UCLA loses when they play really badly on defense, as they did against Arizona Thursday, 85-74, in Tucson.
Nothing too complicated.
We've maintained all along that UCLA will go only as far as its defense will allow it to go. Notice I didn't say as far as it will take it, because this year's UCLA defense isn't taking any team anywhere.
But Thursday was definitely one of those games where the defense also didn't allow it to go anywhere.
And why is the defense so bad? That's also pretty easy to analyze. And it's baffling that it's so easy, and so plainly evident.
This UCLA team doesn't put in an effort on defense.
While Reeves Nelson had a good offensive first half last night, and without him the Bruins would have been buried by 30 points, at least, his lack of defensive effort was very clear.
Tyler Honeycutt's effort on defense is consistently average to poor, and it hit a new low against Arizona.
Then, last night against the Wildcats, Lazeric Jones, a guy who had played with good defensive effort and focus for most of the season, went over to the defensive Dark Side.
To be completely fair, too, and not to blame it on just a few, freshman center Josh Smith generally looks uninterested in defense.
Brendan Lane played inspired defense at the beginning of the season and hasn't found that spark in probably the last 15 games. He used to slide over on help defense, but now he looks about as active as Nelson when he does it. We can only attribute that to a lack of effort on defense being contagious.
It's very difficult to win when your three starters, your should-be-starting center and one of your main bench contributors all have packed it in defensively. Last night that would account for 122 minutes of the 200 played by your team.
As a Bruin fan, the only time you felt comfortable watching the game was when Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb were on the floor together. If they had played much with Anthony Stover, which they didn't, the game would have been watchable, even if UCLA had been blown out by 20. Because those guys consistently play defense. They can make foolish forced errors – Lee can put up an air ball or drive to nowhere, Anderson can turn over the ball, and Lamb will make freshman mistakes – but I'd much rather watch guys make forced errors and play hard defensively than lazy players who don't seemingly care and take off on the defensive side of the floor.
What's baffling, again, is why Coach Ben Howland allows it.
Last night should have been the breaking point for Honeycutt. He was horrendous defensively, allowing Wildcats to consistently dribble drive around him all night. And it's not as if he's moving his feet and trying to stay with the guy and he can't. Honeycutt will come out on a guy, barely in stance, with no energy, and the dribble driver will go right around him, and Honeycutt will watch him go. This should have been the game where Howland sent a message to him, and sat him, but Honeycutt played a game-high 38 minutes. If you are trying to send a message that a lack of effort on defense doesn't matter then that game succeeded with Honeycutt. Not sending a message in a game like this is what makes the lack of effort on defense contagious.
Nelson, as we said, kept UCLA in the game with his offense, especially in the first half. But please, fans, don't think just because he scored 24 points that that excuses him from being held accountable for his lack of defense. Nelson was generally horrible defensively. He clearly doesn't care to play defense, and it really shows particularly in the contrast between his effort on offense when he's scoring and his effort on defense. And it seems to be getting worse. At least before he would provide a token effort and take a couple of steps over to try to fill the lane, but now he's not even doing that. Remember when Nelson took some charges? Against Arizona, too, there were a couple of times, off a screen, where Nelson didn't do anything. Even if you're confused about what man you're picking up out of the screen, at least do it. He didn't even do that, he just stood there, not hedging, switching or plugging, and watched a Wildcat go to the basket for a lay up.
There were a couple of sequences when it looked like Smith got mad and turned up his intensity on defense. My jaw almost hit the ground. See, Josh, you have to take a lesson from your teammates: Don't show us defensive intensity at any time, because then we know what you're capable of and recognize that you're not doing it. Smith is the most naturally gifted player on the floor, but he also naturally doesn't play hard. When he came to UCLA two things could have happened - -he could have learned how to play with defensive intensity or learned how to coast defensively. If he had come to UCLA four years ago, when the UCLA mystique and calling card was defense, he might have bought in and decided he'd better play hard or get left behind. But now the UCLA mystique and calling card isn't defensive intensity, but defensive laziness, and he's bought in. Remember when Smith used to take charges? It will be interesting to see if it's permanent or whether Smith, sometimes during his UCLA career, can find an antidote for the contagion.
Perhaps the most distressing player to watch last night was Jones. We thought he wasn't part of the Dark Side, and came to play defense every game. But he played like he had a dark cloud hanging over him. And here's the thing – even if he had had that kind of offensive night (0 for 7, 0 points), he still dished out 6 assists, and could have made up for it by channeling all of his offensive frustration to the defensive side of the court. But that pervasive UCLA non-defense mystique and calling card seeped into Jones, too. When UCLA lost to Washington about a month ago, you might remember Honeycutt making no effort to push through a high screen, allowing a shooter an open look. It seems that Jones watched that and decided to adopt it as his own. He consistently went under high screens against Arizona, basically showing no intensity to push through and trail around the top of the screen, and Wildcat shooters consistently made their open looks. Jones probably allowed more dribble drivers to go around him in this game than he had in the last 10 games combined.
And what's amazing is – Jones only played 23 minutes, because of his offense. He was in some foul trouble, but it was also evident that Howland didn't play Jones as much as he usually does because he was struggling offensively. Howland, if he's ever going to sit someone, he'll do it because they're just not playing well offensively, but not defensively. Now, Howland is of the philosophy to generally keep playing "his guys," because he believes they'll eventually play through a bad spell and provide some production (See Nikola Dragovic). So, no matter how badly you're playing if you're one of Howland's guys, you will for the most part stay on the court. If, though, there is a slight chance that you'll get pulled, being one of Howland's chosen players, it wouldn't ever be because you put in a bad effort on the defensive side, but only if you're ridiculously cold on the offensive side, as Jones was Thursday night.
You have to feel for Lee. He's so foolish he's actually still buying into the UCLA defensive mystique. It's probably really just a testament to his personal character. He's playing consistently hard on defense every game, while most of his teammates around him aren't. He must get so incredibly pissed off when he's busting his ass trying to stay with the opposing team's best perimeter scorer, getting screened, bumped and generally bruised up, doing his job, only to watch no one pick up his man off a screen and allow the guy an open lane to the basket. To his credit, when you try to get him to admit he's resentful of his teammates lack of defensive effort in an interview at any of the weekly press conferences, he won't take the bait.
Anderson, too, has played with good defensive intensity all season. He should have been on the floor for more than 22 minutes. The real glaring tragedy is that Lamb played on 9 minutes. There was a period in the second half when UCLA was down by 16 or so, and Lamb came in – mostly due to Jones' foul trouble, not because of some coaching revelation that Lamb might be more effective because he might actually play some defense. It was Lee, Anderson and Lamb in UCLA's backcourt and for the only time during the entire 40 minutes of the game did UCLA play well. Lamb had two very good defensive trips, where he shut down Arizona's bigger Solomon Hill with an active defensive effort, and the Bruins got some stops. They then got some energy on the offensive side, with the defensive success feeding into the offense (that's how it works).
At one point in this game, after probably the third time early in the second half when Honeycutt was playing his matador defense, Howland should have benched his marquee name and put in Lamb.
There were some head-scratching coaching decisions. As we anticipated, UCLA's smaller lineup, the one that's been so successful in the last two previous games, with Honeycutt at the four, wasn't seen against Arizona. It would seem, in this game, it would have been something to attempt. No one was really capable of guarding Derrick Williams, so what's the difference if you have Nelson play the five and have him guard Williams? You certainly would have preferred Honeycutt take a shot at guarding Jesse Perry than get consistently burned trying to guard Arizona's wings.
And then: Why, oh why, would you ever think Smith could guard Williams? Smith's Achilles Heel is fouling, and that's like pointing a gun at the heel. Then there's the long-standing issue of using a zone. If you have a guy like Smith, who is foul prone, he is screaming for a zone, especially in this game, against a team with Williams, and one that has struggled against a zone this season. Howland's stubbornness to not utilize a zone, not even attempt it, is perplexing.
During the game, fans on the message board were asking questions like, "What do they do during practice? Do they not teach them how to defend a screen?" Be assured that they do. But this team doesn't care about defense, so when in a game they don't defend a screen well because of laziness, the question shouldn't be if the coaches are teaching the players how to defend against it, it should be: "Why do they allow them to stay in the game when they don't make an effort to do what they taught them in practice?"
We said at the beginning of the month, after UCLA had lost to Washington and USC, that UCLA would go on a four-game winning streak playing mediocre teams, and to not get false hope from it. We thought that everything would come back to roost once UCLA went to Tucson to play Arizona, that once again the limitations and issues with this team would be evident. It definitely proved to be true.
I think the Arizona game, too, was even more significant than that. It was a milestone. UCLA's program under Howland built itself on the reputation of defense, it was the mystique and calling card of Howland's UCLA program.
It was interesting to listen to ESPN's Jay Bilas during the game. He spouted the general, long-standing reputation of UCLA's program under Howland early on, but you could hear those assumptions crumble away as the game went on. He ended at the point where he sounded generally shocked at the lack of effort Howland's UCLA team put on the floor.
Bilas was particularly taken aback by Nelson's antics on the bench at the end of the game. If you didn't see, Nelson teased the Arizona crowd by not sitting down when he fouled out, which made Nelson and the UCLA bench laugh. Bilas commented about how it was inappropriate behavior, given that your team was getting beaten soundly on the road. It reflected just how much this team isn't truly competitive mentally, which we see reflected in its defense effort.
The UCLA defensive mystique now, officially, has been debunked, on national television. What we have been asserting for the last two years went national last night.
So, this milestone game, really, marks a passing. Out in the Arizona desert there should be a tombstone to mark the milestone, one that reads: "Here lies the mystique and calling card of UCLA's defense."