Putting it In Perspective
Usually before I do the game analysis I re-watch the game. But I just can't do it for this one. I did it for four years of Rick Neuheisel football; don't make me do it for this bad basketball. Plus, it really isn't that difficult to analyze UCLA's loss to #25 San Diego State in the Wooden Classic, 78-69. It is everything we've ever talked about – warned about – could happen with this team in terms of personnel, scheme, approach etc. Every single aspect of that game was something the contributors here at BRO said could happen, so it's no surprise and it's not difficult to analyze. In a way, this game was similar to the UCLA football team playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game. In my write-up of that football game, I said: "This game is a putting-it-in-perspective achievement." So was this basketball game. We now know where this team stands. After playing mostly non-conference cupcakes so far, which makes it tough to come to any conclusions, it went up against a decent, borderline top-25 team on a neutral court (or what should have been a neutral court, with the abundance of Aztec fans and few UCLA fas) in San Diego State. And it's clear: It's simply not nearly as good as San Diego State. The most defining aspect of this team that we've known for a while but saw underlined and emphasized in this game: UCLA severely lacks athleticism, and was overcome by SDSU's athleticism. Let that sink in. San Diego State was superior in this game mostly because it was far more athletic. Here's a little digression. Perhaps some of you have noted that over the years Greg Hicks and I have cited a comment from a certain West Coast assistant about the value of athleticism in college basketball, and specifically in recruiting. The quote we've cited a number of times is essentially: "In recruiting, when in doubt, go with athleticism." We can now reveal, because of its relevance, that the originator of that quote is San Diego assistant Brian Dutcher. Dutcher is a coach we've respected for many years, for his overall basketball acumen, but also his recruiting wisdom. He is the head-coach-in-waiting at San Diego State, who will take over the program when Steve Fisher retires. It's particularly apropro that, in the game when the lack of UCLA's athleticism was so showcased and exploited, it was done by San Diego State, by the assistant coach who supplied us that axiom on athleticism in recruiting. It's clear that San Diego State has "gone with athleticism" when UCLA has not. If we had to widdle it down, UCLA in recruiting has opted for shooters and scorers, while the Aztecs have chosen athletes. SDSU's team doesn't shoot well, cleary showing so in this game, but athleticism was the primary factor Saturday, and the Aztec team had the edge – and not coincidentally won the game. There were some stark realizations you could take from watching UCLA/SDSU. 1) There, of course, was the differential in athleticism. 2) The intensity and fire that the Aztecs play with, as opposed to UCLA's players, who look like they're in pain and want to be anywhere but on the court. There is very little indication of team chemistry or camaraderie. In fact, there looks to be more discomfort between the players, and the players and coaches, than anything else. 3) In terms of talent, there is no one on UCLA's team that stands out as a clealyr superior talent. Shabazz Muhammad has some upside and is going to get better as his conditioning improves, but as we warned everyone about, he lacks lateral athleticism, and is still getting acclimated to the college game. You hate to regress, but watching the team that UCLA put on the court it was a stark indication that without Josh Smith UCLA has average talent, and lacks the players that simply have a complete advantage on the court over anyone who tries to guard him. 4) UCLA is in a world of hurt in terms of depth, having just 8 scholarship players and only 7 available for this game, and even one of those (David Wear) was nicked up. 5) The tactics and approach that best fits this team, that of playing a zone on defense, was so blatantly obvious for so long but wasn't utilized until recently; it still clearly gives this UCLA team its best chance to succeed, but it's so behind schedule in being developed since it wasn't installed and worked on extensively until recent that it severely undercuts its effectiveness. If you look at all five of these issues there is no avoiding laying them at the feet of Coach Ben Howland. The one factor in this game that kept UCLA clinging to a chance to win was the zone. UCLA was always within single digits of the Aztecs, until it went to man late in the second half, and San Diego State then was able to build a little more distance. We're not saying completely that opting to go with man late in the second half is what lost this game; the Aztecs probably would have started to pull away if UCLA had stayed with the zone. But it's abundantly clear that, when watching UCLA's zone and man defense, in this game, that its best chance of getting stops against SDSU was with a zone. As we said, however, the zone is so rudimentary and flawed, since it's clear the Bruins are just beginning to utilize it, so SDSU was able to cut it up enough to get the edge in the game. The Aztecs found softness in the short corner, countering UCLA's tactic to bring its center to the top of the key to pick up the man flashing there. SDSU exploited it to find more space by setting a ball screen, and then found an open man in the short corner with an easy look at the basket. This isn't rocket science but fairly simple in terms of executing against a zone. That's the thing – such a basic tactic easily finds holes in UCLA's zone because it's just not sophisticated enough at this point. It's all about knowing and having the experience to rotate quickly within the zone, and UCLA just isn't there yet. In terms of talent, without Smith and the potential advantage and dominance he brings to the court, UCLA just isn't very talented. Every player has some considerable limitations playing at this level. We've documented Muhammad's, and they were evident Saturday. He doesn't have the ability to create offensively for himself and isn't a great lateral athlete, so he's limited to scoring in transition or using his strength around the basket in the halfcourt. What's encouraging is that, evenwhen his scoring is limited this way he still puts in 16 points. Jordan Adams led all scorers with 23 points, and his instant offense kept UCLA in the game. However, his penchant for putting up quick shots, too, hurt UCLA considerably, too, and it's the age-old issue of a guy being able to shoot you into the game at one moment or shoot you out of it in the next moment. Larry Drew, given the context of the talent on this team, probably needs to be more assertive offensively, with decent quickness off the dribble and a good mid-range game. His limitations are not being a good outside shooting threat, and probably that, while pretty quick, he doesn't match that with a great handle, which makes him limit himself in penetrating too much. Also, if he's in the game when UCLA goes to a man D he's then a liability; San Diego State's guard Xavier Thames, a 6-3, 190-pound athlete basically had his way with Drew when UCLA was in its man. Travis Wear is a weapon when he catches and shoots from mid-range, but in the post he lacks lift and is easily defended. Kyle Anderson, at this point, is having the type of struggles we thought he might have in college – that we projected very early on when UCLA started recruiting him and every national recruiting expert was raving about him. He simply lacks athleticism, and that's limiting him at this level of college basketball. That and not having the ball in his hand has got him out-of-sync. There are signs – like when he creates from about 15 feet away in this game he did a couple of good things, and is a tough defensive match-up for defenders smaller than he is. In terms of talent and personnel, we've harped on how Howland doesn't seem very good at scouting and analyzing his own players – and utilizing them accordingly. The irony here is that, really, sans Smith, the guy with the biggest upside now on the roster is Norman Powell, and he's now not starting and got the sixth most minutes (23) among Bruins in this game – when only seven played and the seventh player is injured. Powell is probably the best zone defender on the team, because he simply is the quickest Bruin. Now that he has clearly developed his outside jumper and is confident in taking it, add that to his athleticism, which is clearly the best on the team, he's the guy that UCLA should be trying to ride to a post-season run. It comes down to the same thing we've been talking about for years: It's not about who scored the most points for you in your last game; it's about who has the potential to play at the highest level if you give him a chance to develop. Not that Powell is Russell Westbrook, but Powell being relegated to bench-equivalent minutes and Howland's seeming inability to see that Powell might now give you your best chance to win by the home stretch of the season and that he needs 30 minutes a game is a bit reminiscent of Howland being unable to project Westbrook's potential early on, too. It's mind-blowing to realize that Westbrook averaged just 9 minutes per game as a freshman, playing behind Josh Shipp. Right now Powell is the best pro prospect on the team, and you could completely project him, eight years from now, being a good NBA player and UCLA fans wondering why just didn't come close to producing at a level commensurate with his potential while he was at UCLA. What's really notable about this team is, for a Howland team, how fundamentally unsound they are. They take bad shots, dribble into nowhere out of control, jump to pass, leave their feet on pump fakes, don't bump screens, don't know how to set proper screens, etc., on and on. In Howland's heyday at UCLA, if a player did one of these things he'd be pulled off the court immediately. Now it's pretty much accepted. Fundamental standards have plummeted, out of desperation. Beyond all the issues of this UCLA team's talent, athleticism and fundamentals, what will ultimately limit its potential down the line is the palpable poor atmosphere on the team. It's clear that these players aren't happy. There is little energy on the floor, and nothing but pained expressions on the bench. It's difficult to be able to analyze just how UCLA could improve this aspect of the team this season, since so much of it is internal and personal with each player. But it's pretty clear: Unless this team changes its clearly dour environment, and begins to show positive energy with each other and in its effort level on the court, there is a good chance the season could spiral out of control.