Bruins Not Ready For Prime Time

UCLA took on an experienced and talented Villanova team Wednesday night in New York, losing 82-70 to the Wildcats. There were some familiar problems, but also a few signs of progress...

Facing the 7th ranked team in the country at Madison Square Garden figured to be a tough task for a young UCLA team and it wasn't surprising that the Bruins weren't quite up to the job, as Villanova defeated UCLA 82-70 in the semifinals of the NIT. But while the Bruins didn't come away with the win, they did show signs of improvement compared to last year. UCLA played Villanova pretty much even for most of the game, with the difference in the game really coming down to a Wildcat 14-2 run to close the first half.

There's no question that Villanova was clearly the better team, but the gap between the teams wasn't nearly as glaring as it was a few years ago when the Wildcats blew out the Bruins in an NCAA tournament game. After a terrible stretch to end the first half (more on that later), UCLA played much better in the second half and actually had a few opportunities to get back in the game. But missed free throws and a couple defensive breakdowns cost UCLA any chance it had for a real look at the game.

The Bruins started out the game as if they were going to repeat the loss to Villanova from two years ago. The Bruins gave up a lay-up to start the game, turned it over a couple times, and after the Wildcats hit a three in transition it was 8-0 and you started to have visions of that ugly tournament loss. But the Bruins settled down, Tyler Honeycutt hit a three and UCLA averted the early rout.

The Bruins had way too many turnovers in the first half, they were driven on repeatedly by the Wildcat guards and there was little help from the big men. In particular, Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson did a very poor job of helping when Villanova guards drove the lane. However, Honeycutt did manage to redeem himself as the half wore on, with a couple blocks off weak side help. In general, though, the Bruin half court defense, and transition defense, was not good in the first half.

At the offensive end, UCLA was its own worst enemy at times. They took some very ill-advised shots and they didn't value the ball at all. Honeycutt had a couple terrible passes and Lazeric Jones made some poor decisions with the ball. Malcolm Lee got sped up a few times and took a couple bad shots, while Tyler Lamb also struggled with shot selection. Josh Smith was effective when he was on the court, using his bulk to good effect around the basket and also showing off his great hands. But he picked up a few fouls early and struggled to stay on the court. Jerime Anderson got beat a few times off the dribble, but did have a few good minutes towards the end of the half when the Bruins got within 30-27 at the 4:30 mark. The last 4:30 of the half, though, was disastrous for the Bruins. Here is how it fell apart for UCLA.

Malcolm Lee committed a foul and Villanova made two free throws. 32-27. Nelson got trapped near half court in the press, turned it over and Corey Fisher drove by Anderson (no help from Honeycutt or Nelson) for a lay-up. 34-27. Honeycutt made a bad pass, Fisher knocked down a jumper and it was 36-27. Honeycutt threw a one-handed pass out of bounds and Villanova scored again to make it 38-27. Brendan Lane knocked down two free throws to get UCLA to within 38-29. Wayans drove by Lazeric Jones for a lay-up (no help from Nelson or Honeycutt). 40-29. Jones tried to catch a pass with one hand, dropped it, and Wayans drove by Jones for another lay-up (no help from Honeycutt or Nelson). 42-29. Brendan Lane fumbled a pass from Lee, Villanova got another lay-up and it was 44-29. A 14-2 run to end the half and, for all intents and purposes, the game.

It would be comforting to think that, if UCLA would only clean up the mistakes, the Bruins could have won the game (and thereby be one of the top 10 teams in the country). But while some of the UCLA miscues were self-induced, a lot of them were the result of going up against a better team. Villanova's guards are much more talented than UCLA's and, as a team, they play with much more poise, intensity and focus. The Bruins have a long way to go before they reach the level of Villanova.

However, the Bruins do have some reason for cautious optimism. They did show some resiliency in the second half. The defense was better, they got back better in transition and they kept fighting to the end. And while the officiating definitely wasn't the reason the Bruins lost, there were a few terrible calls that didn't help UCLA's cause. In particular, the 4th foul on Smith and the 3rd foul on Anderson, were both bad blocking calls that should have gone the other way. It was good to see the Bruins play through those bad calls and keep fighting. Last year they had a tendency to let those kinds of calls snowball on them and things would go from bad to worse.

It's difficult to single out any Bruins for their play in this game, but Josh Smith probably played the best in his limited minutes. He picked up some freshman fouls, and only ended up playing 19 minutes, but he was a difference-maker when he was on the court. He converted 5-7 shots, had two steals and a block, played good defense and was on the floor several times after loose balls. If I'm Coach Howland, I'm asking my team, "how come the 6-10, 300-pound freshman is on the floor more often after loose balls than the rest of you?" Smith will no doubt struggle with foul trouble many times this year, but it's exciting to think about the player he will become with more experience and continued improvement with his conditioning.

Tyler Honeycutt had a very up and down game. As I mentioned, he started off very poorly in terms of his help defense and also with some really careless turnovers. However, his defense improved as the game went on and he ended up with four blocks (along with a few other altered shots). He knocked down a couple three-pointers, but he probably needs to be more aggressive getting to the basket, as he only got to the free-throw line twice (missing both). He went 3-8 from the field for the game. He's too talented to only take eight shots in 38 minutes. The Bruins need him to be more assertive and not just settle for the occasional jump shot.

Reeves Nelson also had a very mixed game. His defense continues to be a major problem, as he repeatedly failed to give help on Villanova penetration. He also struggled with his transition defense again. On one glaring example when Jones stole a pass, Nelson sprinted to the offensive end. Then when Honeycutt shot an air ball, Nelson stood there for a second and jogged back on defense as Villanova went the other way five on four and knocked down an open three. Nelson did, however, play a much better second half.

He was much more energetic and physical, as ended up leading the Bruins in rebounds with 13. Malcolm Lee ended up leading the Bruins in scoring with 13 points, but he didn't have a good game overall. He was only 3-9 from the field and he didn't play with the poise that you would hope to get from your most experienced player. Maybe he gets a little bit of a pass because he missed some time with the sprained ankle, but Lee needs to play much better if the Bruins are to do anything meaningful this season.

Both Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones had trouble defending the quick Villanova guards, but Anderson had the better game in limited minutes. Jones struggled with his shot selection and turned the ball over four times, while Anderson knocked down 2-4 shots and had two assists with no turnovers. Neither player was good enough on this night to get the job done against the talented Wildcat guards, but it was encouraging to see Anderson show some progress and actually play with a little confidence.

Brendan Lane struggled a couple times dealing with the Villanova pick and rolls, but he did grab six rebounds, to go with two assists and a block in 24 minutes. Tyler Lamb looked like a freshman playing his first big game on national television, as he took a few bad shots in the first half and ended up 2-6 from the field for the game. Anthony Stover only played four minutes, but he made an impression with two rebounds, one block and a couple altered shots. Watching him roam the paint made you wonder why he wasn't out there for more minutes, given that Villanova's guards were getting to the rim so easily.

I wrote a few weeks ago that I thought a big key for the Bruins this year would be how they responded to adversity. Last year's team didn't respond well at all. While I wouldn't give UCLA an A in that department in this game, I do think they showed some heart. They had a bad stretch to end the first half and got down by 15. But they responded well in the second half and got back in the game. And when Villanova would open it back up to 10 or 11 points, the Bruins continued to compete and would get it back down to six or so.

The Bruins were never able to get over the hump, but it wasn't because of lack of effort. They missed some free throws late and they made a few mistakes down the stretch. Against a very good and experienced Villanova team, that was enough for a loss. Hopefully, the Bruins learned something from the experience and they will be a little better prepared the next time they face one of the top teams in the country.

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