UCLA Shows Montana-itis Again

UCLA suffered another letdown, playing with little energy against Montana State in a game that was closer than the score, 75-57. Being up against a team like BYU and down against a team like MSU is probably this team's mental modus operandi...

UCLA played like an NCAA Tournament team Saturday against BYU, and then played like a team that couldn't make the NIT Tuesday against Montana State.

These are your 2010-2011 UCLA Bruins.

UCLA beat MSU, 75-57, but it played a sloppy, unfocused and lethargic game.

It was very reminiscent of the Montana game December 5th, just that Montana State isn't nearly as good as Montana.

UCLA fans should settle in and get used to it. It's reasonable to expect the Bruins to continue to improve, incrementally, throughout the season, in probably just about every facet of the game. But it's probably also reasonable to expect that this team isn't going to improve to the point where it's thrown off its issues with that demon Lack of Intensity.

This game was a big test, that UCLA mostly failed. It was a very similar situation as the loss against Montana – coming off a good performance, returning home to a sleepy Pauley Pavilion to play a decent mid-major that UCLA should blow off the court. Heck, the two opponents even have the same state emblazoned on their jersey. In fact, this game should have been quite a bit easier to avoid a letdown, having the Montana game as that all-important reference, the word "Montana" clearly ringing in the ear of the players, and not having come home from a distant road trip with finals looming.

I guess that was enough for UCLA to get the win. But not enough to avoid the letdown.

And if there ever were a game that this team should have been capable of avoiding a letdown, this would have been it.

It's not a good sign for the rest of the season. For this team, now 11 games in (about a third of the season done), it appears that this is going to be their modus operandi, their mental make-up. They're going to be focused and sharp one night, and then sloppy and lazy the next.

It's pretty much the issues that I brought up in the season preview – whether this team had the mental toughness to get itself to consistently play hard. One downside of having a weak conference is that there are going to be potentially many letdown/trap games, which is like Kryptonite to a team like this. You would probably prefer to have the conference filled with tough teams, ones that will draw the focused-and-sharp Bruins out of their hibernating den, than one fraught with letdown/trap teams on the level of Montana State.

The team's leaders, Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson, both had poor games, at least if you're going by the BYU-game standard. It wasn't just their production, which was off, but their approach – the lack of consistent effort, the bad body language, the front-runner mentality, etc.

Honeycutt went from looking like that NBA-player-in-waiting against BYU, to being someone who is a long way away from an NBA court. He did get hurt in the second half, and only played a total of 27 minutes, so you can't draw too much from his stat totals. He did, though, finish with only 4 rebounds, and went from the 9:14-minute mark of the first half to about 6 minutes remaining in the game when he was injured without getting a rebound. That's a 23-minute span without a board. It's a very good gauge to use for Honeycutt, who leads the team in rebounding (8 per game): If he isn't getting rebounds (especially against a mediocre team like Montana State), he's not putting in the effort. It also showed in so many other facets of his game, from sloppy turnovers, traveling violations, missing front ends, an uncontested air ball from three, and poor defense.

When UCLA jumped out to the 22-7 lead early in the first half, the energy was clearly there, especially for Nelson. He was the main force for UCLA in the first ten minutes of the game, scoring, rebounding and giving up the ball to teammates. But then Montana got back in the game by coming down on its offensive end and executing with focus on just about every possession for the last 10 minutes of the first half. Then to begin the second half it took advantage of a sleeping UCLA to Princeton-like exploit the Bruins, to go ahead by a point, 39-38. During this 14-minute stint in which MSU played hard and focused, it was visually evident that the Bruins had folded up, especially Nelson. He noticeably played with far less passion and energy. He, also, went a very long time without getting a rebound, from the 5:21 mark of the first half to, like Honeycutt, about 6 minutes remaining in the game. UCLA went from leading MSU in rebounding by a 16-7 margin to start the game, to draw even (19-19) at half, and then basically stay even with MSU for the remainder of the game. It's not coincidental that UCLA's two leading rebounders, Honeycutt and Nelson, went 0-for in rebounding during MSU's surge. It's not coincidental that both stopped rebounding, which is a very strong indication of effort level.

We said in the season preview and a few times since that Nelson and Honeycutt are the leaders of this team, and the way they go, particularly the way they go mentally, is the way this team will go. It was quite evident against MSU.

Without Honeycutt and Nelson mentally in the game, UCLA needed to rely on its other players to get it through. Malcolm Lee, while he can definitely be up and down in terms of performance, provides a consistent effort in just about every game, and that was the main catalyst that carried the Bruins through against MSU. He led all scorers with 18 points, and many times it was a matter of Lee single-handedly deciding to attack MSU's zone and create something. With Lee, sometimes that will lead to turnovers (he had three in the game, against three assists), but it also gives UCLA some much-needed energy. Lee, too, was instrumental in his defense when UCLA built back its double-digit lead in the second half, mostly based on getting some defensive stops.

Besides Lee, the game was won based mostly on the contributions of Brendan Lane, Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith.

With UCLA looking horrible defensively at the beginning of the second half, Lane came into the game and stopped down the MSU surge with good defense. He blocked a couple of shots (had three on the night), and pulled down some much-needed rebounds (8 for the game).

Lamb was, for a great deal of the game, the best player on the floor. In the first half he was instrumental in the initial UCLA run, hitting a pretty baseline jumper and then on the next possession feeding Nelson. His drive after a pump fake for a big, one-handed dunk was the one play for the first 30 minutes of the game that had any amount of energy for UCLA. His steal to end the half and take it the length of the court for a dunk, a foul and a free throw was spectacular. But then, Lamb, the best player on the floor in the first half, sat for about the first 10 minutes of the second half. It probably wasn't coincidental that UCLA couldn't get out of its doldrums during that time. And he only, really, got to play for most of the remainder of the game because of Honeycutt's injury.

Lamb, for this reason alone, is vital to be on the court: He's often times the only player who recognizes that Smith needs the ball in the post. After the BYU game where it was more than evident that UCLA's offense, whether it be zone or man, needs to get Smith touches in the block, it then went away from it against Montana State. Is it a matter of some players thinking they need to get their own? Did the team go through a temporary collective amnesia? Difficult to tell. But it's clear that Lamb understands that the Big Dog needs to be fed. UCLA came back with some energy for two reasons – it started playing better, more active defense, and it fed Smith the ball in the post, mostly due to Lamb. In one sequence, Lamb fed Smith on the block, he kicked it back out to Lamb, who then found Nelson cutting down the middle for a dunk and the second-most energized play of the game. That was a play after Lamb got a steal from helpside defense (yep, someone played some) and took it the length of the court for a big dunk, accelerating past two defenders on the dribble to do it.

Smith, of course, is the key. UCLA needs to get him the ball in the post. During MSU's methodical push, UCLA would come down on its offensive end either without Smith in the game or without getting him the ball. It's not only the fault of UCLA's perimeter players for not looking to get Smith a touch, but Howland had Smith on the bench for a too-big portion of MSU's surge. Smith did get back-doored at the beginning of the second half, and Howland sat him. But if this UCLA team isn't going to be about defense first, and win games on the offensive side, it's a strange move to sit Smith after he gets beat when other players are getting beat on defense consistently – and Smith is the catalyst on offense. Smith had just 2 personal fouls and played just 21 minutes. When he's not in foul trouble, he needs to be on the floor for about 30 minutes. He picked up his second foul in the first half, and sat the rest of it, but then only played 13 minutes in the second half, and was languishing on the bench when UCLA was languishing on the court.

In the most recent edition of Sports Illustrated, Lee Jenkins did a story on Kevin Love. It reads: "Kevin led the Bruins to the Final Four in his lone college season, but he often felt teammates were freezing him out, so he came to think of rebounds as passes. If he wanted the ball, he had to grab it himself."

As we were well aware, Love was frozen out by teammates in that 2007-2008 season, and UCLA's offense was never what it could have been that year, with Love not getting near enough touches. This year's team seems more open to getting Smith touches in the post, mostly thanks to Lamb (and Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones), but just like with Love, if UCLA doesn't recognize this season that it begins and ends with Smith getting the ball in the post then this team doesn't have much of a chance of ultimately being successful. Again, if this UCLA team isn't going to be about defense, which it's showing no indication that it is, and is going to go through lulls of effort, it's going to have to be proficient on the offensive end, and it's clearly evident it can't do that without Smith in the game and touching the ball.

All in all, it was definitely a learning-experience type of game. Perhaps the Bruins will take this as another bit of supportive evidence that they have to bring energy and intensity to every game, especially in a potentially letdown-fraught Pac-10. And then, simply, get the Big Dog the ball.

But it also was a learning experience for UCLA basketball fans. So much negativity comes out from fans, especially on the message board, after a game like this, when just a couple of days earlier after BYU there was so much positive feedback. It's natural, if you're a fan, to jump on the bandwagon with starry eyes after a win like the BYU one. But, to keep your sanity, it's highly recommended that UCLA fans this season temper post-BYU enthusiasm with a little dose of Montana-ism. Until this team can play a few consecutive games with intensity and focus most fans should expect a roller-coaster-type season.


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