As we've said before, it looks to be the toughest era in both sports combined in our lifetimes.
With UCLA's basketball team losing to Montana Sunday night, 66-57, it capped what is perhaps the worst 12-day stretch for UCLA football and basketball fans in as long as anyone can remember.
Not to depress you, but UCLA football and basketball teams have lost 6 games in 12 days, and it's been done in amazingly poor style. You have just about every kind of loss you possible could have in that grab bag of futility: The heart-breaking, got-robbed, 1-point loss to a highly-ranked team (Kansas); the under-achieving two losses to mid-major programs (VCU and Montana), with one being a pretty decisive one; a blow-out by an average conference opponent on the road that took the football team out of bowl eligibility and a potential winning record (ASU), and then the tragic loss to your cross-town rival in a game that ended the football season on a sour note.
Wow. And I say this seriously when I advise to back away from the razors and the window ledge.
The low point very well could have been last night in Pauley Pavilion at about 8:45 p.m. UCLA had been trailing Montana by as many as 17 points in the second half and there were only a few minutes left in the game. There weren't many fans in attendance to begin with (stat sheet says 5,391), and less than 100 students (it's finals week). Late in the game, when it looked like the game was well in hand for Montana, UCLA fans streamed out of Pauley, and at about 8:45 there were probably less than a thousand remaining. Rick Neuheisel was in the stands with a couple of recruits still on their official visits, having to try to put a spin on the scene before him. And then the P.A. announcer, actually during the game, did a mic check, saying "Joe, Joe, Joe, test, test, test…"
It was rock bottom.
The basketball game itself is painful to analyze. It ranked right up there with the bad non-conference losses from last year.
It's strange to consider, too, for a game so early in the season, but that was an incredibly big blow to UCLA's potential NCAA tournament chances. With the Pac-10 being particularly down and not probably giving UCLA much chance of building a strong RPI through conference wins, it's dependent on non-conference opponents. This, then, would be considered a very bad loss that could keep a team out of the NCAA tournament. If UCLA loses to BYU in the Wooden Classic December 18th, it can pretty much say goodbye to any NCAA tournament chances, unless it wins the Pac-10 or the Pac-10 tournament.
Man, it has been a bad 12 days.
The game was the epitome of everything that could potentially go bad with the team, all spread out for everyone to see over the course of 40 minutes.
It, first, exposed UCLA's weakness in trying to beat a zone. UCLA was actually ahead in this game with 9 minutes left in the first half, 19-15, but then Montana went exclusively to a zone. UCLA scored only 9 points the rest of the half, and then UCLA could score only 9 more points by the 7:20 mark of the second half, and Montana had built its 17-point lead. Over that stretch of 23 minutes, UCLA got outscored 39-18. The zone did it, not only limiting UCLA's ability to get the ball inside, but when UCLA did get it inside, Montana's size neutralized UCLA's ability to put the ball in the basket. UCLA, so far this season, has had a clear advantage in its frontcourt match-ups, even against #4-ranked Kansas, but not against Montana's two huge bigs, in particular 6-11 center Brian Qvale. The big Grizzlies either blocked UCLA's shots attempted in the paint or altered them. At one point during the second half, UCLA was shooting 27% for the game (it finished at 31%, which might be the lowest shooting percentage for a UCLA game in as long as I can remember; last year, in its embarrassing blow-out loss to Portland, UCLA shot 32.7%).
It definitely exposed UCLA's primary weakness, facing a team with formidable bigs. UCLA's advantage over every opponent, and every future opponent this season, is in in the frontcourt. Luckily there aren't many frontcourts in the Pac-10 that come even close to that of Montana. Reeves Nelson has a history of getting shut down by front lines with size, and that was the case in this one, with Nelson finishing with 5 points and 6 rebounds. He had 3 points and 0 rebounds at halftime. Brendan Lane perhaps had the best overall success among UCLA's posts against Montana, but it wasn't much to speak of. He couldn't physically stay with Qvale defensively, and then looked very tentative trying to shoot, obviously intimidated by Montana's bigs. Freshman center Josh Smith, who showed against Kansas that he can simply bull his way to the basket with little or no post moves, attempted it in this one very unsuccessfully. He went 1-for-8, with 4 points and 5 rebounds. He only played 17 minutes, which, in hindsight, was probably a big factor in UCLA not being able to find a solution inside for Montana; Smith, even though he struggled some, looked like the only Bruin who could physically match up with them inside.
One of the on-going issues with this team is identifying really who should be the focal point of the offense. You might think it would be Tyler Honeycutt, especially coming off his 33-point scoring outing against Kansas. Or even Nelson, who is averaging 15 points a game. But it really should be Smith. He's the one who, in the long-term for the season, will have the best match-up advantages. The ball first should always go through Smith in the post, to see if he has a seal and can score. But also because getting him touches inside will create for others, especially since Smith is such a good passer. Honeycutt is, of course, very talented, but will be inconsistent scoring, especially if he thinks he needs to score and hunts for shots, like he did in this game, and then shoot 3 for 12, and 2 for 8 from three. After his explosion in Kansas, opponents aren't going to allow him to get so many open looks, exactly what Montana did, in fact. It's key that the ball go down inside to create better looks for Honeycutt on the perimeter.
Montana then also did an excellent job of taking away all opportunities for UCLA to get points in transition. UCLA got one lay-up on a break late in the second half when the game was already decided, getting 0 points in transition for most of the game. Montana was, first, a good rebounding team (it led UCLA for most of the game, but finished tied, 39-39), but also rotated back in a very disciplined manner to not allow UCLA to get any kind of numbers in transition.
With UCLA struggling offensively to find a good look against the zone, it then tried to force things, which created turnovers, which has been the primary bane of the early season for the Bruins. It was particularly so in this one. Montana established its dominance in this game after UCLA went on a phenomenal turnover trend toward the end the first half. It committed 8 turnovers in 8 minutes.
Defensively, well, there's a laundry list of issues for UCLA. So far this season, we've pretty much asserted that UCLA's offense was doing pretty well, but its defense was struggling. This is an example of what happens when a team with a struggling defense gets its offense put off its game, which is what always inevitably happens. There are going to be games for any team when its offense is out-of-sync; the good teams are kept in those games by defense. But if you have a team that is relying on its offense and doesn't have a defense to fall back on, you get the Montana game.
It was pretty much a Power Point presentation on what's wrong with UCLA's defense. UCLA's perimeter defenders couldn't stay in front of the ball. Lazeric Jones struggled against Montana's Will Cherry. Jerime Anderson did a little better, but not by much, at one point falling over when Jordan Wood took him off the dribble. So, as we've pointed out before, when you have an opponent who's able to get dribble penetration, UCLA's help defense is slack, and it was in this game. Then, with Montana, you have to throw in another dimension – a formidable post game. The Grizzlies try to get the ball inside, see if Qvale has an opportunity, and then kick it out to shooters or find a cutter. UCLA tried to double Montana's posts, and was generally unsuccessful at it, allowing too much room or not sealing him on the baseline. But then also, if you're doubling, your defense needs some sharp rotation, which this young Bruin team seems very incapable of doing just yet (the reason why Howland hasn't doubled much this season), and didn't do well against Montana.
Montana had very good offensive execution, setting nice screens that UCLA's defenders generally didn't work hard enough to push through. With so much ball movement, the ball going inside and then being kicked out, and effective screening, Montana had a huge amount of open looks, which they knocked down. They shot a whopping 61% in the second half from the floor, and finished the game shooting 52%. As everyone knows, defense is mostly effort, and it was very clear in the first few minutes of this game that UCLA wasn't bringing it. Whether it was finals, the letdown after the heartbreaking Kansas loss, an over-confidence because they played the Jayhawks close – whatever. UCLA had little energy, especially on defense. Since the UCLA staff had been showing the team tapes of previous UCLA players under Howland playing defense, you'd like to see them split in a half-screen next to the Bruins in the Montana game. You'd probably swear that these Bruins were playing in slow motion comparatively.
Most of the issues with the Bruins will get glossed over during the next 2 ½ weeks of the season. UCLA plays mostly cupcakes, and will probably head into Pac-10 play either 8-4 or 7-5. But throw out the record, and throw out how the team looks against Cal Poly, UC Davis, Montana State or UC Irvine. Focus on its performance against Brigham Young in the Wooden Classic December 18th. It not only presents the only real competition over the next five games that can give you a real indication of what kind of team this is, but it pretty much decides UCLA's NCAA Tournament fate (again, unless UCLA wins the Pac-10 or the conference tournament). And whether UCLA makes the tournament or not will pretty much decide if this basketball season is deemed a successful one.