The poor start for the Bruins was a microcosm of the problems UCLA has had so far this season. If you look at the first ten possessions, when VCU built the 8-0 lead, you can see just about all the UCLA problems in those opening minutes. Here's how the first ten possessions went.
On the first play of the game, Tyler Honeycutt made a bad decision, got out of control on a drive to the basket and was called for charging. VCU's first possession had Jamie Skeen slipping a screen, Josh Smith was late on the rotation and Skeen converted a lay-up. The next time down for UCLA, Reeves Nelson was covered by two guys under the basket and he tried to force up a bad shot anyway. VCU tied him up and took the ball back on the alternating possession arrow. VCU missed it's next shot, but Skeen (surrounded by Tyler Honeycutt, Smith and Nelson) outworked the Bruins for the rebound and scored on a lay-up). The Bruins then came down and Honeycutt fired up a bad quick jumper with 24 seconds remaining on the shot clock. VCU's Skeen then lost the ball on a drive, but out hustled the Bruins to recover it and was fouled on a shot attempt (and made two free throws). The next Bruin possession had them running a play with Nelson setting a screen to get Josh Smith a touch on the low block. The only problem was Nelson didn't even attempt to set the screen for Smith, instead running by him and popping out to the top of the key looking for the ball. So Smith wasn't open right away on the play. Malcolm Lee had the ball on the wing and didn't wait for Smith to get open. Smith actually did finally get open, but Lee didn't pass him the ball and instead took an ill-advised jump shot. On VCU's next possession, UCLA left a guy wide open, but he missed the open three and the Bruins got the rebound. However, on the next play, Nelson traveled and VCU got the ball back. VCU ran another ball screen, Skeen slipped the screen, Nelson was late on the rotation and Skeen scored again.
Ten possessions, down 8-0 and the Bruins had displayed most of the problems that have plagued them so far this season. Bad decisions with the ball, inconsistent effort, bad defense, carelessness, questionable shot selection and a lack of attention to detail. It's not just one or two things that have hurt the Bruins in their two losses so far. And you could argue that the problems weren't just apparent in the losses. They were present in the wins as well, but the Bruins overwhelming talent edge made them less significant in those games.
The strengths and weaknesses of the Bruin players are now pretty apparent and they generally show up in each game (to varying degrees). Tyler Honeycutt is one of the team's better scorer's and rebounders, but also the most careless ball-handler. He had 18 points and 10 rebounds, but also turned it over five times. Reeves Nelson is the best low-post scorer and leading rebounder, but he's also the worst defender and competitor. Jamie Skeen torched him for 23 points and nine rebounds (before Brendan Lane began to guard Skeen and slowed him down). Josh Smith is an effective low post scorer when he gets the ball down low, but he struggles to stay in the game due to foul trouble (he only played 13 minutes and ended up with four fouls) and he hasn't yet learned how to post up and properly seal his man. Lazeric Jones is a better shooter than Jerime Anderson, but Anderson is the better distributor of the ball. Jones had 14 points and knocked down a couple threes, but had five turnovers including a couple killers in the last few minutes of the game. He also repeatedly lost his man on defense and it's now pretty apparent that he is not the defensive upgrade over Anderson that he was supposed to be. Anderson, meanwhile, didn't score, but had two assists, two steals and two rebounds in only seven minutes. Anderson, however, made a couple bad passes in transition late in the first half and only played two minutes in the second half. I can certainly understand why Coach Howland might be upset with Anderson given Jerime's performance in the first two seasons, but if one is looking at their performance objectively you wouldn't say that Jones' play merited 33 minutes to only seven for Anderson. Neither player was good in the Villanova or VCU game, with each of them having some good and bad plays.
Anthony Stover isn't much of a scorer just yet, but he's a good rebounder and defender, and he plays with very good energy. He played ten minutes against VCU and had three rebounds to go with one (or two?) blocks. The official scorer didn't credit him with the blocks – not sure how he missed those as one was obvious on a great hustle play by Stover in transition. Brendan Lane is the best passer and defender among the Bruin post players. He's not yet a consistent scorer, and he still needs to get stronger (lost a couple potential rebounds), but he's been the most solid of the Bruin post players to date. Tyler Lamb has played like a talented freshman with a lot to learn. In New York, Lamb appeared to be a little anxious and trying too hard, as he had three turnovers in eleven minutes. Not the first time that has happened to a freshman making his first trip to Madison Square Garden.
Malcolm Lee is the one Bruin that had a somewhat atypical game. Coming into the game, Lee was 0-5 from three-point range and he hasn't been a consistent shooter in his first two years at UCLA. But Lee went 5-7 from the stripe and ended up with a game high 23 points. He made a couple shaky decisions at times, but this was easily his best game of the year and one of the better ones of his career. Which is both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging in that maybe he can gain some confidence and build on this performance, but discouraging in that he shot so unexpectedly well and UCLA still lost to VCU.
Watching the Bruins in New York, I found myself saying more than a few times, "what is the identity of this team?" We all know what the identity was during the Final Four runs. Those teams, first and foremost, played good defense. That was the foundation of the program. They were also physically and mentally tough teams. They were filled with competitive players. Some people complained about the pace they played at, but they generally took good shots. Good defense. Physically and mentally tough players. Competitive players. Good decision-making and shot selection. I know it's still early, and this is a somewhat young team still finding its way, but I don't see much similarity in this team to the Final Four teams. We certainly didn't see it with last year's team. I would like to write last year off as an aberration, but then I find myself asking, "why did Nikola Dragovic play 30 minutes a game last season?" If the foundation of those great Bruin teams was the traits I've mentioned, then why did Dragovic – who was the antithesis of most of those traits – play so many minutes? The only answer I can come up with is that Coach Howland felt that Dragovic gave him the best chance of winning some of those games.
Early last season when it became evident that the team was going nowhere, I wrote the following (paraphrasing). Wins and losses are really not important the rest of this season. What is important is that Coach Howland demand that his players play the game the right way. They have to play hard and compete – for forty minutes, every game. Ultimately, Coach Howland has to restore the foundation of the program or the Bruins will never get back to competing for championships. They have to get back that commitment to defense. He has to demand that they compete. He cannot reward selfishness and must demand that they play together. The wins and losses are irrelevant if Coach Howland doesn't establish that strong foundation that made his previous teams so successful. Defense, toughness, competitiveness, playing for your teammate, making good decisions and taking good shots.
Which leads me to the conclusion that Coach Howland has to take a firmer stance with this group of players. He has to demand that everyone play hard all the time. That has to be a given. The fact that it wasn't last year, and hasn't been so far this season is, frankly, a mystery to me. Why did Coach Howland play Dragovic so many minutes last year when Dragovic gave no effort in either rebounding or defending? I'm sure he felt that Dragovic would shoot well enough to help him win games (which he didn't). But even if he did makes all those three-pointers he attempted, he still wasn't playing with any effort. What kind of message does that send to your team?
It's my contention that this team will never do anything meaningful if players are given minutes no matter how little effort they give on the court. And, to be brutally honest, Reeves Nelson is giving no effort at the defensive end of the court. He didn't play defense last year and he's not playing any this year. Nelson is not the only culprit, as Honeycutt has also jogged back in transition, both Jones and Anderson have relaxed at times defensively and Smith has had a few breakdowns as well. But Nelson is the most consistent offender. It's gotten so bad that the times that he does give a good defensive effort are the exception to his usual performance.
But Greg, I'm sure you're saying, how can Coach Howland take out Nelson -- or Honeycutt or any of the other primary contributors -- and expect to win? Nelson is the leading scorer and rebounder on the team. And my response would be, "how can Coach Howland ask any of his players to defend and compete if he doesn't demand it from every player?" Players know who is competing and who is not competing. They know which players are helping them on defensive rotations and which players are not. They know which players are competing to win and which players are merely looking to put up stats. Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Baron Davis have led their teams in scoring, and assists, and even made all-star teams. The only problem is their teams almost always lose (and they got a lot of coaches fired). Every bad team has guys that lead them in statistical categories.
This is not to say that Reeves Nelson is the only problem on this team and he should be benched. Nelson is clearly a talented player with a lot to offer. He needs to be a vital part of this Bruin team if they are to have any real success. However, he is clearly the biggest culprit when it comes to a lack of effort on defense. There's not even a close second. He, and every other Bruin, needs to be held accountable.
If Tyler Honeycutt wants to make one handed passes off the dribble, and throw them out of bounds, then he needs to be held accountable. If Lazeric Jones is going to lose his man on defense, then Jerime Anderson needs to get more time. And if Anderson is going to make terrible lob passes in transition, then he needs to come out of the game. And isn't that what happened last night? Anderson made a couple terrible plays and he sat the rest of the night (other than two minutes) on the bench. Anderson was held accountable for his mistakes. But that needs to happen with every player on this team – not just the guy that's in the doghouse for his poor play of the last two seasons. You can't have different sets of rules for different players. Russell Westbrook played nine minutes a game as a freshman because he had trouble staying in front of his man. One year later, he was the fourth pick in the draft. Obviously, he learned how to stay in front of his man.
Coach Howland has to start by demanding maximum effort from his players at all times. This team isn't talented enough to be successful by only playing hard at one end of the court. If it costs this team some wins early because Nelson or Honeycutt or Jones isn't on the court due to their lack of effort, then that may be the price you pay for developing the culture needed to get back to Final Fours. As it turned out, the Bruins lost two games in New York anyway – even by playing the starters a ton of minutes.
The play of the game, in my opinion, was on a sequence when VCU was headed for a lay-up in transition and Brendan Lane hustled back to block the shot. But VCU got the ball back, and was about to score, when Stover came out of nowhere and got another block. The Bruins took the ball the other way and Honeycutt scored on a lay-up. I wrote in my notes, "PLAY THE GUYS THAT PLAY HARD."
The Bruins obviously have a lot of issues other than just playing hard, but it would nice to see them solve that issue. Play hard all the time. And then we can work on the other issues.