Another Giant Step for Smith

UCLA finished off perhaps its best two successive wins in the last two seasons, beating Steve Lavin and St. John's Saturday, 66-59. Watch out, Joshua Smith is starting to get it...

UCLA has been going through a two-year tough patch, but it probably would have been rock bottom to lose to Steve Lavin and St. John's Saturday.

The Bruins, in fact, beat the Red Storm, 66-59, and if you combine that with the win over USC Wednesday, it marks perhaps the most satisfying two-game winning streak in the last two years of Bruin basketball.

UCLA played a pretty good game for the most part. It wasn't on par with the performance it turned in Wednesday, but it was still very much in the realm of acceptability. When you shoot 49%, hold your opponent to 39%, out-rebound them 40-28, and get 14 assists for 18 baskets it's generally a good game. There were some issues, primarily the 22 turnovers, and the still too lackadaisical defense. But it was enough to beat a physical group of Big East hacks (St. John's committed 23 personal fouls) who had just beaten Duke last Sunday by 15.

Most importantly, St. John's had an RPI of 20 heading into the game, so UCLA beating them was a huge step on the Bruins' way to getting an NCAA Tournament bid.

The game was also another step in the advancement of Josh Smith. He led the team for the second game in a row in scoring, this time equaling his career high, 19. It's not a coincidence at all that the two games in which Smith led the team in scoring were two of UCLA's best games of the season. It's clear that UCLA is a different team with Smith on the floor because he simply is a unique talent that not many teams can match up with in college basketball. In this game, he was called for only two fouls and played 27 minutes, after he played 29 against USC, which is an indication that he's now able to play more minutes and not get too tired and not get into foul trouble. When UCLA has him in the post, against a man or zone defense, and gets him touches in the offense, it's a completely different game. He's just too big and too physical to stop going to the basket, and he's starting to fully realize that and assert himself more. His first four baskets were all monster dunks in which he had position and pretty much defenders had been bumped aside by his huge body and just got out of the way. What's been the most impressive about him in the last two games is the obvious effort he's been putting in, on both the offensive and defensive side. Perhaps that benching against Arizona State paid off (perhaps benchings work?). On defense he was very impressive; it's always impressive to see a 330-pound mountain of a kid be able to move with such agility. He consistently moved his feet well on defense – in fact, in one sequence he was able to stay in front of St. John's' Dwight Hardy and actually created a turnover. He also had three nice, controlled blocks. He still has a ways to go – needing to never put the ball on the floor, when he gets a rebound, a steal or in the post – and he is still learning how to get the refs to treat him fairly, because they naturally don't. When an opponent bumps into him the refs surmise it must be a foul, and when he's pushed or hacked many time the refs don't make the call because it's almost too impossible to believe that anyone would be able to push Smith from behind and actually move him. But all in all, the progress he's made, you'd have to say, is ahead of schedule, and it's exciting to think about what he'll even be like by the end of the month.

Malcolm Lee turned in another strong, steady performance, finishing with 15 points, and generally playing hard. He has now become exceptional in his ability to cut to the basket and is a warrior inside finishing. In this game he looked a bit flustered and still generally maintained his composure. The flustering could have been the result of Hardy, who Lee mostly guarded, going off for 32 points, really being the only guy in recent memory who was successful in taking Lee off the dribble.

Give a good amount of credit to Jerime Anderson, who in 27 minutes was a steady influence. Lazeric Jones, we now understand, can be inconsistent game to game. Wednesday against USC he was exceptional, but in this game he wasn't, getting 0 points and 0 rebounds, with 6 turnovers, and making a good amount of bad decisions. Anderson (who would have thunk it?) is the consistent presence in the backcourt, providing reliable, solid play that gets the team through Jones' inconsistency. Anderson had 5 big assists against just one turnover and played very good defense.

In discussing Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson, it's easy to mention their slack defense, and it is apropro in describing their performance in this game, too. The two of them simply put UCLA at a deficit defensively, with both of them being poor help defenders and lacking any effort in coming off screens, and Honeycutt being very slack in his on-ball defense. Nelson, though, to his credit, plays good post defense, and will still almost every game go out and rebound, finishing with a career-high 17 boards in this one. Honeycutt, on the other hand, didn't have much to make up for his bad defense in this game, with just 4 rebounds, while manufacturing 11 points, with 9 of those coming from the free-throw line when UCLA was in the early bonus in the second half.

There were a few very clear illustrations of both of their lack of effort in this game. Nelson had the opportunity to get on the floor for a loose ball, and didn't, and his in-bound passes were lazy, resulting in turnovers. Honeycutt has seemingly lost a great deal of interest in the season, failing to block out, make an effort to stay in front of his man, help on defense, provide weakside rebounding, etc., etc. Before you could have at least said he was unselfish on the offensive end, but Saturday he passed up a wide open Smith under the basket in semi-transition to attempt a three. At this point there is obviously something going on with Honeycutt and UCLA fixing it could be a huge key to rest of the season.

Because, at this point, this team would be good, that is good enough to possibly make a bit of noise in post-season, if it could get Nelson and Honeycutt to play hard on defense. With the progress of Smith, the generally stellar play from Lee and the solid play of Anderson and Jones (most of the time), the win over a good, but not great, St. John's team, showed that UCLA does have enough talent to have a good showing in the NCAA tournament. It's just some solid defense out of Honeycutt and Nelson away from doing it.

We have some suggestions on how to garner that, too. Or at least, more accurately, a work-around.

Cut Honeycutt's minutes some, and limit most of his playing time to the four. He has now proven he can't guard the three spot, both not being able to stay in front of the ball and not being able to go on top of a screen effectively. He looks like he struggles to defende out of a stance. On the other hand, he's much more comfortable defending in the post where, first, he generally doesn't have to get in a stance. Ben Howland is so much about not being out-muscled at every position, but with Honeycutt you'd rather take the chance he's going to get out-muscled defending against a bigger four that consistently out-quicked guarding a three. With Smith probably never capable of playing more that 26-30 minutes per game, Nelson, who is a good post defender, could play more minutes at the five. Anthony Stover, who plays hard and is a defensive force, should continue to take over Brendan Lane's minutes and then get back-up minutes at the four, since he's a much quicker, active and effective defender than Nelson away from the basket.

This would also call for increased minutes from Tyler Lamb. In the USC review I advocated that Lamb get more of Honeycutt's minutes, and the St. John's game couldn't have been a bigger supportive example of that suggestion. UCLA struggled in the first half when Honeycutt was on the floor. Lamb came in, he hit a three, played strong defense and UCLA went on a 7-0 run and got back into the game after its initial lull. It was very illustrative, too, when Honeycutt passed up a wide-open Smith under the basket and was then yanked, and in the next possession Lamb pump-faked and fed Smith for a dunk. Lamb then was instrumental in the run that gave UCLA its first lead later in the half, hitting another big three pointer and shutting down his man on defense. It was unconscionable that Lamb, having played an excellent first half, got just 2 minutes in the second half. The situation is screaming for Lamb to get more minutes over Honeycutt, but Howland doesn't seem to be hearing it.

In other words, we've come to realize that you're probably not going to get Nelson and Honeycutt to play hard on defense. It doesn't seem like that's possible. So we're ready for these work-arounds. By doling out the playing time as laid out above, it limits the amount of time Nelson and Honeycutt are on the floor together, because their cumulative poor effort on defense is too much for UCLA to overcome. Heck, if I were an opposing coach, I'd isolate my two players who are being guarded by Honeycutt and Smith to pick and roll them all day. Nelson, more and more, is proving that most of the time he's worth being on the floor, especially when he's pulling down 17 rebounds and playing good interior defense. Honeycutt, well, not so much. So, don't play them together for too many minutes, play Honeycutt at the four, so you limit his defensive liability and improve his offensive match-up advantage, and play Nelson at the five more, to limit his defensive liability.

There, problem solved. Do that and UCLA is on its way to a Sweet 16.

We're exaggerating, of course, but not entirely. Really, if you look at it another away, we're willing to jump on board with Howland seemingly not attempting to rehabilitate the lack of defensive effort by Nelson and Honeycutt. So work around it. Because now we've seen the type of team UCLA can be, with the progress of Smith, and it'd be a shame if a lack of defensive effort that could be minimized through playing time kept this year's Bruins from reaching its potential.

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