Just when it seemed the train was sliding off the rails in Westwood, UCLA is back on track, eyes fixed on the locomotive.
The Bruins are becoming every bit the team they were supposed to be all along: a Pac-12 heavyweight with the right balance of young star power and veteran glue guys to compete for a Final Four. Coaching permitting, of course.
UCLA’s season, which reached a crescendo following its showcase win on Thursday over Arizona in Tucson, quite simply boils down to two concessions: Ben Howland deferring to his team and his team deferring to Shabazz Muhammad.
That means no senseless, oddly-timed substitutions, like taking out Muhammad six minutes into the Bruins’ biggest game of the year right as he begins to heat up. Enough with the power trip timeouts, too. UCLA players have heard enough empty platitudes over the season, through their own head coach, fragments of their own fan base and even the NCAA.
There’s merely one responsibility Howland has with this group (other than continuing to harness the defense and forever scrapping that ragtag zone): get the ball to Bazz. The Bruins are 7-0 in games when Muhammad tallies at least 20 points and have yet to drop a game in which the freshman led the team in shots per possession played.
Muhammad should function in UCLA’s offense the same way Durant did at Texas, Wade at Marquette and Carmelo at Syracuse. He’s in that selected ilk as a collegiate player. This is not to say Bazz must uncork 18 to 20 shot attempts per game, as Durant, Wade and Anthony customarily did for their schools. Muhammad has not yet shown the requisite stamina to handle that type of burden. It does, however, call for a steadfast commitment to running an already explosive offense through arguably college basketball’s most versatile scorer.
Since jettisoning the dead weight and brushing aside the malcontents—the Bruins lost Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb to transfer in the span of three days—UCLA is benefiting from a renewed focus that has repositioned the team back in the thick of the Pac-12 hunt.
The Bruins have their superstar (Muhammad), a secondary scoring ace in Jordan Adams, a set of talented twins (David and Travis Wear) holding down the middle, a transformed Larry Drew leading the nation in assist-to-turnover rate and an auxiliary floor general (Kyle Anderson) to round out one of the most prolific scoring attacks in the college game. The much maligned defense too is improving by the game, finally beginning to resemble, at least to an extent, Howland’s trademark man-to-man D.
UCLA unmistakably has the horsepower to gun down Oregon at the top of the Pac-12 chain, just as long as a freshman phenom, not worn-out-of-welcome coach, is conducting the ride.