I have to start off by saying "Wow" because I know just about every Bruin fan has uttered that word that about 20 times since last night. You probably went to bed saying it, and then woke up saying it again.
That was one of the worst, most embarrassing games UCLA has played in recent memory, losing to Loyola Marymount, in the season opener, 69-58.
And there are many games that could compete in that category, so that's really saying something.
Everything that you could have anticipated would be an issue with this team was an issue Friday night.
First and foremost: UCLA, as a team, played with a low-intensity level. No matter all of its deficiencies in terms of its skills or athleticism, there is really no excuse to put that level of effort on the court. It's a shameful thing for the players – and the coaches.
Question: Where did Josh Smith want to be? Because he certainly didn't want to be in that arena playing basketball Friday night. This team's identity this season, if it's going to develop one, is going to be all about him – showcasing him offensively, running the ball through him, getting him touches, establishing his presence down low to dominate opposing post players. Without that, this team will have absolutely no identity this season. And the things is: Is Smith mature and strong enough to shoulder that identity? If last night is any indication, well, that's a clear no. He clearly isn't ready, prepared or mature enough to take the team on his back. It's apparent he didn't want to take the season seriously enough when he reported to practice maybe 2 or 3 pounds slimmer than he was last season. He clearly didn't take getting his body in shape seriously over the off-season and, for whatever reason, neither did the coaches. That, perhaps is, really key to this season: It established an attitude by Smith that he really didn't have to take the season that seriously, and that the coaches weren't going to expect him to either. Why would it? If you were clearly able to eat Fatburgers all summer you wouldn't really be ready to be the leader of a top-20 national team, would you?
Today, this morning, even if it's too late to be doing it at this point, there should be a team of UCLA nutritionists standing at Smith's apartment door, to start putting him essentially through a food boot camp – to send him a message that, uh, Josh, you need to take the season a bit more seriously.
Playing lazily like Smith did then permeated the team. Reeves Nelson doesn't need much inspiration to play with no energy, and it seeped into him pretty quickly Friday night. When your two top scorers have pretty much gone into their respective funks, going scoreless and getting two rebounds between the two of them for just about the first 10 minutes of the game, and then Smith lazily collecting two fouls that put him on the bench, you know you're seeing the bad, alternate version of the 2011-2012 Bruins.
But hey, maybe this isn't the alternative version. Maybe this is the more common version, when you have two inconsistent players like Smith and Nelson as your two leaders who set the tone for the team.
Then, throw in perhaps the worst performance by a UCLA point guard that anyone can remember (Yeah, Russell Westbrook's performance against West Virginia comes to mind, but this was probably worse). Lazeric Jones was absolutely horrendous Friday night. It completely emphasized what we've been saying for two years – that Jones is not a point guard. When he's playing well, it can mask his deficiencies as a point guard. When he's playing badly, it can really underline them. But regardless of whether he plays well or badly, it's patently clear he's not a point guard. His stat line of shooting 1 for 11, with 3 turnovers against 3 assists, doesn't even capture it. He made just about every wrong decision he could with the ball. He just plainly doesn't have a feel of a point guard, and it was, after UCLA's team-wide lack of effort, the main reason the Bruins were so bad Friday night. He just doesn't see what a point guard should, and it's severely limiting UCLA's opportunities on offense. He, also, has now decided he's a scorer, and he's making bad decision after bad decision to take bad shots – off-balance, awkward jumpers and floaters that clearly aren't designed in the offensive set that Ben Howland called. It really is amazing the credit Jones has with Howland, that the coach still kept playing him; if that had been Jerime Anderson, after a few minutes of a display like that, Anderson would have been benched; heck, Anderson's descendants would have been benched. Somewhere last night Jrue Holiday was benched for Jones' performance.
You're probably asking yourself: What has happened to the UCLA program that it can put a product on the court like it did Friday night? We've been telling you since the 2009-2010 season. If you're talking about identity, Howland has lost his. For a coach who is known to put great defensive teams on the court, the one that took to that make-shift Sports Arena court Friday night is one of the worst defensive teams I've seen play at UCLA – ever. We've repeated over and over, and we have to say it again: Howland has lost his defensive identity, and this is the type of performance you're going to get because of it.
Looking at this team, there isn't one good defensive player on the roster. Well, there is one, and that's Anthony Stover, but he's injured, and he probably wouldn't play more than 10 minutes per game even if he weren't because he lacks a developed offensive game. But every other player is a poor defensive player. How does this happen? From a few years of recruiting that departs from the initial philosophy that Howland had when he came to UCLA: To recruit good athletes who, first and foremost, can play defense. This is not an athletic team. Loyola Marymount, an average mid-major team (who was without probably their best player, Drew Viney, by the way), looked like the frigging U.S. Olympic team in terms of athleticism compared to UCLA. It's very difficult to defend well if you're not athletic.
And then, it's very difficult to defend in a man-to-man defense if you're not athletic. Howland stubbornly doesn't want to play zone, and according to what he told the media, hasn't even practiced zone yet in the 22 or so practices so far this season. Perhaps he under-estimated just how badly of a man defensive team he has on his hands. We have no doubt UCLA's man defense will get better, but they have a very long way to go, and with the lack of athleticism on the team and a penchant for laziness, they very well might not get that much better. Howland quite simply has recruited a team made for a zone, one populated by guys who have some offensive talent but not the athleticism to play man defense – but he refuses to recognize it. While the main story line here for the season is going to be whether Smith and Nelson can be mature enough to take the team on their back and establish its identity this season, the underlying and perhaps more disturbing story line is going to be: What will Howland do about the team's defense? It's disturbing because it goes back to what we've been writing for the last three years – about a shift in Howland's approach to recruiting and the product he puts on the court. And, if you look at the 2012 recruits he just signed in the early November Signing Period, it's easy to make the case that getting offensive-minded players who aren't athletic enough to play the man defense Howland wants is still the direction of the program. Fine, if that's direction you want to go – to get those offensive-minded players, but you'd better start teaching them how to play zone or you're going to get more defensive performances like the one we all witnessed Friday night.
When it comes to defense, none of the players are immune from criticism. Yeah, David Wear and Travis Wear carried the team offensively throughout the night. Without them it would have been at least a 20-point loss. But on the other hand, they're both defensive liabilities. At this point they haven't shown the ability to guard mid-major post players, and they certainly can't guard D-1 small forwards. The fact that Howland even tries to float that idea is preposterous. They are players without a position to defend, and are screaming out for a zone. I have no doubt the Wears will get better defensively throughout the season, and probably be passable by season's end. But that's not what got Howland to three Final Fours, having two guys who play 60 minutes between the two of them merely be passable defenders.
A big problem defensively, too, is that UCLA doesn't have one good perimeter defender at this point. UCLA, under Howland, has always had the one defensive stopper, but he doesn't this season. Tyler Lamb has inherited that role, but as an unseasoned sophomore has a long ways to go. And to be candid, he has a chance to be a good defender, but probably doesn't have the athleticism or knack for it like Malcolm Lee or Russell Westbrook. Without that one superior defender, ripples go through UCLA's defense. At least last season Lee would shut down the opposing team's best perimeter scorer. At least UCLA could take that away in the past most of the time. It used to be, too, that UCLA had two very good perimeter defenders, with Darren Collison at the point. But UCLA hasn't recruited for defense for the last several years, and it simply doesn't have the athletes to play that kind of perimeter, on-ball defense. Jones was horrible defensively Friday, allowing LMU point guard Anthony Ireland to look like Allen Iverson in his prime. Norman Powell showed some athleticism and defensively ability last night, but he's a freshman. And actually De'End Parker, the JC transfer, did too. But it was just potential, not actual defensive effectiveness on the court – the type of production that actually helps you win games. And then, also those two guys played 21 and 14 minutes, while Jones played 32.
So, where to go from here?
-- Jerime Anderson returns from his suspension for the Middle Tennessee game next Tuesday. We are completely confident that Howland, though, will continue to go with Jones at the point. Jones is Howland's guy, and Anderson is terminally in the doghouse. But if Jones continues to play poorly, it's going to be interesting to see how much of it Howland can tolerate before he bites the bullet and puts the ball in the hands of Anderson.
-- At least, this season, Howland has some alternatives to Smith and Nelson. Well, in the case of Smith, he'll have an alternative when Stover returns. But with Nelson, Howland can go with more of the Wears. The coach needs to use these other options as motivation, but we're also skeptical that will happen because Howland doesn't have a great track record of using playing time as a motivator.
-- Then, there is the zone.
Those are three things that are going to have to happen, at least to some degree, for this year's team to be good.
If not, Howland is putting the fate of the season in the hands of Nelson, Smith and Jones, and it will be dictated by whether they decide to show up to play night in and night out. Like I said, they – and the team – will get better, but without Anderson at the point, motivating Smith and Nelson through benching, and use of a zone, there's a huge question of just how much better.