just do those drills per se, but if it’s missing in practice, you stop and put the emphasis back on it. If you’re not in tune with that, you’re not going to be playing anyway.” Keating, the Bruins’ lead recruiter, says the staff looks for those qualities during recruiting. That means fewer McDonald’s All-Americans – Afflalo and freshman James Keefe – and more who are willing to play the Bruins’ brand of ball. Occasionally, as in the case of incoming recruit Kevin Love, who may be the best and the most physical high school player in the country, both come in the same package. More often they come like Mata, who has accrued a broken nose, a fractured tibia, a concussion, a fractured sternum and torn knee cartilage – and wouldn’t have it any other way. “To run up and down and bang around, that’s how I like to play,” Mata said. “Some people say basketball is not a physical game, but I think it’s one of the most physical sports there is. I like doing all the dirty work.” And so it is that the Bruins head up to San Jose to bang heads with a kindred spirit in Pittsburgh, which doesn’t play much differently under Jamie Dixon than it did for his old boss, Howland. For the occasion, the bluebloods promise to wear their blue collars. Bodies of work The weight is put on Afflalo’s shoulders Headbangers’ ball [email protected] (818) 713-3621160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!