Bruins Can't Break Through

UCLA again succumbed to the Hec Ed curse, losing to Washington Thursday, 70-63. UCLA definitely missed its opportunity for a breakthrough game, but it wasn't by any means a relegation back to square one...

It was a test to see just how far this UCLA team had come.

If it had beaten Washington in Seattle, at haunted Hec Ed, it would have been a considerable breakthrough.

If it had been blown out, it would have been a clear indication that so much of the improvements we had seen this season were hollow.

In losing to Washington, it wasn't a breakthrough, but for this team it certainly wasn't a fall-back to square one. As we've said so many times, advancement are made not in a steady line going up a graph, but in a jagged one. The game was perhaps a little trend down on the graph, but there were plenty of upticks even within the course of the game to engender some confidence that the team's improvement is, indeed, legitimate.

It also confirmed some things we've been asserting all season, particularly: If you throw in the fate of your season with Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson, you're going to live and die by them.

It's funny, too, if you talk about Honeycutt and Nelson in terms of advancement and development. After last season, I would have said that Nelson would probably be the more difficult player – or rather, the player more likely to hold back the team. If I had to choose which one would appear to make valid effort into getting better, not only in terms of their game but with bringing focus and intensity to the game, I would have said Honeycutt. I would have thought that Honeycutt was the more likely candidate, and that all he needed was some maturity. At the very least, he was by far the better NBA prospect so I would have thought he would show improved effort to NBA scouts in what very likely was going to be his money year. Some things are impossible to foresee because it's pretty clear those predictions would have been wrong. While Nelson, yes, does some maddening things in a game, at time seem a bit off, and he made a number of bad decisions against Washington, you can easily see the advancements in him overall, and particularly his effort level. It was evident here in this game. Usually this season, in big games, Nelson has somewhat disappeared, but it's a testament to his developing maturity how he performed against Arizona last Saturday, and his effort level Thursday against Washington.

On the other hand, Honeycutt is a clear disappointment, not only because his game has failed to develop at the rate you would have hoped, but his desire, focus and work level seems to have trended down. Against the Huskies he simply didn't look like he wanted to be there. In crunch time, in the last few minutes when the game was decided, he made a series of errors that stemmed from laziness more than anything, on both offense and defense. It truly is one of the most inexplicable things in UCLA basketball in many years: how a guy, as I said, at the very least, who thinks he's in his NBA money year, would put such a lack of effort and intensity out there on the court. In one of the biggest games of the season, a game that could decide whether you win the Pac-10 championship, Honeycutt scored 6 points, all on free throws, not making one basket, and had six rebounds, with three turnovers against just one assist, and played with very limited effort on defense.

You know, NBA scouts can now use modern technology and watch all of these games.

To be perfectly blunt, though, it's not Honeycutt's fault. Coach Ben Howland, every year, informally designates at least a couple of guys he needs to win, and as a result they pretty much have carte blanche'; they don't get pulled from the floor if they show a lack of effort on defense and no matter how cold they are offensively they still play 38 minutes. Because of this they invariable become the "leaders" of the team -- their tone, attitude and approach to the game pervades it. It's much better when those designated guys are players like Arron Afflalo or Darren Collison. This year it was definitely Honeycutt and Nelson, and attaching the fate of the season to two considerable question marks in terms of their ability to carry a team with their character, work ethic, and leadership put the season in considerable question. These are the guys that Ben Howland attached his boat to, and this is the type of up-and-down, erratic, unpredictable season you get as a result.

To his credit, Nelson has come along, and even though he made some considerable mistakes in the Washington game, he did generally play hard. One of the reasons UCLA didn't get relegated back to square one and get blown out Thursday is because of Nelson's development. Yes, he did get called for a technical foul, he did turn over the ball and make bad decisions in ball-handling, but he also did show effort in playing solid defense, trying to score in the post and dishing off a few nice assists to teammates. He very well might have done enough well to make up for what he did poorly, and most importantly he played with effort.

So, who might have Howland looked toward instead to lead the team? He might not have been able to anticipate it before the season, but it's clear now that Jerime Anderson is the man. Even throw out that he was UCLA's best player Thursday night, and almost single-handedly kept the Bruins in the game and almost won it. Howland has readily admitted that Anderson is exhibiting great leadership qualities. It's clear he's the leader on the floor, doing many little things like giving Josh Smith instruction, and keeping the players on the same page. It would be considered a bold move, but it might be time to put the keys of the car into the hands of Anderson. He needs more minutes than 19 per game. And it's not just because of the leadership he provides on the court, but he's now earned it because of his effectiveness. Even take away the team-leading 16 points and 4-of-6 from three, he deserves the car keys because of all the little things he's doing to make the team better, like making great passes to set up teammates and playing solid defense. Plus, hey, he's a point guard, the guy who should naturally be the team's leader. Of course, Anderson has a ways to go himself, in making better decisions in particular, but the type of player he's become is the guy you want to hitch the boat to.

The other natural choice for leadership is Malcolm Lee, with his consistently high-level of effort, excellent defense and hardworking approach to the game. Lee again in this game showed all of that, scoring 13 points and shutting down Washington's Isaiah Thomas, holding him to 9 points on 3-of-12 shooting. Lee, of course, has been getting many minutes, but if perhaps Anderson got more the Anderson-Lee attitude and approach might overtake the Honeycutt-Nelson.

For the Washington game, too, you have to also cite the performance of Josh Smith. He started off shaky, playing in front of the hometown crowd, but he again showed that he is a unmatchable force, with 12 points and 16 rebounds. He is getting better in just about every facet, being patient in the post with the ball and finishing. Easily Smith's best play of the game was diving on the floor for a loose ball.

Also give Washington some credit. They played a very good defensive game, not only moving between a man and zone D, but doing so with intensity. The Washington defense disrupted UCLA's offense enough with its on-ball pressure, often times making UCLA have to go to the high-ball screen out of desperation rather than getting into a more elaborate set.

You have to give Howland a great deal of credit for the development of this team this season. Even though I'm 29-1 in the wins and losses I predicted in the pre-season article, I'll admit that this team is better than I thought it would be. I was skeptical it would make considerable improvements, and as I said, I question Howland's choice of who he decided to designate as the de facto leaders of the team in Honeycutt and Nelson. But Nelson, Anderson, Smith, Lee, Lazeric Jones and Anthony Stover have clearly improved this season, and – most significantly – the team's approach to defense, its effort and focus, have improved.

There are still opportunities the rest of the season for that breakthrough, though. We don't believe Howland will ever change from his unconditional love of Honeycutt and Nelson, but perhaps with Nelson's continued maturation – less bad decisions and continued defensive effort – and perhaps more driving of the car by Anderson and Lee will take them down Breakthrough Road.


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