There were a couple of bright spots -- the double-double of freshman center Josh Smith (19 and 12) and one of the best games that junior guard Jerime Anderson has played as a Bruin (8 points, 6 assists, 0 turnovers).
But to be candid, you can't take much from it since it was against Cal Poly, a 3-5 team that was picked to finish toward the bottom of the Big West, a team that just got blown out by Loyola Marymount by 20 points.
The Mustangs, too, should have been primed for a major round-up since they're in the midst of a 29-day, 5-game road trip. In other words, the Bruins should have blown out what was a fatigued Cal Poly team in a much more convincing way than how they beat them Saturday.
You'd think UCLA would be hungry and aggressive after the embarrassing loss to Montana. But the Bruins looked as sleepy as the 5,000 or so fans in Pauley Pavilion that barely made a peep all night.
It's plainly clear: If UCLA plays with the lack of intensity and desire that it displayed Saturday night, this season is over. The game against BYU in the Wooden Classic next Saturday is mounting as the biggest game of the season for UCLA; with a horribly weak Pac-10 that can't provide the Bruins any opportunities of big RPI wins, and after losing to Montana, UCLA needs to beat #21-ranked BYU to get one, strong out-of-conference victory if it hopes at all to make the NCAA Tournament.
BYU, however, blew out Arizona Saturday by 22 points. That's the Arizona team that was projected to finish higher than UCLA in the Pac-10. While we don't necessarily put much stock in that pre-season projection, it does illustrate that BYU is formidable – and if UCLA shows up in Anaheim next Saturday with the lack of desire and intensity it showed against Cal Poly, that game could be amazingly ugly. And UCLA's NCAA Tournament hopes could be just about dead.
On the other hand, it looks like UCLA's chances of making the NCAA Tournament by either winning the Pac-10 conference or the Pac-10 conference tournament aren't as unlikely as you would have thought. Arizona looks unimpressive so far this season, and Washington, who was ranked #22, is now 6-3 after getting beat by un-ranked Texas A&M Saturday and doesn't look particularly like the conference flag-bearer. So, actually the Pac-10 is so bad, this year's Bruins might actually have a chance at either the conference or conference tournament title.
As an aside, can anyone remember a worse year for the Pac-10 conference? As I wrote in the season preview, the Pac-10 started this season with only one team ranked in the top 25 for the first time in 22 years. Now, with Washington losing and more than likely dropping out of the rankings, we haven't done the research but we'd have to suspect it's potentially the first time the Pac-10 conference hasn't had a team ranked in the top 25 in a very long time.
So, how bad the Pac-10 is gives UCLA a chance, but as I said, if it plays the way it did against Cal Poly, it's very little chance.
If you're good at reading body language and watching for intensity, it's pretty clear that Reeves Nelson is discouraged. He finished with 13 points and 4 rebounds in just 25 minutes, his worst out-put of the season against a team not from Kansas or Montana. In the first five games he averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds; in the last three it's been 7 points and 5 rebounds. Nelson's drop-off in production against Kansas and Montana is a bit understandable, since those were two good teams with good-sized frontlines. But he has a history of beating up (at least offensively) mid-majors with under-sized frontlines, and that definitely wasn't the case against Cal Poly, which is worrisome. It's clear, too, from his demeanor, that he's deflated; Howland has said Nelson has a tendency to get down on himself and it could very well be the case.
It has to be pointed out, though, that the Cal Poly game was a bit different than UCLA's seven other games this season in terms of Howland's approach, and that might be contributing to Nelson's demeanor. It started against Montana, but against Cal Poly Howland yanked players quickly off the court if they weren't performing well. He didn't spare anyone, really, yanking every one of his players after they did something poorly against Cal Poly – with even the stars not being spared. Nelson played just 25 minutes, and spent a good deal of time on the bench during critical stretches in the game. It very well might be the case that Howland is trying to motivate his players through playing time, and Nelson is going through the process of dealing with it.
It wasn't just Nelson either who didn't seem to deal well with the yanking. Tyler Honeycutt, at one point in the second half, made a bad pass and turned over the ball on the offensive end and then had Cal Poly's Shawn Lewis blow by him for a dunk on the other end. Howland called a 30-second timeout and it was clear he was going to sub in for Honeycutt. When the team came out on the floor to meet around Howland (since it's a 30-second timeout, they just stand), Honeycutt went to the bench and couldn't be compelled by an assistant coach to join the team on the court to listen to Howland's instructions during the timeout.
That sequence, too, was really a microcosm of the issues with the team. Honeycutt forced a pass, which is going to happen at times, especially for a guy like Honeycutt who is such a good passer and trying to make things happen. But then he showed the mental softness I suspected before the season would be a major element of this team on the other end, when he clearly gave up and allowed Lewis to blow right around him. But then, too, there was Nelson and Brendan Lane, in the paint, in a position to provide help defense, but both stood and watched as Lewis threw down the dunk.
Watch that sequence a few time and consider whether that would ever happen to Howland's Final Four teams.
But as I said, in this game, there was an element of Howland pulling players when they made mistakes or clearly weren't playing hard. It seems, too, that some of them, most notably Honeycutt and Nelson, weren't dealing with it particularly well – and perhaps that's good. Perhaps Howland is trying to make his players accountable and it's a process for them – learning that they either play hard or their playing time will diminish. If it's true, and Howland is really trying to make his players accountable, it would be a step forward for the program.
Lane, in fact, played 23 minutes compared to Nelson's 25. The regrettable aspect of that, though, was that Lane, too, looked asleep defensively for a substantial portion of the game. In the first half, Cal Poly's undersized post David Hanson owned him one-on-one, but Lane improved in the second half, being more active with his feet to stay in front of Hanson and blocking a couple of his shots.
Howland, too, has clearly cut down his rotation. In the last two games, he's essentially gone with a 7-man rotation, with the five starters and Anderson and Lane. Anthony Stover played 2 minutes in this game, and Tyler Lamb got 6 minutes. Howland has had a tendency in the past to narrow his rotation heading into Pac-10 play, seemingly only going with the guys he completely trusts. But it would be a shame that Stover and Lamb didn't play more the rest of the season than they have in the last two games; Stover is a difference-maker defensively and Lamb, while young an inexperienced, has perhaps the best all-around feel for the game while he's also a good defender. Howland has neglected to play young players in other seasons when he's narrowed the rotation and it has come back to bite him later in the year, and it would be unfortunate if that happened with Stover and Lamb.
Especially if he is, in fact, trying to hold his top seven accountable. If so, we'd really like to see Stover get some time on the front line if others aren't going to play hard since, well, Stover does.
As I said, Smith and Anderson were bright spots, with Smith having a good game, starting to increasingly understand how dominating he can be. Anderson led a surge in the second-half that really gave UCLA a clearly comfortable lead. He hit two threes and another one that looked like it should have been a three, then confidently drove the lane and kicked it out to Honeycutt for a three, putting up UCLA, 55-38. He did it while playing consistently good defense. Finishing with 6 assists and 0 turnovers was particularly significant and, while we don't expect Anderson to play error-free ball the rest of the season, his performance clearly gave him confidence. Anderson played some minutes alongside Lazeric Jones, and that seems to help him, taking the point guard responsibilities off his shoulders, which seems to get him to play with less second-guessing.
Cal Poly played zone the entire game, so it definitely gave UCLA a lot of time to work on its zone offense. Generally it made some steps forward, clearly working to get Smith touches in the post, and also to get someone to touch it at the high post. When Smith was in the game, the zone offense was fairly good, but when he was out it faltered. With UCLA a fairly poor outside shooting team (going 2-for-8 from three in the first half, finishing 7-for-21 for 33%), it's vital that UCLA break down a zone by getting inside touches, spacing, passing and penetration. It can't be lured into taking outside shots, which Cal Poly clearly wanted UCLA to do, giving it open outside looks in the zone.
Cal Poly, as recent UCLA opponents have also done, pretty much eliminated UCLA's fast break. When the Mustangs shot the ball, they immediately rotated back a couple of players. If UCLA isn't going to be a type of defensive team that can keep a Cal Poly-level team in the 50s, like it used to be, it definitely needs the extra scoring punch of getting points in transition, but it seems like opponents now recognize UCLA's penchant for running and are shutting it down.
So, if you can't get transition points because of an opponent's adaption, you're left with being able to do something about an aspect of the game you can actually control – defense.
We definitely sound like a broken record, but the key to the season, if UCLA is going to get on track and compete in the Pac-10, is going to be defense.
Perhaps the Cal Poly game was, actually, a first step to Howland holding his players accountable for playing defense with more intensity. It definitely will be a process, because it surely didn't work in this game. UCLA's defense was in slow motion, with a consistent inability to stay in front of a man and then – and most alarmingly -- a complete lack of effort on help defense once that player had penetrated into the lane. Again, it sounds like a situation in which Stover could be part of the answer since he is one of the better help defenders and a very good shot blocker. UCLA's D was also amazingly slow in picking up outside shooters. Cal Poly would try to get UCLA to switch by driving and kicking, or setting natural picks by handing off the ball to a cutter, and UCLA was so slow on its rotation that it looked at times like UCLA was playing a zone, being so slow in closing out on open shooters. A big part of UCLA's lack of a defensive effort is noticeable in transition defense; UCLA's players jog back on defense, and Cal Poly had a few times when they merely beat UCLA to the basket. Transition and semi-transition defense is key because it tends to set a tone and intensity level for the game.
If, in fact, Howland is making the effort to hold his players accountable to play with effort on defense, maybe we'll look back on the Cal Poly game as the first step in that process.