UCLA Finally Finding Itself

The Bruins do some things they should have done a long time ago, like use a zone, and play their best game of the season in beating Richmond, 71-63...

UCLA beating Richmond, 71-63, was easily UCLA's best win of the season.

It wasn't really pretty. And UCLA still has a huge array of issues.

But it was UCLA's first win against a team with a winning record (Richmond is now 7-6), and the Spiders weren't a cupcake.

They weren't a tournament team, by any means, but they weren't a cupcake either.

The pre-conference schedule is now over, and it pretty much took the entire 12 games for the Bruins to discover who they are, who they aren't, and what they need to do to be successful.

On one hand, you have to give Ben Howland credit for turning it around. Well, maybe we shouldn't actually use that phrase: "turning it around." It implies that UCLA is now on the road to success, which is completely uncertain. But the team definitely did change direction in going 5-0. So, you have to give Howland credit for stabilizing the team and doing what it takes to change direction.

On the other hand, though, much of that direction change, as was evident in this game, are based on things that were fairly obvious at the beginning of the season, given the personnel Howland had. We at Bruin Report Online, and just about anyone else with a little bit of basketball acumen, recognized that this team would need to play a zone, but Howland stubbornly couldn't see it until almost 10 games into the season, and didn't play it extensively until the Richmond game. It was clear that there was no way David Wear could defend the small forward position, but Howland doggedly tried to make it work, to the point that D. Wear was unfairly getting killed at the spot. We saw that Jerime Anderson needed to play and be the primary play-maker, and Lazeric Jones is so much more suited to play off the ball. We said from the outset of the season that Tyler Lamb needed to play through his inexperience, and that Norman Powell was a potentially immense talent that needs to play.

We recognized a couple of years ago that Reeves Nelson was subtraction by addition, and his talent wasn't worth the chemistry-killing.

The question is, really, and it has to be asked: Why did it take Howland so long to recognize all of this?

We're not going to get into trying to answer that question. But that all needed to be said.

Against Richmond, the zone-appropriate Bruins finally used it for significant minutes, and it easily was the difference in the game. It's not really a fantastic 2-3, and there are some considerable holes in it. But it clearly is the defense most suited for UCLA's personnel and enables them to be the most effective defensively as a team. It does one primary thing: with UCLA's size and length, it takes away easy scores around the basket, because UCLA's bigs fill up the lane and end up contesting anything that goes up. It takes away all of the issues these Bruins have with defending screens, plugging or hedging, and staying in front of the ball. It naturally, because it's a zone, has players in position to provide help defense, rather than expecting defenders to come out of their man defense and provide it.

What was perhaps most encouraging about it is that, once Richmond realized UCLA was sticking with the zone about halfway through the first half, Richmond's coach, Chris Mooney attempted to adjust, which was the smart thing to do, but his adjustments were ineffective. He tried to spread the floor and flash a player to the top of the key, creating a great deal of space for some dribble penetration, but once anyone got into the paint, UCLA's long bigs generally shut it down. Even when Richmond moved the ball well around the zone and then got a look on the block, UCLA's bigs were there to contest or block the shot. Richmond's only success was occasionally creating an open look from the outside, which is going to happen in a zone, but the looks weren't consistent, and it wasn't near enough for Richmond to score enough points to win the game.

UCLA started off the game in a man D, got torched by Richmond's better athletes, and was down 5-14 in the first 7 minutes or so. Howland then instituted the zone, and the game changed. UCLA started getting stops, and not just an occasional one, but seemingly on just about every Richmond possession. UCLA went on a 7-0 run, and then the two teams exchanged a couple of baskets, but then UCLA went on another 10-0 run and took the lead 22-21, and the teams were tied 24-24 at the half. With the zone now withstanding Richmond's adjustments, the Bruins went on a 7-0 run to start the second half, and then never trailed the rest of the way, relying on the zone to carry them.

In fact, UCLA had a chance to really blow open the game because of the effectiveness of the zone, but squandered it. While it was getting stops on the defensive end, UCLA's offense couldn't take enough advantage and was bogged down for a good portion of the first half and some of the second. If, during those two initial runs in the first half, UCLA's offense had been executing just decently, it would have probably had a double-digit lead at the half.

Many people will conclude that Anderson was UCLA's most effective player in this game, and it's true, but those might be some of the same people who were quick to condemn him in other games when he didn't score as much. He did have 13 points, but Anderson, in this game and in others, does so many things that UCLA needs to be successful – so many point guard-related things that the offense needs to function, and he shouldn't just be recognized in this game because he scored. Against Richmond he had 6 assists, and was the catalyst down the stretch in the second half to UCLA converting offensively, setting up and creating for his teammates and finding them with very good, solid passes for easy scores.

D. Wear and his brother, Travis Wear, too had good games. On offense, it was to a great extent because they are now playing well off Anderson. D. Wear had 12 points and T. Wear had 14, and much of those points came off looks they created from good movement and Anderson having the point-guard vision to recognize it and find them. Defensively, the Wears look like they're completely at home in the zone, clogging the lane, tipping away passes and blocking shots. What is going to be key for them in the Pac-12 is their rebounding. They had 7 and 4 against Richmond, which got it done against Richmond, but isn't going to be enough to be successful in the conference. They're rebounding better on the defensive end since they're closer to the basket in the zone, and they seem to be building confidence on their offensive rebounding, which is key in getting them easy put-back points.

Jones is a different player since he's been generally relieved of point guard duties and is able to think and play more like a two guard. It's not coincidental that his shot is now going down consistently, and he's much more under control when he drives into the lane. Jones, too, is showing an ability to rebound, which he wasn't able to exploit playing point guard, coming away with 6 boards against Richmond, to go along with his team-high 16 points.

Lamb and Powell didn't have great stat lines in this one, not like they did against UC Irvine, but they were critical cogs in the win, particularly in the zone, and then also in executing the offense.

Josh Smith is still an enigma. He was greatly ineffective for most of this game, even though he finished with 11 points and 5 rebounds. He is curiously worse than he was last season, which can only be attributed to him not developing since last season and now opponents focusing on him defensively. He has no post moves or post footwork and, because of that, goes up to the basket most of the time off-balance. It's really strange at this point in his career that he's still making basic mistakes, like putting the ball on the floor, or not attempting to dunk it, or even sometimes not using the backboard. He is, though, perhaps the key to the season, as we've said, because he represents the only potential level of talent that other teams just can't match up against. The Pac-12 will easily be able to match up against Jones, Anderson, and the Wears, but they have no answer for an effective Smith.

The other potential key to the season is Anthony Stover. It's clear that UCLA is going to have to rely on its zone defense to have a chance to be successful in the Pac-12. UCLA's zone is the most effective when Stover is in it. He's the primary force inside that alters and blocks shots. When he was on the floor against Richmond is when UCLA's zone actually looked impenetrable during that 10-0 first-half run, and he simply is going to have to get more minutes than the 7 he played Friday night.

Since we've been so good at suggesting some solutions for this team and personnel, here's another: Perhaps play Stover and Smith together. If you're in a zone, there isn't a defensive match-up issue. Stover, then, brings you the defensive strengths that make the zone its most formidable. You then are able to keep Smith on the floor for his potential difference-making on the offensive side of the floor. And this doesn't necessarily mean that you can't play one of the Wears with them. In the 2-3 zone, there probably wouldn't be much of a let down on the perimeter D, and it certainly would give UCLA even more height and length around the basket. This way you're still benefitting from having a Wear on the floor.

UCLA definitely has come a long way since the beginning of the season. You could say that Richmond is comparable to Middle Tennesee State, and UCLA beat Richmond by 8 and kept them to 33% shooting, while UCLA lost to MTSU by 20 and allowed them to shoot 71%. We have to say it: It would have been interesting to see how UCLA would have fared if it had played its zone D against MTSU.

So, now UCLA embarks on the Pac-12 season and, really, anything could happen. The conference is obviously not very good; even its best teams don't look like NCAA Tournament teams. Anything is possible. UCLA could play .500 ball and end up in the middle of the Pac. The Bruins, though, could also finally exploit their advantage – their size – and their zone could be unsolvable by the Pac-12 because of it. Smith could come into his own and fill in that last puzzle piece by providing an offensive presence inside that is also unsolvable for the conference.

At this point, either scenario would surprise.


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