UCLA Checks Out, Almost Loses

The Bruins played well for maybe the first 10 minutes, and then mentally checked out Thursday against UC Irvine, barely hanging on to win, 74-73...

Facing UC Irvine Thursday UCLA was looking to build some confidence going into Pac-10 play next week, and it thoroughly failed, barely holding on against the Anteaters, 74-73.

If you look at just the first 8 minutes of the game you might have found some confidence, since UCLA was up, 34-19, and was playing well, holding Irvine to about 20% shooting from the field at that point.

But from that point on, Irvine outplayed the Bruins, in just about every facet. For the last 33 minutes of the game, the best team on the floor were a bunch of Anteaters. Irvine out-scored and out-rebounded UCLA the rest of the way, and shot 56% from the field in the second half, mostly because UCLA allowed Irvine to do it.

Against Montana State Thursday, it was pretty much the same deal – the Bruins played well for the first 8 or 9 minutes, and then deflated and struggled.

If you were looking for an M.O. for this team, that might be the most definitive one.

So, perhaps, during Pac-10 play, the healthiest approach to watching this team might be to tune in for the first 10 minutes or so, then turn off your TV, and then just get the score of the game when it's over.

We have said that this team will go the way Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson go, and this game was a stunning indication of that. Honeycutt, of course, wasn't on the floor due to a strained right shoulder.

So, that left it up to Nelson to carry the team. He got his fifth rebound of the game at 8:39 in the first half, and then didn't get another rebound until 12:58 in the second half. That's almost 16 minutes without a rebound. He got one more rebound and finished with 7, so he had two rebounds for about the last 29 minutes of play. He also went from the 2:13 mark of the first half (when he scored his fourth point on a dunk) to 3:14 left in the game without scoring a basket (he made one free throw). That's 19 minutes of the game without scoring. He took just 5 shots, made two of them, and had four turnovers, in an excessive 33 minutes.

It's not exactly what you need from one of your leaders in terms of production.

But even if, for whatever reason, Nelson had been shut down by Irvine, you'd expect one of the team's leaders to keep the team up emotionally. But Nelson looked like he had checked out of the game. After he missed a couple of shots in the second half, his energy disappeared, his shoulders slumped. On defense he provided little help and didn't put much effort into blocking out on rebounds, and then in the zone offense in the second half he was mostly inactive, standing still on the block straight up and down, and not flashing to the high post. It appeared that, after he missed a few shots and had a couple of bad calls go against him in the first half, he got discouraged and tuned out. Perhaps it was due to Ben Howland not starting Nelson since he was late to a team meeting earlier Thursday. Whatever it was, Nelson's discouragement was very evident.

It really shows just how much this team needs Honeycutt, not just for his play but seemingly for his leadership.

In this game, as Nelson went, so went the Bruins. Lazeric Jones and Malcolm Lee put in a monumental effort to keep the boat afloat, and without them it clearly would have sunk. Both scored 20 points, and both shot 4-of-8 from three. Many times when UCLA was completely stagnant against Irvine's zone in the second half, a three-pointer from either Jones or Lee at the end of the shot clock saved the Bruins' collective butt. They both also played fairly good defense and Jones led the team with 6 assists, against just 2 turnovers. But even with two very good performances from them, and good energy, the team went the way of Nelson.

Perhaps the stat from the game that is most surprising is Nelson playing 33 minutes and Josh Smith playing just 22, when he had just two personal fouls. Smith had 14 points and 8 rebounds (that stat has to be wrong; he had three rebounds on one offensive trip) and, again, was the difference for the Bruins when he was in the game. Irvine did neutralize him for a few offensive trips, collapsing their zone on him when he caught the ball in the post, often times having two or three defenders harassing him. But still, UCLA's offense was mostly stagnant unless Smith touched the ball. UCLA began the game well, and built a 15-point lead early, mostly because it was clear that they were trying to get Smith a touch inside, and either Smith scored or something good came from him. Early on, Smith caught the ball in the post and found Malcolm Lee in the opposite corner with a pass, and Lee, wide open, buried a three-pointer.

Irvine then made adjustments in the second half, went strictly to the zone, and applied 3/4s pressure just to make it a little more difficult on the Bruins and give them less time in the halfcourt to execute, and it worked to shut down UCLA's offense. The zone mostly collapsed in on Smith, and after Smith turned the ball over a couple of times when he did touch it, UCLA stopped going to him as consistently as it did at the beginning of the game. Luckily, Jones' and Lee's three-point shooting saved the day.

On the defensive end, UCLA went from a high-energy effort in the first 10 minutes or so to lackluster and slow-footed for the remainder of the game. Opposing teams now are running waves of screens on the ball to free up dribble drives, because it's clear UCLA's help defense in the paint isn't very good. Irvine did this, and ended up with far too many lay-ups, and then far too many open looks from three on crisp ball movement. There were a couple of times when an Irvine player was freed up on a screen, and drove the lane right past the back of UCLA's bigs, who weren't even watching to see if they needed to supply help. UCLA's bigs aren't good at sliding over and getting in the way of a dribble drive, but they are good at getting there a bit late and blocking shots. The problem, though, with blocking so many shots (9 in this game) as opposed to getting in the way and potentially taking a charge is that it's difficult most of the time to control your block, so the opposing team often times ends up with the ball. The defense is then in a broken-down state and the offense can usually find a man for an open look.

UCLA's transition defense, too, was again pretty bad. The Bruins, without Honeycutt available and Nelson checked out, weren't crashing the offensive boards, and Irvine would get out and run. UCLA struggled, like it's done for most of the season, to stop the ball in transition, and then were poor in picking up their man assignments. This led to many open looks for Irvine in semi-transition, on easy mid-range pull-ups.

There were some curious aspects to the game, too. As we said, it's mind-boggling that Smith, with just two fouls, played just 22 minutes when Nelson, who looked like he decided not to play, got 33. At some point you'd think there should be some recognition that Nelson has disappeared and that a Josh Smith who isn't in foul trouble might be the better option. Brendan Lane was in foul trouble for a good portion of the game, and that led to Howland using Nelson so extensively. But the option of playing Smith alongside Anthony Stover, who provided some solid play in just six minutes, might be a better option when Nelson has checked out. It's a curious thing whether Howland recognizes when Nelson has mentally left a game, or if he does recognize it and hopes that Nelson will play through it.

Also, while it's too late in the season to probably even approach the subject, it really is strange that the option of UCLA playing a zone is off the table. This team at times is screaming out for a zone. It wants to protect Smith from picking up fouls, and a zone would help do that. The team is long, especially in its frontcourt, which lends itself to a zone. UCLA's bigs are slow at help defense and a zone definitely improves help D. It, for one thing, makes your bigs keep their head up and paying attention to the rest of the court. It could, even, enable Howland to play Stover and Smith together. UCLA's perimeter players, too, are seeing waves of ball screens, and a zone would limit those. Opposing offenses are finding ways to get open looks off UCLA's hedging, even when the hedge is done well, and a zone would eliminate that. Of course, a zone would probably present a whole host of other issues, but it seems like it should be an option for this team, at least.

Perhaps the most curious thing is that a player will get yanked by Howland for a mistake, like setting an illegal screen or making a bad pass, but if a guy is playing poor defense or looks clearly like he's not playing with energy, Howland often times won't pull him.

We said in the write-up after Montana State that fans needed to get used to the Roller Coaster Affect of this team – that the Bruins can look like a Sweet 16 team in one game (against BYU), and then look like a lower-half Pac-10 team a few days later (against Irvine). It's funny, but after the Montana State and Irvine games, the UCLA team we saw against BYU seems like a distant memory already.

The Bruins better find that team that played against BYU because coming up next week to begin conference play are probably the two best teams in the Pac-10, Washington State and Washington.

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