If you had to predict a letdown game in the first half of Pac-10 play for the Bruins that would have been it. On the road (well, in a hostile environment, anyway), against a team with a frontcourt that is probably better than the Bruins' frontcourt, with a starter injured, and a team as a whole that has considerable questions about their commitment and intensity.
It resulted in a loss to USC Sunday, 63-52.
We said that Washington game was a Litmus Test, and the USC game was the second part of the exam. And UCLA failed. Miserably.
UCLA played fairly well for about 10 minutes, the last 10 minutes of the first half. But the other 30 minutes were some of the worst basketball played by a UCLA team in recent years. And that's saying something.
Everything that could possibly go wrong with this UCLA team, every potential weakness, vulnerability or foible, came out in the other 30 minutes, and especially in that particularly disturbing second half.
First and foremost – as we've been maintaining since last season about Ben Howland's program – the team showed mental softness and no commitment to defense.
You have to start with Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson, the team's two leaders, who individually had two of their worst games of the season. That doesn't bode well when they have them in the same game. But it's not coincidental, either. The two sophomores, in a way, have a similar front-runner approach to the game. They both tend to play well when the team's playing against an easier opponent, and when things tend to be looking up; but when things get tough, well, they don't get going. They both tend to go into a distracted funk. Now, yes, they are just sophomores, and it's a big burden to be the leaders of a team when you're young and still learning how to sustain effort and intensity. But even given that, Nelson and Honeycutt haven't shown enough mental toughness and competitiveness.
Nelson had 12 points in the first half, and had just two in the second half. And that, sadly, wasn't the worst of his second half. He really looked like a guy who didn't want to play for long stretches. In one sequence there was a loose ball in front of him and he casually reached down for it when a Trojan lunged to the floor, secured it, and started a break the other way. He then didn't hustle back, and USC got a basket on an easy putback. Nelson had so many defensive breakdowns from a sheer lack of effort, playing really poor help defense and getting beat in transition because he's just casually jogging back. When's the last time Nelson took a charge, or attempted to take one? To his credit, Nelson's effort on the offensive end in those last 10 minutes of the first half was a big reason UCLA surged back into the game. And he tried to kick-start the team on the offensive end in the second half, as he's done in other games. This looks to now be Nelson's clear M.O. – to, for the most part, play with intensity on offense but disregard defense – and it doesn't look it's going to change.
Honeycutt was equally as bad. He has a penchant for turning over the ball, playing with a sloppiness and slackness. At times during the season when he's lapsed into his lazy ways, you could see him mentally trying to pull himself out of it, with a concerted effort to be more disciplined with the ball. But not in this game. It's as if he succumbed to it. He shot 3 for 10, scored just 10 points and had 7 turnovers. He also played poor defense, both on the ball and in help. Honeycutt, too, has the same approach as Nelson in not really trying to get back into a game with a better effort on defense, but trying to kick-start it on the offensive end. He was, to his credit, running around trying to get open, but his lack of focus offensively was his bugaboo, as it's been all season.
What has really made the Nelson-Honeycutt Effect that much more devastating is the seeming tank that Brendan Lane has gone into for the last couple of games. If, when Nelson or Honeycutt don't appear to be playing with any kind of desire or competitiveness, Ben Howland could go to Lane that'd really help. But Lane has truly gone into a funk in the last two games, having lost his confidence and playing with a tentativeness and softness that we didn't see in the first 10 games or so of the season. He hasn't ever shown that he's assertive enough yet, but at least in the first 10 games Lane displayed intensity on defense and focus on the offensive end. He's lost that, for whatever reason. Perhaps as the games have become more meaningful he's lost his mojo. It's hard to know. But Lane looks uninspired on defense and completely scared offensively. In 21 minutes in this game he had 0 points and 1 rebound.
Malcolm Lee looked so frenzied on defense, trying to contain USC's dribble penetration, almost single-handedly, his offense truly suffered. He air-balled a wide open mid-range jumper. After he hit the first three-point attempt at the very outset of the game, Lee missed every other shot he attempted. And strangely, he only attempted five total. Lee, who is the one guy who brings defensive intensity to the floor in just about every game, looked distracted a bit himself in this one, missing rotations defensively and looking like he had no idea a ball screen was coming his way a couple of times.
Josh Smith had a pretty typical game for him, fairly effective in the 22 minutes he was on the court, which was limited because of foul trouble. He had his usual mix of bad calls against him, but also his usual ill-advised fouls. He, too, though, looks like he's lock-stepping in line with the pervasive lack of energy with this team. He is, after all, just a freshman, and it seems like he's taking his key from the rest of the team when they go into their non-competitive funk.
Lazeric Jones had perhaps his worst game as a Bruin. Yes, we know he has an injured finger and is playing with a brace on it, so that helps to explain the 0-for-7 from the field, 2 points and only one assist in 22 minutes. But it doesn't explain the lack of intensity on defense. This was the first game, really, when it was clearly evident Jones wasn't playing with the same defensive intensity. Perhaps that Distracted Lazy Funk is like a dark cloud that can envelope everyone.
Interestingly, it didn't seem to encompass Jerime Anderson, who was easily the best Bruin on the floor. And it wasn't just because he made two big three-pointers that kept UCLA in the game in the second half. He was the only one who looked even slightly liked he cared about playing. He was easily UCLA's best defender on the night, showing energy on the ball, while even he had a few lapses where he simply seemed to fall asleep.
Howland doesn't get out of this unscathed. It was critical that UCLA could do everything it could to keep Smith out of foul trouble and on the floor. It was clear that, when UCLA got the ball inside offensively, as it did in the last 10 minutes of the second half, the Bruins had a very good chance of winning the game. Howland had to know all this going into the contest, so it was one of the biggest head-scratchers of the season when Smith started the game guarding Nikola Vucevic rather than Alex Stepheson. Vucevic is USC's leading scorer, and a tough match up inside and out, one in which you would think would facilitate Smith picking up some fouls. And he did quickly. It's inexplicable why Smith didn't guard Stepheson, who isn't much of an offensive threat and doesn't step out of the block offensively at all. Also, it was another head scratcher why on UCLA's offensive end Howland wouldn't consistently try to post up Lee, who is about 6-5, on the 5-7 Maurice Jones or the 5-11 Donte Smith, who guarded him quite often. There was actually a couple of times when Honeycutt found himself being guarded by Smith. It was baffling why, after Jones looked like he hadn't come to play and the best Bruin on the court was Anderson, Howland didn't stick with Anderson, but went back to Jones in the second half – after Anderson had hit his two three-pointers and shown the only signs of life among the Bruins. It was clear again in this game that UCLA's offense is best when Smith gets a touch, being a big component of UCLA's push in the last 10 minutes of the first half. But there were so many trips down the court when Smith didn't get a touch, and with a Bruin on the perimeter with the ball looking right at Smith and not feeding him. With Smith getting a touch being so integral to the offense's effectiveness, and without an emphasis to get him the ball, Howland still has Honeycutt running the baseline, coming around multiple screens (which risk a foul call), to set up Honeycutt for a 22-footer. Defensively, UCLA was a complete mess, seemingly completely unknowledgeable about how to push through or go around a ball screen. You had to anticipate, with Howland publicizing that Smith wouldn't be hedging anymore, that USC's Kevin O'Neill would try to utilize as many ball screens as possible, and try to take advantage of UCLA potentially be confused. It was a very smart move by O'Neill, constantly using high ball screens to initiate the offense and create an open shooter. UCLA looked completely dumbfounded for most of the game in trying to defend it. This isn't a radical new offensive wrinkle. This is a ball screen.
And more than anything, beyond just the match-up head-scratchers and failure in some basic fundamentals, you have to give Howland at least some of the blame for the Bruins' lack of competitiveness in this game. There is a lack of accountability, with players showing very little effort on defense and seemingly no retribution. The other side of the argument could be that Howland doesn't have many options, with a limited bench and, as I said, the bench that is there (Lane) experiencing a passive funk itself, and an overall young team. But at one point, when someone jogs back on defense for the fifth time, or someone else fails to slide over to provide help defense, you'd think it'd be appropriate to send a message – and sit a player for a good portion of the game. Even if it might hurt your chances to win that particular game, there comes a time when it might be worth it put your program back on course.
But it doesn't seem like there is an acknowledgement that the program needs to be put back on course. The "course" would be playing tough defense, but if this game is an indication, that's a longshot. This was perhaps the biggest mess of a defensive performance by a Howland-coached UCLA team. It doesn't seem like UCLA's defense is improving, but eroding. The Bruins couldn't stay in front of the ball, and the help defense was practically non-existent. Very few times does anyone ever step into the lane to cut off the drive and take a charge, and it seems like it's getting less and less frequent. Howland's defense is predicated on trying to apply pressure on the ball, and then is completely dependent on someone providing help and stepping in front of the penetrator. Then, even if that's done well, it's dependent on good help rotation, and it was particularly bad in this game. Not only was there a lack of effort, but seemingly a lack of knowledge of how to do it. Howland hasn't doubled the post much this season, and it's clear why – it demands good rotation away from it, and the Bruins look completely incapable of recognizing it, and providing enough effort to do it effectively. Then, UCLA's transition defense, again, was particularly poor, allowing USC to have open looks and often times lay-ups in transition.
We don't have to probably remind you, but we predicted before the season it'd be like this. We even predicted the outcome of this game, and every game up until this point, and that UCLA would be 9-6 at this stage in the season. On the flip side, we also predicted UCLA would now go on a four-game winning streak, beating the Oregon schools this week in Oregon, and then beating both the Bay Area schools in L.A. the next week after that. It doesn't particularly seem likely at this moment, given how UCLA has played in its last two games. But it's the one upside of having a weak conference, where a team with so many issues like UCLA can more than likely right itself to a degree because of a four-game string of weak opponents.
But it's probably wise to not get fooled by what we might think is improved play in the next two weeks. UCLA will probably be more consistent on offense when it goes up against the Oregons and the Bay Areas. But the same underlying issues will still be there – and that's primarily this team's lack of a commitment to defense. It's what defined Howland's Final Four teams, and what gave them the ability to be competitive in any game. Until this year's team, and the program, for that matter, gets back to it, we're going to continue to see the kind of up-and-down, widely inconsistent play that leads to these kinds of games.