Sure, UCLA played considerably better. It was UCLA's best defensive performance, holding Pepperdine to 31% shooting for the game. It was probably the best combined performance by David Wear and Travis Wear. Lazeric Jones actually had a good stat line of 14 points, 4 assists and 6 steals.
But it could very well be fool's gold.
Pepperdine was clearly a bad team, easily the worst UCLA has played against yet this season, and that includes Chaminade and the exhibition game against Cal State San Bernardino. What's really the most promising takeaway for UCLA from this game is that this horrible Pepperdine team actually beat Arizona State. Those are two conference games Bruin fans can safely put in the win column.
The Bruins right now have a strange dynamic going on. Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson, the two guys who were considered to be the primary stars of the team heading into the season, got 12 and 10 minutes in this game. Yes, they were both in foul trouble in the first half, but not really in the second half. Nelson ended the game with the two fouls he got in the first half.
Based on no inside information at all, it appears that Head Coach Ben Howland is trying to make a statement, to both Smith and Nelson. If true, we have to admire the move, playing the lesser-talented but harder-playing guys more. It's something that has been a longtime in coming. And it took the two Wear brothers, who Howland clearly loves, for the coach to be able to do it.
Nelson's body language wasn't good. His shoulders were slumped and he looked disengaged. It's hard to tell if this is the subdued Nelson trying to keep his emotions in check or if he's checked out. Regardless, this version of Reeves Nelson clearly can't get into the flow of the game to be consistently effective. He finished with 2 points and 2 rebounds. Is Howland giving Nelson so few minutes and having him come off the bench a message to the volatile player that he's not going to kick him off the team but he wouldn't mind if he quit?
Smith looks more like he's trying to work his way into more playing time, but looks out-of-sync and still very undisciplined. At one point in this game when Smith picked up two fouls in the first half in about 30 seconds, Jones was giving him a lecture on the sideline about how now to get called for fouls, and it looked a little salty. The fact that Smith has apparently regressed from last season, and isn't even as effective as he was at the beginning of his freshman year, is, well, very strange. It's not all conditioning. There has to be something going on mentally that has kept Smith from progressing – a lack of focus, perhaps.
So, Smith and Nelson might be relegated to essentially being subs. If that's the case, and both Wears are awarded starter's minutes, the question is: Can UCLA win at the level it needs to for it be a successful season? If every opponent were Pepperdine (or, apparently, ASU) it'd be fine. The Wears did well against Pepperdine. They were efficient on the offensive end, and much improved defensively. I don't think I noticed either Wear playing the small forward position – or defending the small forward position – and that had a huge impact on UCLA's defense. Both Wears, playing either the 4 or the 5 spot, were able to defend their opponent. The Wears' defensive effectiveness was what sent UCLA over into the category of a good defensive performance. They showed clearly the best grasp of being able to hedge a screen that any UCLA big has shown yet this season. They were much improved in their defensive rotations. But again, the grain of salt. It was against a very bad Pepperdine team. The Waves don't have anyone who presented any kind of athletic or size match-up problem for the Wears. They, realistically, found the level in which they are effective – matching up against mid- to low-major posts. So, then, will UCLA be able to match up athletically and talent-wise against the better teams in the Pac-12 with the Wears getting the majority of the minutes at the 4 and the 5? I'd have to say no, at this point, based on the talent and athleticism they've displayed in UCLA's first 6 games.
The guys who, then, could very well be sitting on the bench, Nelson and Smith, do have that level of talent.
Quite a dilemma. And one that will be very interesting to observe just how Howland is going to navigate through it. Howland has a history of ultimately playing the guys he feels he needs to win. When UCLA does play against Cal, Washington, Arizona and Stanford – or even Oregon or Oregon State – will Howland stick with the Wears? This is a different situation than we've seen previously, with Nikola Dragovic or Tyler Honeycutt, for example, when he didn't have other players he personally favored more as options like the Wears. Now he's willing to use the bench as a motivator.
It definitely helped UCLA's defense – mostly because, with the limited playing time of Nelson and Smith, Howland didn't feel pressed to get the Wears on the court alongside Nelson and Smith. He actually played guards and wings at the 1, 2 and 3 spots, and that dramatically helped UCLA stay in front of its opponents. So, now the real dilemma becomes more in focus. If Howland favors playing the Wears, and now realizes they have to play either the 4 or 5 spots, then there just isn't going to be enough playing time to go around for Smith, Nelson and even Anthony Stover, and certainly Brendan Lane. Instead of Howland opting for a zone, which might have been able to defensively accommodate two among Smith, Nelson and Stover and a then a Wear on the court at the same time, it looks like Howland opted to merely play the Wears at the 4 and the 5 exclusively, and give out the remaining back-up minutes at those positions to Smith, Nelson and Stover.
If that's how it's going to be for the season that's deserving of another "wow."
In the backcourt, Jones, even though his stats improved and you might think he played well defensively because of the 6 steals, he really didn't. He looked slow and lethargic defensively, half-heartedly pushing through screens, and taking a few moments to get moving to get back in transition. Luckily, again, Pepperdine wasn't very good and really didn't have any guards capable of exploiting Jones. We're still going to have to retain a very healthy amount of skepticism about Jones, and whether he deserves to play 31 minutes like he did against Pepperdine, especially once De'End Parker returns.
Or why Jones should be getting more minutes that Norman Powell who, again, displayed some considerable athleticism, talent and upside. He scored 10 points, hit two three-pointers, had an athletic block and impressively blew by a couple of defenders on a break to throw it down himself. He, most importantly, has the athleticism to potentially be very good defensively, and to match up against opponents who do have a higher level of athleticism. When you watch Powell, and get a feel for the level of his athleticism, you realize that he's the type of athlete that UCLA should have at every position on the court – in the backcourt and frontcourt. And realize this, too: UCLA came very close to not taking Powell because he wasn't a good shooter. And you can bet that perhaps the biggest reason he played 23 minutes and will probably play more is because he made those two three-pointers.
The Pepperdine game, more than anything, presented more potential dilemmas for Howland than it did answers. And it completely made the season and this team far more interesting. Interesting in a way that it's something you now want to watch even more to see how it will turn out. Will Howland stick with the Wears? Will it lead him to a moment when he realizes he needs the more superior talent of Nelson and Smith on the floor? How will Nelson and Smith deal with back-up-level minutes? Will Stover be satisfied with a few minutes per game or sense that he'll never get playing time from the Wears? Will the Wears being favored by Howland cause chemistry issues? Tune in next time for another episode of How the Bruin Turns…