Washington Is Litmus Test, 74-63

UCLA's loss to Washington Friday, 74-63, really exposed many aspects of the Bruins -- both positive and negative -- and where the team is by this point of the season, and raises the question of whether it's capable of getting where it wants to go...

ou were looking for a Litmus Test for this UCLA team, Washington provided it Friday, with the Huskies beating the Bruins without too much trouble, 74-63.

The game really nailed it, showing UCLA's strengths, and exposing UCLA's issues as a team, and player by player, and coach. If you were looking for an indication of how far the team has come, and an indication of its potential for success this season, that game captured it.

Since it was a loss, then, it might not be a really promising indicator.

It's clear that the Bruins aren't ready to challenge for the top of the Pac-10, and are definitely a work in progress. It showed that the team has enough talent to play Washington competitively, but it lacks the experience and maturity of the Huskies.

And its one player that has a chance to clearly be the difference-maker, Josh Smith, isn't prepared to play at this high of a competitive level.

The game flowed perhaps the way you might have thought. UCLA was competitive for the first 15 minutes or so of the game, then went into its very common lull. As we said in the Washington State review, this young team is emotionally on the level of a toddler, with extreme mood swings that affect its effort and intensity. This game's emotional and mental lull started a couple of minutes before the first half, and then extended through the first 6 minutes of the second half, and the Bruins found themselves down by 17, 52-35.

At that point of the game I wrote on the BRO message board that how the team responds from this point on, whether it would go into the tank or fight back, would be a great test of what kind of team it truly is.

And the team responded with exactly the perfect example of what type of team it is; it didn't roll over, but showed some effort and intensity in spots. But also showed a lack of killer instinct to really get it over the hump.

And that whole process also really exposed some players – their strengths and weaknesses.

The team collectively is, to be blunt, soft, in terms of competitiveness. And that comes from combining the individual softness of many of the players and the seeming lack of accountability to get them to play with more intensity and competitiveness.

We have to start with Josh Smith. This was his big game, against his hometown team, an opportunity he seemingly would like to exploit to put out his best performance. But he didn't have the intensity. Yes, he was in foul trouble, and a good portion of that wasn't his fault (bad calls, and poor coaching decisions, but we'll get to that later). But he didn't respond to the adversity with competitiveness. We've said for a great deal of the season that Smith doesn't even realize how good he is, that he's far too passive for how dominating he could be. This game, a showcase for him, really, well, showcased it. When he was playing without foul-trouble inhibitions, there were some flashes of dominance, especially early on, when in the first several minutes he scored four of his nine points. But the foul trouble clearly inhibited him, and that took him completely out of his game. When he was on the court he was mostly passive, and overly so for being in foul trouble. There was a sequence in the second half, during crunch time that really illustrated just how far Smith has to go. UCLA was climbing back in the game by trying to get the ball to Smith and Reeves Nelson, and it was succeeding. Washington's Aziz N'Diaye had just fouled out, and the Huskies' other post player, Matt Bryan-Amaning, who was a force in the game, had four fouls (as did Smith). Then Smith got an offensive rebound and a putback to bring UCLA to within 63-59. Bryan-Amaning scored on the other end, to make it 65-59, and then, on UCLA's offensive trip, UCLA got the ball to Smith again on the block, but he went up and missed a left-handed finger roll, and looked like he got a little shaken up, perhaps getting his knee tweaked. He then stopped playing, failed to get an offensive rebound which was in his reach, and Washington went the other way. Darnell Gant made the back-breaking three-pointer to put Washington back up 68-59 with 3:25 remaining. UCLA came out of the timeout, and Smith looked like he had re-gained his composure and threw down a dunk. But then, on the next Washington possession, he got called for his fifth foul on an ill-advised hedge, and he was done.

There was a moment in there, when Smith got hit and actually went down to the ground, and stopped playing, and you could see Smith for what he was: A very talented kid who has always been able to dominate at any level because of his size and talent, but still needs to learn how to play through and play hard at this level. It just happened to come at perhaps the most critical time of the game, and, when we look back in March, perhaps one of the most critical moments of the season.

It, perhaps, will be a good learning experience for Smith.

It was an "exposure" game for Tyler Honeycutt, too. He picked up his second foul at the 17:42 mark of the first half, on a bad decision. He already had one foul and Bryan-Amaning was going in for a lay-up and Honeycutt, not exactly being what you would characterize as a smart and cerebral player just yet in his development, foolishly tried to block the shot of Bryan-Amaning, a 6-9, 240-pounder, with a lane to the basket. With his second foul and just a little over two minutes played in the game, Honeycutt then went into a funk. He got inhibited playing with two fouls, and pretty much took himself out of the game. He was a detriment defensively, allowing Justin Holiday to easily drive around him a couple of times. But, curiously, he did so at the beginning of the second half, when he actually didn't really have to play passively on D anymore. Being UCLA's leading rebounder, Honeycutt had 0 boards in the first half and finished with 2 for the game. He shot 4-of-12, reverted to a habit of taking desperate, off-balanced shots where he seemingly just jumps in the air and then tries to adjust to square up. He found a bit of a groove in the second half when UCLA made its push, moving well without the ball on offense, and making a couple of nice passes, and getting back to being active on defense, and it really was a big contributing factor to UCLA's resurgence in the game. But in a game when UCLA's best player needed to have a big game, he took himself out of most of it, first, because of the foolish second foul and then mentally because of it.

Honeycutt, like Smith, is a very talented player, but still is clearly far away from being a mature, disciplined, experienced one.

Malcolm Lee, as he's been throughout his career, is the one reliable source of consistent effort on both sides of the floor. Even though Washington's Isaiah Thomas had 17 points, they weren't devastating; in fact, Lee, for the most part, limited Thomas on the amount of effective dribble drives and open looks from three (he was 1 of 2 from the arc). It can't be understated what a demand it is when, in each game, Lee is asked to be the defensive stopper and defend the opposing team's best perimeter player, whether he's 6-6 or 5-8, and how Lee responds. He is expending the most energy of any player on the team on the defensive end, and he still has enough energy to be a force on the offensive end. He, in fact, had to take over some point guard duties in this game with Lazeric Jones hurt and Jerime Anderson in foul trouble. UCLA fans take Lee's effort for granted. What if Lee, like the rest of the team, brought an inconsistent, spotty defensive effort to every game? This team would have at least a few more losses on its record, if it consistently didn't have Lee to defend Isaiah Thomas, Klay Thompson or Jimmer Fredette. While Honeycutt and Nelson are the two leading scorers and rebounders on the team, Lee is the team's MVP so far this season.

The most disappointing performance in the game was that of Brendan Lane. He finished with 2 points and 7 rebounds, but looked very passive and soft throughout. During UCLA's surge in the second half, Ben Howland was trying to manage Smith's fouls by subbing in Lane, but he was so ineffective against Bryan-Amaning, playing with such passivity, Howland was forced to bring in Smith probably before he would have liked. Lane has shown flashes of being a very good player, but he showed a lack of competitiveness Friday when playing in a big, critical game.

The game also showed clearly just how needed Jones is to the team's success, mostly his scoring ability. Without Jones as another outside shooting option, UCLA's offense loses some considerable dimension. And he was just getting more disciplined about penetration, really showing his development in the Washington State game. Losing his scoring ability was a critical aspect. UCLA was playing essentially without its top scorer, Honeycutt, and Smith, both inhibited with foul trouble, so to lose Jones as a scoring option made a huge impact.

Anderson, for the most part, played solidly, and maintained steady play at the point guard spot when Jones couldn't play due to his dislocated finger. His natural point guard feel was a big contributing factor in some well-executed offensive trips, and he generally played good on-ball defense. In fact, he's the best on the team at getting steals, and made a great one in the second half, also saving the ball from going out of bounds.

Tyler Lamb, in 12 minutes, didn't put up big stats (0 points, 2 rebounds, 1 turnover), but it's clear when he's on the court that he's going to be a player.

Anthony Stover played less than a minute. He came in during the first half, didn't block out on a free throw and allowed N'Diaye an offensive rebound and putback, and he went back to the bench.

And that leads us to Nelson. Of course, as everyone is aware, Nelson is a bit of a flashpoint in terms of arguments on the BRO message board. He's controversial, since he clearly is one of UCLA's best players and integral to any potential success for this year's team, while he also clearly lacks effort and competitiveness at times. As it was for every player, this game was an exposing one for Nelson, one that exhibited his strengths and his weaknesses. In the first half, Nelson was non-existent, on both ends of the floor. He went the first 10 minutes without a point or rebound. It mostly could be attributed to Nelson getting clocked in the mouth early on in the game, a truly hard hit that legitimately would be tough to bounce back from. It did seem, though, he was fine after a few minutes, but he stayed in his funk, as we described Honeycutt and Smith also did. Nelson gave up a number of baskets on defense, allowing Bryan-Amaning to run right by him for an easy basket in transition. He was even showing little effort on the offensive end when Howland had to yell at him at one point to move into position. His funk, like that of most of the team, led to UCLA's 17-point deficit in the second half. But, to Nelson's particular credit, he led UCLA's comeback with his effort and intensity on the offensive side of the floor. During UCLA's 8- or 9-minute push in the second half, Nelson had 12 points, 5 rebounds, an assist and a steal. He, unlike others, asserted himself offensively, driving to the basket and going up strong, to either score or get fouled (he drew four fouls and shot 6 of 8 from the line during the stretch, and 7 of 10 for the game). When UCLA had drawn close, Nelson's play got the crowd into it, and when he was going to the bench during the run he even pumped up the crowd waving his arms and imploring fans to get on their feet.

It was, as I said, a very revealing performance by Nelson. It showed his lack of effort on defense, especially in transition; it showed his penchant for going into a funk; it also showed his ability to bounce back, assert himself and take the team on his shoulders. This is who Nelson is, and UCLA fans, whether you want to hear about Nelson's ups and downs or not (some just want to hear about the ups and some just want to hear about the downs), like it or not, this team tends to go the way Nelson goes. It certainly did in this game. While he might not actually be the team's "leader," his play does lead the team where it's going.

As a Litmus Test, this game, at this point in the season, showed how soft the team can be. Nelson, as we all know, can sometimes go into a funk and doesn't play consistently good defense, but this game clearly defined each of the similar issues with Honeycutt, Smith and Lane.

The question of the season is whether they individually and collectively can find the fire to play consistently more competitively.

Now, many might be pointing toward the coaching, concluding that it's ultimately the coaching staff's job to motivate. This is at least partially true, and there is some question of just how much of the blame for this team's lack of consistent effort should be laid at the feet of Howland. It's pretty clear that there is a lack of accountability on the team. Players clearly can play at times with a lack of effort and there seemingly isn't any repercussion. There truly is no other explanation for some players casually jogging back on defense time and time again and it doesn't change.

In terms of coaching tactics, too, some aspects contributed to UCLA's loss on Friday. Even before Howland mentioned it in his post-game comments, we were questioning the wisdom of having your 6-10, 320-pound center – with four fouls – come out to hedge 35 feet from the basket against a quick, 5-8 guard who has made a career out of flopping by launching himself into big bodies and drawing fouls. Even if you allowed Smith to do it earlier in the game, which might have been unwise, it was particularly short-sighted to have him do it at that most critical juncture in the second half. N'Diaye had fouled out, Bryan-Amaning had four fouls, and Smith would either be able to have his way with a hands-tied Bryan-Amaning or foul him out. UCLA was within 7 points at the time and making its push, and either scenario would give UCLA a valid chance of over-taking Washington. But Smith fouled out on the foul call, and Washington scored the next six points and the game was over.

Plus, we have to mention: How does a team get called for a five-second inbound violation in front of its own bench? Is there no one counting five seconds?

And one more thing: When his young post, Smith, got his knee banged, on a critical possession with a little over 3 minutes left, there was no recognition by the coaches that he was shaken up. Even if there had been, Howland only had one timeout remaining anyway.

It also, again, begs the question of whether this UCLA team, having to protect Smith from foul trouble, would be better playing zone. If you might have noticed, after N'Diaye had fouled out and Bryan-Amaning had four fouls, Washington went strictly to a zone to protect Bryan-Amaning. That's what you do. Howland, though, stubbornly has stuck with his man defense (as he's stubbornly stuck with hedging), but there are so many valid reasons why the team would potentially be better in a zone, even beyond Smith's potential foul trouble. UCLA still has issues staying in front of the ball, and the Bruins are very long and good shot blockers, which is the exact combination of factors that coaches want for a zone. Howland has, not intentionally, recruited a team more suited to play zone, lacking the athleticism he's had in the past to play the type of man defense he wants. And, again, he certainly isn't exacting a great or consistent effort from them defensively either, which is really critical to his man defense.

Oh, well.

So, now, with this game, one that defined exactly where this team is in its development, the question is clearly: Can the team, the players and the coaches do what it takes to make them a more disciplined and focused squad that can out-grow its mental softness and play with more consistent effort for the remainder of the season?

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