To put it plainly, UCLA was screwed by the officiating in losing to #4 Kansas Thursday, 77-76.
That was some of the worst officiating in a college basketball game in recent memory. The thing is, the calls were horrible against both teams. It just so happened that the most critical calls, the calls that helped decide the game, were the ones that went against UCLA.
Every Bruin fan watching that game on TV picked up something and threw it at the exact time that Ben Howland threw his bottle of water and yelled, "That was bull----!"
If there was ever a time that Howland should call out the refs and accept a fine this might be it.
It was a shame that such a competitive, entertaining college basketball game had to end on such a miserable note as that last foul call that sent Mario Little to the free-throw line with .07 seconds remaining.
I would think, while Kansas fans are grateful for the win, there has to be some acknowledgement that it's not the way such a quality game as that one should be decided.
UCLA easily played its best game of the young season – perhaps its best game of the last two seasons.
It happened for a number of reasons. Most of the Bruins played with intensity on both sides of the court. Tyler Honeycutt had a signature game, scoring 33 points and getting 9 rebounds (on national television, and in front of NBA scouts). And Josh Smith started to realize what we've known about him for years watching him in high school and AAU ball – he's a beast.
Let's first start with the intensity. At least the team looked like there was some improved effort on defense. The defense was still a mess for a considerable portion of the game, mostly because of mistakes and inexperience – but that's okay. If there's effort and intensity we'll accept mistakes.
There were plenty of them to start the game. And while many were just bad decisions, a good number of the most glaring ones were from a lack of effort: Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson got beat on back door cuts, there was late or non-existent help defense, and a few transitional baskets by Kansas where they exploited a number of UCLA defenders jogging back. So, an inconsistent defense and too many first half turnovers (11) gave Kansas far too many opportunities – that they actually didn't take advantage enough. The Jayhawks were only up 42-39 at the half. It was, actually, very encouraging for UCLA that they could commit so many turnovers and allow so many easy baskets to the #4-ranked team in the country and be down by only 3.
UCLA was competitive in this game for, really, two reasons – Honeycutt and Smith. Honeycutt played the best offensive game of his career. Every one of the shots he had attempted in previous games that missed went in Friday. He shot 11 for 15 from the floor, and 5-for-6 from three, and I don't think I even remember four shots that Honeycutt missed. If you don't think getting stronger helps, he hit two three-point jumpers in which he was fouled – legitimately fouled – but had enough strength for the foul not to alter his shot. Howland ran a new play in which Honeycutt would come down the baseline, come around two staggered screens, and curl behind the three-point line to catch the ball, which worked for most of the game until Kansas began sniffing it out. Honeycutt was the offensive weapon that you anticipated he could be from his first game last season (against Kansas), taking shots confidently (It helps when they're going down), but doing so in the flow of the offense.
The biggest boost to UCLA, though, came from Smith. It was such a significant boost since you expected Honeycutt to lead the team, but you didn't necessarily think that Smith would have his coming-out party against the highly-ranked Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse, just six games into the season. In fact, if we had to guess, we would have thought that it was still too early for Smith, and there were too many intimidating factors, for him to break out in this game like he did. Perhaps the most notable aspect of his performance was the seeming fearlessness; going into KU's home court, where they hadn't lost in 66 straight games, he didn't look even slightly rattled but amazingly composed for a true freshman. The kid even broke a smile a couple of times, looking like he was a man playing against boys in the driveway of some suburban home. What was most significant is that it now appears that Smith realizes just how big of a beast he is. He can catch a ball in the post really well with those big paws, and then, when he turns to the basket, it was clear that neither of the beefy, 230-pound Morris twins could stop him. Even both of them combined couldn't stop him. It did seriously look like an adult playing against kids in a driveway. Toward the end of the game, Kansas's frontcourt looked like they wanted no part of him and, after he caught the ball on the block, tended to get out of his way. There were a few times Kansas actually tried to double him in the post and he didn't panic, looking like he realized that even two defenders on him still aren't enough to contain him. It's been repeated many times in this young season just how critical it is to keep Smith on the floor and out of foul trouble, and this game was the biggest example of that: When Smith can play 28 minutes, he's capable of turning in games of 17 points and 13 rebounds, and dominance in the paint.
Easily the biggest negative about Smith's performance is something he can't help. He was clearly called for two fouls "for being big." They were horrendous calls made on non-existent fouls, coming seemingly because, if an opposing player falls over when he's close to Smith, the referees are concluding he must have been fouled by that big body. There were two fouls called against Smith in the second half that, if anything, were fouls against him (especially the blocking foul, which was a blatant charge) that really changed the course of the game. UCLA was actually leading Kansas and looking like they could establish an even bigger lead when the two fouls over the course of a minute forced Howland to take out Smith. UCLA went from up 49-45 and 51-47, to down 51-53. There were many momentum shifts in this game, but that was perhaps the most significant one. The bad call at the end of the game, of course, handed the victory to Kansas, but those two calls might have been just as influential on the game's outcome. When Kansas started realizing it had to shadow Honeycutt, they still had no physical answer for Smith inside, and him having to spend time on the bench over the course of the last 15 minutes took away UCLA's clear advantage over the Jayhawks.
Hopefully this game sends two messages: One, to Smith, for him to now completely comprehend how potentially dominating he can be at the college level. Two, for the rest of the team and the coaching staff to make it the utmost priority to get Smith the ball in the post. The kid doesn't even need post moves; he's so damn big he can just take a step to the basket and lay in the ball. What could also be critical the rest of the season is his improved free-throw shooting (he shot 5-for-10 against KU, and is shooting just 53% on the season) since he's obviously going to get fouled quite a bit as he bullies his way to the rim. There is some hope in that regard since Smith has a nice free-throw stroke.
The other best aspect of the game was UCLA out-rebounding Kansas, 36-31. UCLA, so far this season, hadn't been as forceful on the boards as you would have thought, but they were dominating against Kansas for most of this game. The fact that Smith got almost as many rebounds in this game as he had in the five previous games combined was the biggest factor.
Among the negatives were, as I said above, the inconsistent performance and effort on defense. As I said, forced mistakes on defense, ones that stem from merely inexperience or a bad decision, are fine. What's not acceptable is the sporadic lackadaisical approach to defense by a few players. What's particularly frustrating with Nelson is that his post defense, as we saw in this game, is solid. But his effort in help defense and getting back down the court in transition is quite often lacking. There was one transitional basket by Kansas where the ball was kicked down the court and the Jayhawk casually jetted by a jogging Nelson who wasn't even looking. If you want to nitpick Honeycutt's game, you could find some effort issues in this game for him on defense, too. Even Malcolm Lee, who usually puts out a great effort on defense, was caught a couple of times not getting back in transition and getting burned.
Kansas got way too many easy baskets, in transition and in the halfcourt. It's clear that Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones are going to be spotty in terms of their on-ball defense at times. Anderson is better this season and Jones has generally been okay, but they still will allow dribble penetration probably more often than you would like. But it's not for lack of effort, really, on their part, just a lack of ability. So, they can probably get incrementally better but really, they are what they are. The key will be to improve help defense, which isn't ability but just effort. Nelson had one of the most glaring examples of poor help defense in this game where he came out high with his man who was setting a screen, and then didn't help when the guard came off the screen and allowed him to penetrate into the paint.
And then Nelson pointed at the Bruins under the basket, blaming them for no help, which was astounding.
Nelson glaringly showed his problematic side in this game. It was his most unproductive game of the season, scoring just 5 points and getting 5 rebounds in 30 minutes. To compound his ineffectiveness, his combative attitude definitely reared its ugly head. With about a minute left in the game, Jones fed him under the basket – probably an ill-advised pass since Nelson was about to get picked on his blind side. On the next dead ball, Nelson bitched at Jones, who bitched back, and then Nelson charged Jones, looking like he was close to throwing a punch at his own teammate. He also bitched out Anthony Stover in this game in one sequence.
This is clearly a situation that Howland needs to get under control. Nelson has shown he can be a major positive force on the team, and be a big key to the season, even with his slack defensive effort, but his on-court attitude (and, from what we hear, off-court) could potentially be poisonous and a season-killer.
While there wasn't really a moral victory to the loss, since Kansas was handed the game, there were some very encouraging take-aways from it. It's strange to say for a Howland-coached UCLA team, but its offense is okay, and will continue to get better with Honeycutt doing what he's capable of, Nelson getting his points and Smith continuing to improve and realize the extent of his beastliness. The key to the season is going to be whether Howland can 1) get certain players to put in more effort defensively and 2) clean up the defensive mistakes. If UCLA played a Howland-type defensive game against Kansas the Bruins would have won, easily. It's encouraging because we know Howland can teach defense.