UCLA Wins Another Fine Mess

UCLA beats Cal on a miraculous play by Reeves Nelson at the end of the game to preserve a win, 86-84. While you take the victory, and appreciate UCLA's offense, it's time to come to some conclusions about UCLA's defense...

That was a strange mess of a game. Almost surreal.

Both teams – UCLA and Cal – were generally not good, and it resulted in a close game at the very end, with the Bruins barely prevailing, 86-84.

That wasn't fun to watch. It just wasn't very good basketball. The game's two hours felt like about five.

For all you stat guys, here's a really telling one: Cal shot 58% on the game and UCLA shot 50%. Cal shot 72% in the second half. It'd be interesting to do some research and try to find the last time a UCLA team allowed its opponent to shoot 72% in a half. And that wasn't because Cal took a minimal amount of shots. It shot 18 of 25.

That doesn't mean Cal shot the lights out in this game. The majority of Cal's baskets were lay-ups, in the halfcourt and in transition. In other words, UCLA played some of the worst defense by a Bruin team in recent memory.

UCLA's defense was atrocious, and it's what made this game particularly unwatchable. Maybe it's because UCLA was having problems hedging earlier in the season, and Coach Ben Howland said that Josh Smith would now "plug" and not hedge, UCLA's defense against a simple screen is now completely a mess. Sometimes they hedge, and they hedge poorly most of the time, and then sometimes they plug and they're slow to do that, and then sometimes they switch, and they're very poor at that. But what this does is make them all very confused on what they're doing on any screen. There were so many times in this game that two UCLA defenders guarded the same guy out of the screen, leaving the other Bear wide open. It happened more than 10 times in this game.

Cal shot just five three-pointers for the night. They only shot one in the first half. No need to. UCLA's defense on screens was so bad Cal was getting lay-ups off screens.

Then combine that with some poor on-ball defense, poor help defense, some very poor transition defense and some general defensive laziness and lack of focus and you have a very dismal defensive performance.

The reason UCLA won this game? Really simply was because it had a good outside shooting night. Without Josh Smith for most of the game, who was injured in the first half and didn't return (he hit his head on the floor and was kept out for precautionary reasons; he said he had a stiffness in his neck), UCLA lost a great deal of its inside offensive game and became more perimeter oriented. But luckily, Tyler Honeycutt had one of his best shooting nights of the season, going 4 for 6 from three, and UCLA shot 42% as a team from three.

Yes, Reeves Nelson had one of his best offensive games of the season, scoring 24 points on very aggressively taking it to the basket. With Smith out, Nelson's contributions scoring inside were key and kept UCLA in the game. He had 10 rebounds, two assists and two steals, converting in transition on his steals. Obviously his tip in at the end literally did win the game, and was one of the best plays in recent UCLA memory.

Tyler Honeycutt, too, had a good offensive performance, finishing with 15 points, with his three pointers being a huge difference in the game.

Lazeric Jones scored a career-high 24 points, collecting 10 of those points on 10-of-12 free throws. He gets a huge amount of credit for making those free throws down the stretch in crunch time.

Overall, UCLA had a good offensive showing, shooting that 50% from the field and committing just 13 turnovers. When Honeycutt is shooting well from the outside, and then you also have Jones and even Jerime Anderson as outside shooting threats, and Nelson is working aggressively underneath the basket, UCLA still might have enough offense, even without Josh Smith, to out-score most teams. But make no mistake, even with Nelson's big offensive contributions, the difference in the Cal game was UCLA's outside shooting.

Here's the bottom line: We're 18 games into the season and it's now safe to say that UCLA is a poor defensive team. To win the rest of season it will have to outscore its opponents, and it has a decent offense to do it. But because it's so poor defensively, and defense is what keeps you in games when you're not shooting well on the other end, for UCLA to win it will have to have good shooting nights – consistently. And UCLA just isn't a good enough shooting team to do that.

It's not just one individual who's a poor defensive player and that's holding back the entire defense. It really is team-wide. Yes, we've chronicled how poorly Nelson can play defense at times this season, and it was very evident in this game. He is notorious for switching on screens when, apparently, his teammate isn't. He also tends to watch when a opposing perimeter player makes it into the key. He also tends to watch instead of blocking out, and he jogs back on defense. But Honeycutt was, at least, as bad defensively in the Cal game, with opposing players going right around him, being as seemingly confused on what to do with screens as anyone, and tending to watch when an opposing player gets into the lane. Perhaps one of the biggest blows to UCLA's defense recently has been the eroding play of Brendan Lane. He was, at the beginning of the season, at least good for some defensive energy, but he's seemingly lost that along with much of his overall confidence. On defense, he now looks unfocused, and he too doesn't know whether to switch or not on a screen, getting burned a number of times in this game that way.

It's intriguing, actually. It's not as if this team is struggling with some sophisticated aspect of playing the game. It's struggling with how to defend a screen. Of course, you have to give a great deal of credit to Cal coach Mike Montgomery, who is one of the best coaches ever in terms of devising and using screens, but c'mon. Some of this is pretty basic stuff. When two Bruins cover the same opponent out of a screen five or six times in a row you have to wonder what is going on. And on transition defense – is it really that difficult to stop the ball? UCLA consistently allowed either Cal's Jorge Gutierrez or Brandon Smith to take the ball the length of the court, sometimes off a made basket, to score in transition, without anyone stopping the ball and many Bruins jogging back. It's clearly not that Howland hasn't coached them, or hasn't instructed them on what to do defensively, but there is clearly a lack of mental focus on defense, and the blame has to be laid at the feet of both the players and Howland.

In all of this defensive mess, you have to give Malcolm Lee a great deal of credit. He held Cal's high scoring freshman, Allen Crabbe to four points, by the time Lee fouled out late in the second half. With Lee out, Crabbe scored 13 points, and led Cal's comeback that almost overtook the Bruins.

This season so much has been made of UCLA being two different teams – the one that shows up to play with intensity, and the one that doesn't. I've come to the conclusion that UCLA is, indeed, a team of two personalities, but it's not split between an intense one and a lazy one. Because, if you watch the game closely, the team consistently plays hard on offense, but is very inconsistent and unfocused on defense. So it's really a Tale of Two Teams in terms of offense and defense. And at this point, that's pretty much what UCLA fans are stuck with this season. They should abandon hope that this year's UCLA team will ever develop into even a decent defensive team. Be more realistic, and hope that UCLA can shoot 40% from three every night out.

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