The Bruins beat Eastern Washington, 60-47, but not handily. The Eagles were one decent run away from making it a game for most of the second half.
Just like with Penn, this was UCLA struggling some to put away a mediocre mid-major team.
This looks like what you're going to get this season, Bruin fans.
There are some reasons to hope for better, however. Right now, most of the team is playing fairly poorly. Really, the only player who has put his game together in the last couple of outings is Lazeric Jones. Everyone else is struggling with their own unique monkey-on-their-back.
Thank the Bruin gods that Jones settled down and got his play under control. If he had played in the last couple of games like he did to start the season it's highly likely that UCLA would have lost against Penn and Eastern Washington. So give Jones an enormous amount of credit for putting it together. It's probably not coincidental that Jones settled in once Reeves Nelson was dismissed from the team – probably generally Jones feeling better chemistry and less tension. He has greatly benefitted from Jerime Anderson taking over some of the point guard responsibilities, freeing him up to catch and shoot in rhythm. He's also far more under control driving to the basket, doing so when he seemingly has a seam rather than with no purpose. The first half was a great illustration of Jones's strengths and weaknesses. He hit three three-pointers coming off screens and just being able to catch and shoot. He had a couple of steals by not reaching, like he had done in the first few games of the season. The last sequence before the end of the half was particularly illustrative: On UCLA's last possession, it was a clear-out for Jones, but he turned the ball over on the dribble; EWU then had an inbound and Jones, with good defensive instincts and not reaching, jumped the pass and took it the other way to finish the half with a dunk. It has to be mentioned, however, that playing against Penn and EWU can make you look a little better, when you don't have a high level of athlete guarding you, but still, Jones' turnaround has been key. He finished with a game-high 19 points.
What's curious is that as Jones has started to flourish the other two starting guards haven't. Anderson and Tyler Lamb had held down the backcourt at the beginning of the season when Jones struggled, but they are now struggling. Lamb finished as UCLA's second-leading scorer with 14 points against EWU, and hit a couple of big three-pointers, but he also made a number of bad decisions, in terms of his shot selection and passing. He's still young and inexperienced, and there are times when he catches a ball in the rhythm of the offense and he takes the shot – when it isn't a good shot to take. He's making inexperienced mistakes, like driving the baseline with really nowhere to go early on in the shot clock when UCLA has just an 8-point lead with three minutes left in the game. Compared to earlier in the season, he looks tight and nervous – much like Jones did to start the season. You'd have to think that, for a young, inexperience player who went from getting spotty minutes last season to playing 37 minutes against EWU he's over-taxed at this point.
Anderson has fallen into his lazier type of play that we've seen over his career at UCLA. Lazy passes, reaching on defense, and lack of rhythm and confidence in his shooting, going 1-for-8 in this game. He serves a good purpose being on the court (playing 34 minutes) to merely keep Jones in his more suited role of off-guard, but UCLA is going to need more from him if it hopes to muster even a semi-successful season.
If you're talking about struggling, Josh Smith continued his funk Wednesday night. He played only 19 minutes, mostly due to stupid fouls getting him in foul trouble and keeping him off the court. Smith is, to be candid, showing his immaturity in this regard, committing fouls seemingly because he can't control his emotions. He'll get called for a foul by running into a player, what looked to be intentionally, or reaching in on defense, almost like a kid who can't control himself. As we said, if UCLA is going to improve this season, Smith is the key. There isn't anyone on the team who has his level of talent, which could potentially be dominant in the Pac-12, but he has a short time to get his impetuousness under control before the start of conference play.
Perhaps a way to do that is to, at this time, cut Smith's minutes and increase Anthony Stover's. Yes, Stover doesn't give you the offensive potential of Smith, but he impacts the game in ways Smith doesn't, particularly on the defensive end and in rebounding. Stover's three blocked shots against EWU were big ones, and his presence in the lane, especially when UCLA's in its man defense and really relies on defensive help, was a big factor against Eastern Washington. Stover got 18 minutes in this game, the most he's played in any game this year, while Smith got 19. That's probably the right distribution of minutes until Smith grows up, and it shouldn't happen only because Smith is in foul trouble and – in particular – just because Travis Wear didn't play in this game.
If we're talking about minutes played, our poster boy is Norman Powell. Ben Howland has had a considerable history of head-scratching choices in terms of playing time – giving certain guys who don't deserve it a huge amount of minutes, and other guys getting what seems to be an undeserving few. There have been times in the past, though, you could almost see Howland's reasoning, but with Powell you can't. He's doing everything he needs to do for Howland to give him more playing time, like hitting his shots, not turning the ball over and being sold on defense. Of course, he's making freshman mistakes, like missing some assignments, on both offense and defense. But why do some guys get such a great amount of leeway and others, like Powell, don't? It's clear, though, that Lamb is struggling shouldering the load, especially when he's playing 35+ minutes. It's not as if it's Darren Collison or Arron Affalo in front of Powell. UCLA was down to only 8 scholarship players against EWU. It's truly one of the biggest playing-time head scratchers that Powell can't get more minutes.
It could be, and we're coming more around to this conclusion, that Howland simply designates whom his guys are pretty much at the beginning of the season, and for whatever reason almost entirely sticks with those guys regardless. There have been minor exceptions to the rule, but if you think about it, it does explain Howland's playing time issues. On one side of the coin, it means there are guys like Josh Shipp, Nikola Dragovic, and even Tyler Honeycutt or Reeves Nelson, who deserved less playing time – and on the other hand, there are players who you thought clearly deserved more, like Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday (should we throw Mike Moser in here?) and now, Anthony Stover and Norman Powell. Because of this, Howland will get "credit" when a guy he "stuck with" ended up turning it around a bit. But we're coming to see it's not really that Howland sees it and knows it will happen, because there have been plenty of times when he has doggedly stuck with one of his designated guys and they didn't come around. It's just merely that, in his mind, he has it designated who his guys are that season, and it's close to impossible to shake him of that mindset.
Eastern Washington's coach Jim Hayford did the Bruins a solid Wednesday. He instituted a slow-down tactic, holding the ball in the half-court until there was about 13 seconds left on the shot clock. It was a strange tactical move. Why do this against a team that has been allowing over 70 points per game and arguably isn't any more athletic than you are? It kept UCLA from having to go to its zone, which is what good-shooting EWU would have preferred, right? Having less possessions overall, too, you would think would allow Josh Smith to stay on the floor, since he'd have less chance to foul. It was a really strange tactical choice for Hayford, and EWU, out-of-sync playing in this style, was awful offensively for the first 15 minutes of the game, having to force shots at the end of the shot clock. It gave UCLA a 8-to-12 point cushion that was, really, the difference in the game. UCLA and EWU played fairly evenly the rest of the way.
So, putting it in perspective: UCLA played a team evenly that Washington State blew out by 26 points.
But it's going to be difficult to keep it in perspective over the next week. UCLA now goes from mediocre mid-majors on the schedule to a bad mid- and low-major, playing UC Davis and UC Irvine. Davis is 1-8, having gotten blown out by EWU by 20 points, and Irvine is 2-7. UCLA should destroy both UC schools, and it will project a false sense of improvement. These last two games against Penn and EWU, however, really did provide a realistic insight into UCLA's level, and it's going to need more than a "false sense" of improvement if it wants to compete in the Pac-12.