KU Loss Makes the Choices Clear

UCLA mounted a decent comeback only to come up short against #14-ranked Kansas, 72-56, in the Maui Invitational, and there are some controversial personnel decisions...

The loss against Kansas Tuesday night in the semi-final of the Maui Invitational, 72-56, really helped to put this UCLA team into perspective.

It's not because Kansas is that good; they aren't, and they're certainly over-rated ranked the #14 team in the country.

It's because it provided us another, deeper look at UCLA -- and more specifically, the way in which Coach Ben Howland intends to utilize his personnel.

This pretty much says it all: David and Travis Wear combined to play 63 minutes; Anthony Stover and Norman Powell played 3 and 2 minutes. I had to double-take on the box score to let that sink in.

In those 63 minutes, the Wears combined for 6 points and 6 rebounds. It's clear they are Howland's favorites for this season and that Stover and Powell are the guys that get the quick yank after one bad shot. Powell can shoot one errant three, like he did in the Kansas game, and he'll get taken out pretty quickly, but Travis Wear can take bad shot after bad shot, like he did Tuesday, and stay in the game.

With the Wears being Howland's favorites, one of three scenarios can possibly come from it:

-- Howland continues to give the Wears a great deal of playing time, and they come around and show that they're worthy of it.

-- Howland continues to give the Wears a great deal of playing time, and they never really consistently prove they're worthy of it, but Howland stubbornly goes down with their ship(p) this season.

-- The Wears never consistently prove they're worthy of that amount of playing time, and Howland realizes it and cuts back their minutes severely, and the team improves in time to salvage the season.

What's the likelihood of each scenario?

If you go by the precedent in Howland's program, you can expect either scenario #1 or #2 to be the most likely. Howland has done this before, doggedly stuck with a player or players for a season that didn't seem to warrant the amount of playing time they were getting. Never in his history did he go down the #3 scenario route. That's not to say he absolutely wouldn't in this instance, but we'd have to say that scenarios #1 and #2 are far more likely.

Why? Why would Howland doggedly stick with the Wears, or any of his "favorites" in any given season, for that matter? It's not anything sinister. It's because, simply, Howland is convinced that they give him the better option to win. I don't think Howland would play the Wears over Stover and Powell if he actually thought Stover and Powell were better options, and he was just doing it to prove that his hyping of the Wears was justified. I think he truly believes the Wears deserve the playing time. Perhaps he believes his own hype, and has sold himself a bill of goods. But regardless, he's doing it because he believes it gives him his best chance to win.

No matter the reason, the situation has the potential to be a major make-or-break situation for Howland's program. If you throw out scenario #3 as an option, the possibility of either scenario #1 or scenario #2, really, could make or break this year's team and, in doing so, make or break Howland's program. We saw what doggedly sticking with a player like Nikola Dragovic did in the 2009-2010 season; it contributed to one of the worst seasons in UCLA basketball history. But this situation has even more profound implications, because there was only one Dragovic, that was limited to playing about 32 minutes per game. The are two Wears and, when both are healthy, they've combined to average 60 minutes per game. While their games aren't that similar to Dragovic, imagine, though, if Dragovic had a twin and Howland insisted on playing both for a combined 60 minutes. Something like that might beget a season that could rival the 2009-2010 season and, if Howland put up a season like that this year, given the results of the last three seasons, expectations being pretty high for this one, and Howland's credit in the bank diminished, it could be a huge blow to the well-being of his program.

I won't presume to predict that the Wears will prove to be as ultimately detrimental to the team as Dragovic was. While many fans on the BRO message board are second-guessing Howland for playing the twins so much, and we can understand why, given their performance this season to date, we won't even go there in this review. We're merely stating that either the Wears improve dramatically, and prove worthy of their playing time, and UCLA, of course, dramatically improves, or the Wears don't, and the team is destined for a poor season. And given the state of Howland's program, there is a huge amount on the line for Howland.

Make or break.

On one hand, you might take some comfort in the fact that the team made its second-half comeback greatly due to the play of Jerime Anderson, and the fact that he played 38 minutes. You might have been thinking, "Eureka! Howland has finally seen the light and realized that Anderson is the better option at point guard over Lazeric Jones!" After all, Jones returned to his bad version in this game, in every facet. He actually did one good thing we could pull out of the game: in the second half, during UCLA's comeback, with Anderson functioning as the point guard, Jones moved off the ball and Anderson found him with a nice bounce pass for a lay-up. Jones is now shooting 27% from the field for the season. So, if you thought Howland might have seen the light on Anderson/Jones, on the other hand, Anderson getting the bulk of the point guard minutes might have been merely because Jones was in foul trouble. If you're hoping for scenario #3 with the Wears, a good indication of whether that's possible is if Howland budges on his favoritism of Jones and, instead, opts to play Anderson at the point guard spot more than Jones going forward.

But we tend to believe that Howland's favoritism of the Wears is more profound and runs even deeper than what he harbors for Jones. But we'll see.

Howland, though, did show some willingness to change and try alternatives. He used a zone for a couple of possessions in the second half. It was kind of like yanking one of his subs after he misses one shot.

In terms of playing time in the Kansas game, if Howland had just played his "subs" a little more, more than 3 and 2 minutes, the guys he rode in the second half might have had more gas in the tank. So, not only could you make the case that he was riding the wrong guys, if he had just doled out a little more playing time to the guys he thinks are his subs, the game very well might have gone differently down the stretch.

Of course, this isn't all about the Wears. There are plenty of other issues – all the ones we've gone over ad infinitum before. UCLA's defense was horrendous again; it still doesn't seem like the team collectively knows how to defend off a screen, and it's a mess defensively in transition. It might help if players actually hustled back, first off. The team is also collectively so slow defensively that it has to sag off opposing guards, giving guys like Elijah Johnson the chance to go 8 for 13 from the field and 4 for 8 from three and score 23 points, mostly on pretty open outside looks. It's especially at a liability when a Wear is forced to have to guard a guy like the quick, 6-3 Johnson. Jones, particularly, had a very bad defensive game, just seemingly abandoning so many basic fundamentals. You can definitely see an improvement on defense when the team just turns up its intensity a bit; the second-half comeback was due in a large part to UCLA turning up its defensive effort and getting some stops. Offensively, the team still relies far too much on its outside shooting and seems to have a Gap in Knowledge about getting the ball inside to its bigs. Even guys like Anderson and Tyler Lamb, who are UCLA's two best post feeders, had opportunities to feed Josh Smith in the post a couple of times and didn't. And if you're talking about Smith, he is a non-factor so far this season.

And there just generally seems to be – for a lack of a better term -- a collective lack of buying-in. Jay Bilas, the ESPN commentator, said "UCLA…collectively they're missing something. It's just not something you see from Ben Howland-coached teams. He is such an outstanding coach. It's almost like the players are fighting him."

And who's to know whether playing Stover and Powell more would be a key to turning around this team? I won't even presume to assert that UCLA would be that much better with Stover and Powell playing more minutes. If you asked me my opinion, I'd have to confess that, yes, I believe that. But that's irrelevant. And it very well might be incorrect. What's relevant is that it's clear Howland favors the Wears and believes giving them major minutes is integral for the team to be successful, and that's simply not happening right now. They are his horses and, more than likely, he is going to ride them to the finish line.

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