Coach's defense-first philosophy has pushed Bruins to three straight Final Fours, only to come up short against more athletic opponents. It may be time for a new approach.
April 6, 2008
SAN ANTONIO -- Third time's a storm.
With six minutes left in the first half Saturday, Kevin Love turned to the UCLA bench and shouted to his coach in weary despair.
His shirt was stained dark blue with sweat. His stare was glazed over with wonder. His screams were about the stunning combination of pounding and precision that was Memphis.
Ben Howland spread his arms and answered for the entire Bruins nation.
"What do you want me to do, Kevin?" he shouted back.
What did we want him to do, indeed.
Third time's a swarm.
For a third consecutive season, the Bruins showed up at college basketball's Final Four as if they had just stepped into the NBA's Western Conference.
They didn't fit. They didn't compare. They didn't belong.
For a third consecutive season, Howland's players weren't good enough, and his system wasn't adaptable enough, and the tears couldn't come fast enough.
"This is going to be in the back of my mind for the rest of my life," said senior Lorenzo Mata-Real, rubbing his red eyes. "I lost in three straight Final Fours."
The final score in the national semifinal was Memphis 78, UCLA 63, and A Certain Columnist zero.
I wrote that UCLA would win because Howland would outcoach Memphis' John Calipari.
I was wrong. I was embarrassingly wrong. I was as wrong as Calipari's hair is stiff.
More on that later. In the end, this game was about the players, and UCLA's were hurting.
The irrepressible Love ended the game with his head in his hands.
"To see this happen, it's really tough," he said after missing seven of 11 shots.
The dancing Darren Collison ended the game with the world on his shoulders.
"The only way people are going to remember us is that we lost three straight times in the Final Four," he said after making just one of nine shots and being shoved around on defense. "It's on us. It's on me."
The optimistic Luc Richard Mbah a Moute ended the game draped in sadness.
"Of the three Final Four losses, this was the hardest," he said after missing eight of 13 shots. "We really thought we had a chance to win this game."
That thought was misguided. The view that Howland's hard-nosed schemes can control far quicker and more athletic teams was misguided.
UCLA's methodical offense and oppressive defense were supposed to frustrate running Memphis.
But the Tigers were so much quicker and stronger, they broke the Bruins' attack and busted their tempo and eventually buckled their legs.
When the Bruins missed or made a mistake -- they had a combined 52 bricks and turnovers -- the Tigers often turned it into an instant basket.
"It was like, five seconds later they would score on a layup," said Love. "It was like, sometimes I couldn't even get past half court."
The Tigers outscored the Bruins, 14-2, on fastbreaks, but also outscored them in the paint, and outrebounded them, and basically just overpowered them.
"This game went against all the principles we've had all year," said a stunned Josh Shipp.
UCLA's disciplined coaching was also supposed to frustrate the freewheeling Calipari.
Oh yeah, did I tell you I was wrong?
I was, however, right about one thing.
Yes, this was a coaching mismatch. But that mismatch belonged to Calipari. His NBA style owned the Alamodome, his schemes favored his players better than Howland's schemes suited his players.
Calipari made all the right moves. He called all the right formations. In the end, UCLA legs were so weary that the Bruins missed eight consecutive shots during an aborted second-half comeback attempt.
It was, for Calipari, a first and deserved shining moment.
"This team really takes to coaching," he said. "What little we do."
He deserves to be smug. He deserves to be coaching Monday night.
After a game like this, he deserves to win that game.
"I'm telling you what, he really did a great job scheming us," Collison said.
Calipari's most successful scheme stopped Love. Calipari sent two men at him from different directions, making UCLA's most high-profile player invisible, allowing the best-passing big man in college basketball to make just one assist.
Love "was saying he was tired out there," said Memphis center Joey Dorsey. "Sometimes he wasn't even getting back. One of my teammates was telling me, 'Joey run the floor, you can tell he is tired.' "
Calipari also ordered his strong guards, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose, to back down Collison and Westbrook.
He was right. The Bruins guards couldn't keep up.
Both guys were once thought to be going to the NBA, but, even with Westbrook's team-high 22 points, both looked like they need another collegiate season.
Douglas-Roberts and Rose combined to score 53 points and grab 13 rebounds. Collison fouled out in desperation, and Westbrook spent his whole night chasing.
"A lot of guys looked like that deer in the headlights," said Memphis' Shawn Taggart. "That's why we go for people's hearts."
The Tigers stole the Bruins' heart, just like Florida stole it in the previous two springs, and now you have to wonder.
Do the Bruins, as currently built and operated under Howland, have what it takes to win one of these things?
Could they be like Duke, which lost in three consecutive Final Fours in the late 1980s before winning consecutive national titles?
Or are they destined to be like the Buffalo Bills, who lost in four consecutive Super Bowls, never to be remembered again?
What do the Bruins need?
"Get a new coach, maybe?" Howland said with a smile.
Howland is still, in my opinion, one of the best pure basketball coaches in the country.
But for him to become a national championship coach, he needs to recruit better athletes, and let them be better athletes.
This doesn't mean changing his defensive approach. It simply means opening his steel-trap mind just enough to entertain the possibility that even a great defensive team needs to have that same dedication to offense.
Florida threw two strikes against the UCLA philosophy. Memphis has just thrown another one.
Third time's alarm.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.