UCLA Coach Had the Answers
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 03, 2006

LAST NIGHT’S Cal-UCLA game was terrific, an excellent example of why I prefer college ball to the current NBA, and it took me back to the epic battles between the two when I was in school.

Unfortunately, this time, the coach with the answers was on the UCLA bench.

My first year at Cal was the season, 1956-57, when Pete Newell won the first of four straight conference titles.

Newell also ended his coaching career with seven straight wins over John Wooden’s UCLA teams, and he did it with a strategy that started with defense. The Bears played a pressing defense, often a full court press, which sometimes resulted in steals for easy baskets and always disrupted the playmaking ability of the other team.

That’s exactly what UCLA coach Ben Howland did in the second half last night, after a first half in which the Bears led by 11 points and Leon Powe had 15 points. In the second half, the UCLA ball-hawking and stifling defense prevented the Cal guards from getting the ball into Powe, who scored only five points in the half and none in overtime.

This wasn’t a case of the Bears playing poorly, just of the Bruins playing better. Wooden’s teams didn’t play poorly in the losses to Cal, either; Newell’s teams just played better.

Last night, the Bears probably played as well as they can, with an intensity that hasn’t always been there this season. And their own defense slowed UCLA in the first half. In the second half, their defensive pressure faltered slightly and Arron Afflalo broke loose for 18 points in the half and another three in OT. But Afflalo has done that to many teams.

There’s another Newell-like characteristic with Howland: His teams win the games they’re expected to win; the Bruins have not lost to a conference team with a losing record.

That hasn’t been true for the Bears, unfortunately. Their losses to bottom feeders Arizona State and Oregon State, both at home, are coming back to bite them now; if they’d won those games, they’d be tied with UCLA for the conference lead.

This season will be looked at as a lost opportunity. Ben Braun had the best group of players he’d ever had, and Arizona and Stanford, which had been the conference powers, both were weaker than in the recent past. The conference as a whole is weaker, ranking only seventh in the country.

But Cal’s window of opportunity is closing. Arizona’s problems were primarily discipline; Lute Olson has restored order, and the Wildcats are probably headed for their 22nd straight NCAA appearance. Stanford will be enrolling the seven-foot Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, in the fall. With Howland in charge, UCLA has broken the pattern of great but underachieving athletes in the Steve Lavin era.

And now, Cal is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament unless it wins the conference tournament. The Bears’ RPI rating was only 59 going into last night’s game, and if they beat USC, they will still have only split their final six games – and a team’s play down the stretch is an important consideration for the selection committee.

THERE IS significant unhappiness among Cal alumni over Braun, and there’s a license plate out there with “FIREBEN” on it.

Forget it. That isn’t going to happen. Braun has too many points in his favor. The most important one is his players’ academic standings, which was accentuated with the news this week that the four seniors on the squad will be graduating this spring - Richard Midgley, Martin Smith, Rod Benson and Jordi Geli, who has been a medical redshirt the last two seasons.

Meanwhile, the NCAA also announced this week that some major collegiate programs, including football champion Texas, have not met new academic standards for their athletes. That’s probably related to Vince Young’s well-publicized problems with the NFL’s Wonderlic test.

The UC administration was very embarrassed when it was discovered that two football players were given credit for a class they never attended; the subsequent NCAA penalty banned the Bears from a bowl game in Jeff Tedford’s first year. Neither the coach or the athletic director at the time, Tom Holmoe and John Kasser, were responsible for this problem – a professor had made the decision on his own – but then faculty advisor Jack Citrin had warned Kasser about it, and Kasser had dismissed the warning by saying it was an academic problem.

So, the fact that Braun, who started as a teacher, keeps close watch on his players’ academic progress is a very strong point in his favor. So is the fact that he actually donated money to the school.

And, this is not a Holmoe-type coaching situation. Holmoe was in over his head as a coach, and the Bears were so bad during his tenure, there was no way he could stay. That paved the way for Tedford, who has totally revitalized the program.

Braun is just good enough to save his job. He has had some successes in his previous eight years at Cal: four NCAA appearances, including a “Sweet Sixteen” spot in his first year, 1996-97, and two NIT appearances, including a tournament championship in 1999, but it’s not a good sign when a coach’s first year is his most successful.

The early question about him was whether he’d be able to recruit the top athletes. He’s doing that, but he hasn’t been able to translate that into better teams, partly because of his stagnant offense, partly because he is not a good game day coach.

NEXT YEAR, Powe may be gone. From a basketball standpoint, he could benefit from another year in college but with his disadvantaged background, it would be hard to tell him to stay if he can get assurances that he’d go in the first round of the NBA draft.

With or without Powe, I think we’ve seen what we’ll get from Braun-coached teams: a respectable program that will never get to the top tier and expectations that will never be fully realized.

Oh, well, there’s always football. Bring on spring practice.

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