After a slow start, UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland reluctantly had his Bruins play more zone defense, and it has paid off.

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At the same time Ben Howland devised a plan that might salvage UCLA’s season, Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times wrote a column speculating on the future of the Bruins’ coach.

Things had become so bad in Westwood, an 8-10 start warranted an inspection of the man who guided UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours, three Pac-10 regular-season championships and two conference tourney titles.

Despite the immediate concerns, Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero gave Howland his full support.

“There are few coaches in country in the last five years who have performed at the level that Ben has,” Guerrero told Plaschke. “He didn’t just forget how to coach.”

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How prophetic.

Howland, a staunch supporter of man-to-man defense, recognized he didn’t have the athletes or the veteran experience to play the type of aggressive defense he preferred, so he reluctantly switched to a zone.

“We’re not super athletic (enough) to chase around some of the people in our league,” Howland said. “We’re playing a couple of freshmen a lot of minutes, and to really play good man defense, there’s so much that goes into it.

“The combination of some of the youth that we’re playing, along with some of the veterans, I think it’s the best fit for us.”

In the second half of last Thursday’s last-second victory against Washington, the Bruins held the Huskies to 29.6 percent shooting (8 for 27).

UCLA followed that strong defensive effort by shutting down Washington State in a 74-62 win. The Cougars were the top-shooting team in the conference before the game, but shot only 35.6 percent (21 of 59).

Admittedly, Howland was unsure what the switch to a zone would produce.

“The first time we really worked on it, where we actually practiced what we were doing was last week,” he said. “I thought they did a great job.

“What’s really disappointing is just how slowly I recognized that this is what we need to do for at least part of our defensive scheme is to zone more. I’m disappointed in myself more than anything.”

UCLA, which won consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 31, moved into a second-place tie in the Pac-10 at 4-3. The Bruins are still under .500 for the season at 9-10.

Howland declined to commit to the zone for the remainder of the season. But after losing six underclassmen to the first round of the NBA draft in the past four years, he admits it’s UCLA’s best option.

“It is, as long as we’re winning,” he said.

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