All it took this year was a trip to paradise.
UCLA loss to Michigan, 79-63, to finish off a devastatingly disappointing performance in the Maui Invitational, and we now feel we're completely clued in to accurate expectations for the season.
The team will undoubtedly get better as the season progresses.
But the issue is they're pretty bad to begin with and they'll only improve to mediocrity.
Now, when I first watched this team lose to those two mid-majors to start the season, I thought, "Yeah, but luckily the Pac-12 is seriously bad, and it will effectively render the season not nearly as disastrous as it could be. Even playing like the Bruins currently are, they are still better than probably 9 of the other 11 teams in the Pac-12."
But now, I'm not so sure. This team has lost soundly to mid-majors, and got torched by high-majors. Every team in the Pac-12 is in that range, so this year's Bruins have a very grave challenge ahead of them to keep this season from spiraling out of control and becoming a complete disaster.
How can it be done?
As we've been maintaining for a while, Ben Howland is going to have to make some changes. Right now, watching Michigan, you get the sense that he's grasping at straws, trying to find a spark somewhere, and it's nowhere to be found. But what's significant about the fact that he's grasping at straws is that it's an indication he really doesn't know what to do to make this team better.
The season will depend on whether Howland can find out what that is. Right now, he's probably predominantly of the mindset that they have to keep working and getting better, to become a better man defensive team and a better executing offensive team. And that's true, as I've said, they will probably get incrementally better at both as the season progresses.
But that's not going to be good enough.
Something far more profound than the old coaching axiom of "working hard to get better" is going to have to happen.
From my perspective in remotely analyzing this team from my armchair, it seems pretty evident, but it's something that goes against every fiber of Howland's being.
He's going to have to play a zone.
Here are all the supporting reasons why:
Right now, a zone couldn't be any worse than UCLA's man defense. It's not as if you'd really lose a couple more games because of a drop-off in defensive effectiveness by developing a zone. What more games are you going to lose when you're 0-4 (we don't count beating D-2 Chaminade)? Is there any way a zone could have allowed Michigan to shoot any better than 62% from the floor? UCLA is allowing its D-1 opponents to shoot 57% from the field so far this season. If UCLA allowed 57% for the entire season in 2010-2011, it would be the worse defensive field goal percentage in the country -- by a long shot. . The 335th-ranked team in the nation, which is last in Division 1, for defensive field goal percentage last season, DePaul, allowed 50.1%.
Easily the best offensive team UCLA can put on the court includes Josh Smith. When he's getting touches in the post is the only time UCLA's offense has a sense of purpose and is consistently effective. He not only can score when he posts up but, as it was evident against Michigan, is a great passer out of the post. The offense needs to flow through him.
Smith, though, has a hard time staying on the court for a number of reasons: 1) his conditioning, 2) he's prone to fouling, and 3) he's terrible defensively. He very well could be in worse condition this season than he was when he started his freshman season a year ago. And defensively, it's almost as if he's had a mind wipe and he's lost everything he learned last season. He's seriously at square one. He is killing the team defensively every time the player he's defending sets a screen. Last year he started out hedging off the screen, and then got better as the season went on because he plugged off the screen. Right now, he's not doing either.. He lazily can't even plug. It could be that he's in worse condition and just can't move to the spot. Regardless of what it is, it's killing the team. It's killing UCLA's only chance at having an effective offense because for every good offensive possession UCLA gets because he's on the court, it's negated by at least one bad defensive trip because he's on the court.
Okay, so all you basketball geniuses out there, what do you do when you have a big man that is key to your offense who is foul prone, tires easily and doesn't get how to defend off a screen?
And look at all the other reasons a zone fits this year's UCLA team. UCLA simply isn't very quick. Its big and long. Allf of its posts are slow and struggle to defend. Its perimeter defenders have a difficult time staying in front of dribble drivers. Its biggest defensive liability is that every single player, just not Smith, doesn't know how to defend off a screen. It really is uncanny. (Digressing here a bit, could it be that Howland's defensive tactics to defend screens are just too complicated and they're confusing the players? I've never seen a team struggle this much defending screens, and that includes the miserable 2009-2010 Bruins.) Every single element of this team screams out for a zone.
I blame myself partially for Howland being so reticent about using a zone. In one of the pre-season interviews, I asked him if, given his personnel, he was going to install a zone defense from the outset. He looked at me indignantly and said, "No, we won't play a zone." Now, most college coaches – heck, most people -- can be contrary. If you suggest one thing they'll go contrary to try to prove they know more than you do. Howland can definitely be Coach Contrary. So, I blame myself partially for Howland not going to a zone, because I think my suggestion only stubbornly dug him in deeper to his man-defense convictions. I'm only half-heartedly joking.
Then, Howland is simply going to have to discover what players should get the most playing time. Again, it seems pretty evident to everyone watching the team. But it's obviously not obvious to Howland. UCLA actually looked like it could play with Michigan when it had Smith, Reeves Nelson, Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell on the court together. Anthony Stover, who conspicuously played only four minutes, should be the first post off the bench, because he'd easily be the most effective post in the zone. But he played four minutes against Michigan and that looks unlikely to happen anytime soon. Travis and David Wear, who have been averaging 60 minutes combined, should then be next in line to provide the bigs some rest. Even when Travis Wear was UCLA's leading scorer, getting 16 points against Michigan, it was overly abundant that he was a negative sum game when he's playing. The Wolverine he was most responsible for guarding was Zack Novak, a guy who looks like he should be playing in your local rec league. Novak is a senior and has never in any season averaged in double digits, but he went off for a career high against Wear, scoring 22 points. The Wears are a massive defensive liability, and they stop down UCLA's offense – unless the ball is flowing through Smith and the Wears can play off him. They looked the best offensively when they caught a Smith pass out of the post. Lazeric Jones, who has been miserable so far this season, clearly should be a sub off the bench.
As we've discussed endlessly, it's a longshot that Howland will make these personnel changes. He's married to the Wears and to Jones.
But if something isn't done, UCLA could very well have one of its worst seasons in its history. And it will have an asterisk by it, to denote that it should have been worse because the Pac-12 was so bad.
So far, it's easily one of the worst starts to a season in UCLA basketball history. UCLA started 1-4 in 1987, in Walt Hazard's last season, when the team eked out a 16-14 record. You then have to go back to 1944, when Wilbur Johns was coaching, to find the next worst start to a season, when the Bruins began 1-7. But that would be counting the game against D-2 Chaminade as a win. If you throw that out, and just look at seasons that UCLA began 0-4, you have to go back to 1940, and Wilbur Johns again, when UCLA started 0-8. Other than that, there is no other season in UCLA's history when they've began the season 0-4. For you liberal arts majors, that was 71 years ago.
Even if you think UCLA will salvage its season, and you think this team isn't one of the worst in UCLA's history, you have to admit that, to even be able to dust off these comparisons, something is wrong. As we said in the Kansas review, there appears to be a disconnect in the program, that the players aren't buying in. To indeed salvage the season, Howland will not only have to make some decisive changes defensively and in his personnel choices. But he'll also have to succeed in winning over the players and getting them to re-commit to the team, the program and to him.