UCLA is Better, But Good Enough?

The Bruins looked better in the post-Reeves Nelson era in beating, Penn, 77-74, but the question is: How much upside does this team actually have?

UCLA beating Penn, 77-73, was a very good game to get an accurate assessment of the Bruins in the post-Reeves Nelson era.

This was UCLA playing pretty well, making few mistakes, succeeding in the zone defense it was destined to play…

…And it struggled to beat Penn.

This was, really, two mediocre mid-major teams on display Saturday.

This is the level of UCLA basketball you can expect for the season. Perhaps they'll get a little bit better, but there just isn't very much upside there with the players on the roster.

UCLA did play well, if you compare it to the other 7 previous games this season. It held Penn to 45% shooting, which was below what it had previously been holding teams (56%). It committed just 9 turnovers. Lazeric Jones, who Coach Ben Howland has said is the best player on the team, had one of his best games as a Bruin, scoring 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and went 3-of-3 on three-pointers.

So, settle in, Bruin fans. This is about what you're going to get. A team that plays pretty hard that is very limited in terms of talent, with close games against the likes of Richmond, Oregon State, Washington State, and Arizona State, while they'll be underdogs against Arizona, Washington, Cal and Stanford.

It's curious, because if you assert that UCLA is going to be better than this, you'd have to also assert that UCLA just didn't play very well against Penn, but that wouldn't be accurate.

UCLA's zone defense, which was a long time in coming, was pretty effective. Howland used it for just a few possessions in the first half, but then for the majority of the second half. It was really the catalyst for UCLA making a nice run to begin the second half and go up 60-46 at about the 10-minute mark. The Bruins were getting stops, forcing Penn to take mostly outside jumpers and then getting defensive rebounds, keeping the Quakers to one-shot-and-out.

On the offensive end, UCLA smartened up at the beginning of the second half and tried to get the ball inside to where it had a clear advantage over Penn, with its bigs. When Josh Smith came into the game at the 15:35 mark of the second half, the ball started going through him, and he started converting or going to the foul line.

Up until that point UCLA was maintaining a lead in the game by hitting its outside shots. In the first half it shot 49% from the field and 55% from three, making 6 of 11 of its three-point attempts. More than half of the shots it made (13) were from three (6). Luckily, UCLA was on, with Jones looking like he's far more comfortable now with his outside stroke.

But UCLA clearly played its best – perhaps its best of the season – when it was in the zone on defense and getting the ball inside on offense in the second half. And those two things help each other. UCLA's offense is clearly better when it's getting the ball inside to Smith. It really is the only element of this team, without Nelson, in which it has a talent advantage over its opponents. In the zone, Smith is better protected from fouling and can stay on the court. As soon as UCLA went back to its man for a possession in the second half, Smith went out to hedge a screen and committed a foul. Jones is easily a better defensive player in the zone, looking far more comfortable and even quicker. The fact that he had his best offensive game when UCLA played mostly zone, which keeps him from getting fatigued and having to worry so much about the responsibility of staying in front of the opposing point guard, probably isn't a coincidence.

So, perhaps this UCLA team, without Nelson, has found its identity. First, it looks clear it needs to utilize a zone quite often – not all the time, but for a good portion of the game, to simply be a better defensive team and to help keep Smith on the floor and Jones focused offensively. It needs to get the ball inside, to exploit its one true advantage over its opponents, and that's Smith.

But that leads you to wonder…

Why did it take Howland so long to figure this out?

He said last night in his post-game comments that "zone fits this team." We're not geniuses here at Bruin Report Online, but we figured that out before the season and when I asked Howland about it in pre-season interviews he was indignant. Even the BRO posters, who aren't geniuses either, figured this out. It's amazingly stubborn that it took Howland this long to come around on the zone.

And why did it take so long to figure out that Jones is better in more of a role as a shooting guard than a point guard? He's not a natural point guard and struggles with that role. But let him come around screens, catch and shoot and he's entirely comfortable doing that. Jerime Anderson, more and more, is the playmaker on the team, the guy trying to get the ball inside to UCLA's bigs, and Jones is more of the shooting guard that Howland is running sets for to get open looks. Again, this was pretty obvious heading into the season, and it's amazing that the team had to go 2-5 before it was actually realized on the court.

Why does UCLA have to keep re-learning that it's supposed to get the ball inside to Smith almost every game? It's happened time and time again that UCLA comes out to begin the second half and it looks re-dedicated to getting the ball inside. Howland, obviously, made it a point during halftime in this game, but it's almost strange that it happens so often – that the Bruins can't get it in their collective heads until Howland has their attention at halftime. Or is it that Howland only realizes it himself by halftime? Why aren't they pounding it inside from the outset?

So, since we're doing pretty well at analyzing the team and what needs to happen for it to succeed, we have a few more suggestions.

Free Norman Powell. We realize he might not have been 100% coming off the allergic reaction that put him in the hospital this week, but Powell needs more minutes. He played just 12, hit both of his threes in a pretty rhythm, and plugged into the zone defense well with his length and athleticism. As Smith is UCLA's chance of putting superior talent on the court compared to its opponents, the other guy on the team who gives UCLA that chance, too, is Powell.

Keep giving Smith the ball. Yes, he's still struggling to convert down low and isn't hitting his free throws. It is strange that he's a little bit thinner than he was last season but has less lift. Regardless, he's still UCLA's best chance to have a talent advantage over its opponents. And the more he touches the ball the more comfortable he's going to get. Penn's strategy was to collapse inside and even double Smith when he caught the ball, and that created open looks from the outside, which UCLA converted in this game. Going inside to Smith, or to the Wears, is the way UCLA is going to get perimeter scoring. UCLA certainly doesn't have any guards or wings that are athletic enough to create off the dribble (perhaps Powell, but he's not there yet), and Jones gets into trouble when he attempts it, so UCLA needs open perimeter looks to produce points. Making opposing defenses collapse down on UCLA's bigs is the way the Bruins are going to get those open perimeter looks, and if it can shoot from the outside close to like it did against Penn than it might have an effective inside-outside offense.

Hopefully, too, UCLA will get more out of other players. Besides Smith and Powell, UCLA needs more from Tyler Lamb, who didn't have a good game against Penn but has the potential to be much better, especially with the time he's getting on the court (He played 35 minutes). Anthony Stover is someone else who has some unique talents that could continue to develop, but he's getting very limited minutes, just four against Penn.

So, there is some potential for this team to get better. But, on the other hand, we are obligated to talk about the other side of the equation, too.

Penn wasn't that prepared for UCLA's zone defense, since the Bruins hadn't played it practically at all for most of the season. Future opponents aren't going to be so ill-prepared. In fact, once those smart Ivy Leaguers got enough looks at UCLA's 2-3 zone, they sussed out how to beat it by flashing someone to the high post and going high-low. UCLA should get better at the zone, but there are two elements working against it: 1) How much Howland will really concede that "zone fits this team" and be able to resist his stubbornness to play man and, 2) Future opponents exploiting UCLA's zone, which has to be fairly exploitable compared to other teams that have more elaborate and sophisticated zones and have been working on them since the beginning of the season.

Also, take into consideration that Penn's best player, Zack Rosen, who was averaging over 20 points per game, had a off game, scoring just 8 points on 3-of-12 shooting. It wasn't as if, too, that UCLA's defense put the clamps on him, he just simply looked tight, missing wide open looks.

Smith will have to continue to make strides. Without it, UCLA just isn't very good. Travis Wear (12 and 3) and David Wear (11 and 12) were solid against Penn, but this is about their limit, each playing 30 minutes. The difference-maker, it's a bit worrisome to admit, is Smith. He'll have to continue to mature, get far more relaxed and less prone to stupid fouls, and continue to get better in converting around the basket. If he doesn't get better you pretty much just saw UCLA's ceiling against Penn.

And there is going to be a fatigue question, if Howland continues with this rotation. All five of his starters played over 30 minutes, with Jones getting 36, Lamb 35 and Anderson 33. With Lamb, it looks like it's a case of diminishing returns; the more playing time he's getting will help with getting him experience, but playing him when he's fatigued will render him ineffective and get him into bad habits. When De'End Parker returns it will help, but Howland needs to utilize Powell, Stover and even Brendan Lane, if for no other reason then to keep the starters better rested. At this rate, it's scary to envision how worn down and beat up the starters will be in the second half of the Pac-12 season.

So, while the Penn game did give us a fairly accurate glimpse of this UCLA team without Reeves Nelson, if this is the top end, the ceiling, the Bruins are in trouble. Some things are going to have to happen – like Smith playing 28 minutes per game and Powell blowing up – for the Bruins to get significantly better.

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