Wow, Part 2

It's now panic time, with UCLA looking like a mess in dropping its second game of the season to another mid-major, Middle Tennessee...

I already used "wow" for the review of Loyola Marymount, and I wasn't going to go back to that well again.

But it does tend to capture the feeling after watching UCLA lose to another mid-major, Middle Tennessee, 86-66.

There are so many things wrong with this team you just don't know where to start and don't know if you could ever finish.

But let's simplify it. The overall takeaway: Other than Josh Smith, UCLA doesn't have a player on the team that should be a starter at UCLA. Well, except for maybe Norman Powell, and this was only his second college game.

Why is UCLA's talent so mediocre? It goes back to recruiting. This is the result of a few years of very poor recruiting, of pursuing many nationally ranked players across the country and whiffing. Yes, Ben Howland lost players early to the NBA, but that should all be figured in – in other words, good recruiting should be anticipating losses to the NBA and compensating. In the last three years, the guards UCLA has brought in besides freshman Norman Powell are Lazeric Jones, Tyler Lamb, and Matt Carlino. That's in three recruiting classes – 2011, 2010, and 2009. That's not even just a problem with the amount of guards you're bringing in, but the talent and athletic level. Four guards in three years, and then one was clearly not able to play at this level and transferred after a week last season. And really, it looks like there's only one among the four (Powell) who has the talent to be a starter at UCLA. So, one starter-caliber guard brought into the program in three recruiting classes. This all happened because UCLA chased around other nationally elite guards which they eventually struck out with. And it also happened because there were some athletic players in the west that UCLA could have gotten but passed on while they were chasing those national prospects. Among wing-types, in that period, UCLA brought in De'End Parker and Mike Moser, a JC prospect and a guy who transferred after a season. That's it. And that's just not going to get it done.

So, what you have is Lazeric Jones, who isn't a point guard, as your point guard. And you have Tyler Lamb, a not-ready-for-primetime sophomore, as your designated perimeter shooter and designated perimeter defender.

Then, you have in the frontcourt two guys who transferred from North Carolina, David Wear and Travis Wear. While sitting out last season, and through the off-season and beginning of this season, Howland praised them to the point you would believe they were big, impact players on the high-major level. The Wears play hard, but they haven't shown anything worthy of Howland's heaping of praise. They're decent shooters, but poor rebounders and very poor defenders. They shoot far too much. They can't defend a high-major (or, so far, a mid-major) post, and certainly can't guard a small forward. How Howland ever put forth the idea that David Wear could play the three is astounding.

At one point, on the court against MTSU, UCLA was playing two JC players and two transfers. That's indicative of UCLA's poor recruiting in three recruiting classes.

The only guy who is worthy of starting at UCLA is Josh Smith, and he has some weight and inconsistency issues that have been well chronicled. And simply, as it was evident in the MTSU game, he simply is not a very good post defender and doesn't seem to want to be one.

Well, maybe the other guy who is talented enough is Reeves Nelson, and he couldn't even attend the game for well-chronicled reasons.

Pretty much UCLA's personnel is a mess.

Where it's really hit home is with UCLA's defense. With the guys that are getting most of the minutes, UCLA simply is putting a pretty un-athletic team on the court that struggles defensively. There really isn't too much analysis of the defense beyond that. Yeah, you could throw in they're collectively bad tactically at defense, too, clueless in help defense and rotation.

Do we all feel a bit bamboozled? Sure. We bought in, believing the spin that Jones had put in a great deal of work in the off-season, had been so hampered by his hand injury and was vastly better heading into this season. Despite some of us who had seen the Wears enough in high school, you really can't blame fans for believing Howland that the Wears were so exceptional. Heck, UCLA was ranked 15th in the country by Sports Illustrated going into this season, so even SI was bamboozled. The Las Vegas oddsmakers, who are usually the last people to get the wool pulled over their eyes, had UCLA favored by 11 points over Middle Tennessee – even after UCLA put on that pitiful display against LMU. At least I woke up and made some money off that.

We actually were remiss in not seeing this coming. We, among all UCLA watchers, should have known better, and not been prone to the spin. We have been maintaining for the last two years that UCLA has had some serious problems in recruiting, primarily the shift in focusing on national players and a de-emphasis on athleticism and ability to play defense. We should have been able to anticipate that this team would greatly lack athleticism and really struggle defensively because of it.

Where to go from here? Start with defense. "It's the defense, stupid." As we've been repeating for the last three seasons, defense is what got Howland to three Final Fours. The defense's improvement is what pretty much salvaged last season. It's the primary element to this year's team that will give it a chance to get the season on track. Howland is big on defensive field goal percentage. UCLA allowed MTSU to shoot 71% from the field. In two games, UCLA is allowing its opponents to shoot 57%. That's like a shooting drill.

Howland said at his press conference this week that, essentially, it was too early to "scrap" playing man defense. But after this game, and how clearly far away UCLA's man defense is to being effective, you'd have to think that at least partial scrapping is now on table. Howland can't afford to take a month or so to get his man defense decent. And that's rolling the dice that it even could. The lack of athleticism on the team and the predominance of bigs makes it so much better suited for a zone. It would also help considerably to keep Smith out of foul trouble. Howland actually said in the MTSU post-game comments that zone is now a possibility. What's uncanny is that Howland, after seeing these guys in 22 practices, didn't believe he'd need to utilize a zone.

Then, also get some athleticism on the court. Powell is the best athlete on the team. He has the most upside to improve by February than probably any other player on the roster. He has to play. What's particularly distressing about Powell is this: Why hasn't it been determined that Powell should be getting starter's minutes up until now? And if Powell does get more minutes it's probably only because he made a couple of shots, not because of what he brings athletically to the court and potentially on defense. So, if Powell misses a couple of shots in the next game there's the worry he'll go back to playing 15 minutes per game.

Jones, again, was really a considerable drag on the team. Anderson isn't spectacular by any means, but he is much better at getting UCLA's offense to function properly, and Anderson is no drop-off defensively. Perhaps Jones has had two bad games that aren't reflective of the players he is, and has shown in practice. Fine, but after those two games he should now have only the opportunity to show what kind of player he is by coming off the bench. It's amazing that, in the Middle Tennesee game, with it obvious that Jones is severely struggling and Anderson is the better option, Jones still played 34 minutes and Anderson played 22. Make Anderson the starting point guard.

Parker is a much better athlete than either of the Wears and has a much better chance of guarding a three. He has to play much more than at least one Wear to help shore up the defense. And even though Parker can't shoot very well, there probably wouldn't be that much of a drop-off offensively. Last night, Parker, in 20 minutes, had 7 points; David Wear, in 32 minutes, had 6.

The Wears simply can't play as many minutes. Between the two of them they are averaging almost 60 minutes per game. If Nelson returns (and there will be an announcement today about his status), a non-disruptive Nelson is better than either Wear. The Wears do some of the little defensive things better, like off screens and such, but they're athletically so limited. It's amazing to even put forth the idea – but Nelson, with how little effort he exhibits on defense, is a better defensive player than either Wear playing hard.

And then, when determining personnel moves, in the case of Tyler Lamb, he is clearly struggling. But in being able to evaluate your own players effectively, with Lamb there has to be a recognition that he still needs to play (possibly not as much as he is, however, right now), because he has some of the most potential on the team to get better by the season's end. Jones and the Wears simply don't have much room to get better, limited by all of the reasons we've discussed.

With Anthony Stover set to return for the Maui Classic, being UCLA's best post defender, he has to play. Perhaps even consider playing both Stover and Smith alongside each other in a zone. Stover has to get a good portion of the Wears minutes.

We truly don't like to be this critical of Howland. We respect him and his coaching. But it's our job description to point out issues like this, and the team has gotten to this point because of a string of very poor decisions over recruiting and then with the team's personnel.

Howland pretty much said in his press conference this week that, after the loss to LMU, it was no time to start making changes. Losing to Middle Tennessee by 20 points? Allowing two opponents to shoot 57% from the field. Starting the season 0-2 for the first time since 2002. And now, going to Maui to possibly play considerably better teams than LMU and MTSU? Some decisive changes seem appropriate. And from his post-game press conference Tuesday you came away with the feeling that Howland is of the mind that he has to make some changes sooner rather than later.

Another takeaway: 2012 recruits are perceiving that there will definitely be immediate playing time available at UCLA next season.


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