For one half.
So it's far too premature to get excited, or to think that the team has turned the corner. UCLA played one good half in its first six, and it did it against a fatigued, not-very-talented D-2 team.
I know, most UCLA fans are compelled to cling to the second half of the Chaminade game like a hobo to the bottle in that paper bag.
But it's more than likely going to be a very long haul this season, one that probably takes a considerable blow against Kansas tonight in the semi-final of the Maui Invitational.
What's interesting about looking at the positives and negatives from Monday night is that there were some things that came to light that you think could very well be the keys to this team's season. But they are things that you, on the other hand, feel Ben Howland is going to have a difficult time instituting.
Most of the keys have to do with personnel.
It just doesn't seem coincidental that UCLA was considerably better once Reeves Nelson played in the second half, and Travis Wear played less. After watching Nelson for two years, and watching his inconsistency, lack of effort on defense, and general moodiness, it's uncanny to actually say that. Despite all of Nelson's flaws, he is a talented player that does bring that extra degree of talent to the court. But it's also beyond just an upgrade in talent; Like it or not, Nelson has become the defining influence on the current UCLA program. It's like he's done a Vulcan Mind Meld with the program, and it can't shake loose of him. "I can't quite you." Even if sometimes he brings negative energy to the floor, sometimes it's also productive energy, and this UCLA team clearly rides his emotional roller coaster along with him.
It might very well come down to just rebounding, actually. Nelson got 5 rebounds in the second half – and five defensive rebounds. Those are five Chaminade possessions that ended when Nelson hauled in the board. It's clear that the biggest problem for this team so far this season – among many – has been its defense, and its inability to get a couple of stops. Heck, just one stop. Those five defensive rebounds by Nelson are five stops that UCLA wouldn't have gotten. There is no other post player on the team that is a good rebounder, and certainly not a good defensive rebounder. Without Nelson, opposing teams get second and third chances.
Offensively, Nelson didn't do much, with just 1 point in his 11 minutes, but he does bring a toughness to the offensive side of the court, and opposing teams have to recognize that he's an offensive threat, pulling defenders off other potential scorers. It wasn't coincidental that UCLA's shooting sparked up in the second half, going 6-for-11 on three-pointers in the second half, as opposed to 3-for-14 in the first. Now, of course, this isn't all due to Nelson's presence. UCLA actually looked like it finally got comfortable shooting the ball. But one of the reasons was that most of the shots came from wide open looks, and the distraction of Nelson being in the game contributed to those wide open looks.
It's also a matter that there was less Wear on the court. David Wear was hurt and didn't play, and then Travis Wear played just 10 minutes in the second half. Without them, there was a considerable increase in athleticism, rebounding and toughness on the court. We hate to hate on the Wears so much so early in the season, but it's vastly evident that they, for the most part, are limiting the team when they're in the game. Having Anthony Stover in the game instead, or Norman Powell in a three-guard lineup, is a vast upgrade. If you stepped back from your television and just got an overall impression of the team with Stover and Powell, it'd be: far more quickness. Stover, while he was a bit rusty and hyped up, settled down in the second half, but still brought energy and a huge defensive upgrade to the court. Powell is simply UCLA's best athlete, and it wasn't coincidental that the Bruins struggled in the first half when Powell had just about 8 minutes, but played 11 in the second half. If you're a knowledgeable UCLA fan, you were holding your breath after Powell missed his first shot, anticipating the quick yank. As we said above, it's going to be interesting to see if Howland will play Stover and Powell more, and can get over his man-crush on the Wears and recognize this. The Wears should be played as if they are one player, and a sub off the bench, getting a combined 18 minutes per game or so. But I just can't see Howland coming to terms with that. Perhaps the Wears are pressing, having sat out for so long, and they are much better – closer to the players Howland said they were in practice for the last year. But at this time they just can't get 60 minutes between the two of them like they were in the first two games. They need to be under stringent playing time restrictions until they can start playing like the guys Howland described in practice. But again, we tend to think that Howland will continue to institute a playing time restriction on Stover and Powell rather than the Wears.
We said after the Middle Tennessee game that Tyler Lamb needs to continue to get many minutes, that he has some of the most upside on the team and that a good amount of minutes now is like investing in the team's future in February. Well, February came a little early, with Lamb playing perhaps his best game as a Bruin against Chaminade, and being perhaps UCLA's best player in the game. He scored 15 points, with 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 beautiful steals. He also played considerably better defense than in his two previous outings. Now, of course, take into consideration this was against Chaminade, but Lamb looked far better in being able to stay in front of the ball. We're not naïve to think that Lamb will now play like this every night. A player's development is always a couple of steps forward and then a step backward, and we expect there to be more steps backward along the way, but this was definitely a step forward for Lamb.
Jerime Anderson has to be on the court. Preferably at point guard, but heck, we'll take him anyway we can get him. And it's not that Anderson is spectacular, by any means, but he is definitely among the best options on this year's Bruin team. He had a career high 18 points, and hit 4 of 6 from three. In the first half, when the rest of the team was a collective ice cube shooting the ball, shooting 0-for-11 from three, he made UCLA's three three-pointers. There are just so many other things, too, that Anderson does well as a point guard that the team needs to be effective offensively, and he's a better on-ball defender than Lazeric Jones.
Jones, thankfully, came out of his funk in the second half. He ended the game with a game-high 19 points, with 12 of those coming in the second half. He also had 6 rebounds (five of those defensive), with 7 assists against just 2 turnovers. But it was after a pretty poor first half, where he air-balled two three-pointers, and played out of control offensively and out-of-sync defensively. It's not coincidental that Jones came alive after Anderson had to play so many more minutes (because of David Wear and De'End Parker being out). A couple of times in the second half, Anderson had the ball in his hand and waved off Jones – meaning: "I'll take the point guard duties. You just go over to the wing and look pretty." With Anderson taking over some of the burden of point guard, Jones can play more naturally as a shooting guard, and then, more relaxed, even his better point-guard abilities come out.
Josh Smith, liked he's been while at UCLA, only scratched the surface of the impact he could have on the court. He played just 22 minutes, limited by his conditioning, scored 12 points and had 8 rebounds, but still didn't assert himself enough on the offensive side. Chaminade had no one who could stay with Smith physically, and Smith should have been posting up on every offensive trip down the court and scored 30.
But again, we think the second half was a bit of fool's gold. Chaminade shot 40% in the first half and then 20% in the second half, and yeah, UCLA played better defense in the second half, but not that much better defense. Chaminade just plainly looked fatigued and looked off in its shooting.
And then on the other end of the court, Chaminade's defense got very sloppy. Its zone was severely handicapping UCLA's offense in the first half, collapsing down on Smith so he couldn't even touch the ball. UCLA never flashed a player to the high post to open up the middle, but mostly kept its second post player along the baseline, further muddying up the space around the basket and making it difficult for Smith to work. So, what did UCLA do in the first half to try to offset Chaminade's zone? Instead of spacing out and then flashing to the high post and trying to get Smith looks down low, it shot threes. As I said, besides Anderson's three made three-pointers in the first half, the team went 0-for-11. It completely settled on jumpers against Chaminade's zone, and it didn't seem like the UCLA coaches were that adamant against it.
This isn't going to get it done against a real team – like the one UCLA faces tonight.
And there are just far too many things to list in terms of what's wrong with UCLA's defense. Chaminade was a drive-and-kick team, and even with D-2 athletes UCLA's defenders couldn't stay in front of the ball in the first half. Thankfully, all that running around got Chaminade tired in the second half and they started settling for bad jumpers. And UCLA's other defensive bugaboo under Howland in the last three seasons – an inability to defend a simple screen -- was very evident again. UCLA's bigs don't seem to know if they should hedge or plug, so they're doing both halfway. Then UCLA's guards don't know whom to pick up off the screen. And then, there's UCLA's third bugaboo – poor rotations. And let's add a fourth bugaboo to the bugaboo list – a problem with being able to pick up opposing players in transition.
Again, that's just not going to get it done. It ended up well against an average and fatigued D-2 team for one half.
Perhaps the second half against Chaminade gave the Bruins a feeling of getting into the groove, the right groove. Hopefully it didn't give them false hope, and a feeling that they've turned a corner, and that they'll then fall into complacency and be exposed on national television against Kansas tonight.