Since UCLA went on a 5-0 winning streak against some pretty bad teams, everyone has been contemplating just how good (or bad) this team is.
You now pretty much have your answer. UCLA lost to an entirely average Stanford team, 60-59, Thursday, in a game that illustrated just about every aspect – good and bad – about this team.
These are your 2011-2012 UCLA Bruins.
On one hand, as we suspected, the team isn't very good. It's going to make for some pretty frustrating games to watch in the Pac-12.
On the other hand, though, if Stanford is one of the best teams in the conference, UCLA has a chance to make a run at the Pac-12 Championship. To put it in its proper perspective: UCLA lost on the road against one of the best teams in the conference – by just a point – and was very capable of winning the game. Realistically, this probably makes UCLA one of the top four teams in the conference.
How's that for positive spin?
As an analyst, you're always looking for a game that really illustrates so many of the points you've been trying to make, and this was the poster-boy game for it.
Let's first start with the players.
Without Lazeric Jones' ability to score, UCLA wouldn't have even been in this game. He scored a career-high 26 points – and that's 26 of UCLA's total of 59 points. He was 4-of-6 from three, while the rest of the Bruins were 0-for-9. It's abundantly clear that this team struggles to score and without Jones' ability to put the ball in the basket the Bruins wouldn't come within 20 points of their opponents. He is such a better and more productive player since he's been playing more with a two-guard mentality. But, of course, Jones has his drawbacks, and it entirely stems from him getting overly confident and out of control, making bad decisions and attempting to do things he simply can't. There were stretches in this game when he would force things – drives and shots – and he was hurting as much as helping the team. And then, of course, there was the last play of the game, in which Jones went 1-on-3 with at least two teammates having wide open looks. At times, you can see Jones' confidence surge, and then you can also see it bubble over into over-confidence and hubris. He's, of course, much better than he was at the beginning of the season, and without him UCLA wouldn't have an offense. But his play leads you to ponder just how much more of a positive influence he'd be if he could limit even more the out-of-control element of his game.
Tyler Lamb struggled for most of the game, but then surprisingly was the man in crunch time, making two key floaters in the lane down the stretch to keep UCLA in it. He did, though, miss four wide-open three-point attempts, which came at times when UCLA could have really made a considerable run against the Cardinal and surge ahead, but were back-breaking misses. It's clear that Lamb has the potential to be a good player – potentially an all-conference type down the road – but it's a matter of him playing through his inexperience.
Josh Smith had a typical game for him, finishing with 10 points and 6 rebounds in 20 minutes, and fouling out with a few minutes remaining in the game. It's really simple when analyzing Smith: He's immature. He does some things on the court, like throwing inappropriate elbows or getting called for stupid fouls, that stem mostly from an inability to maintain his composure. His inability at times to score in the post also looks like immaturity, just a lack of savviness in going up around the basket. You could point to immaturity for the reason that Smith is in his physical condition. He, again, though, was really the only element of this game between UCLA and Stanford that had any elite potential. There probably isn't one other player on the floor (except for maybe a couple of green freshmen) who have NBA-level potential. It's abundantly clear every time Smith either does something productive or something unproductive that he's the key to UCLA's season. He's the only aspect of this team, truly, that will make it superior to its generally average Pac-12 opponents.
After a game like Travis Wear and David Wear had against Stanford, it's just not comfortable to even criticize. It was clear, like we've been maintaining, that the Wears are out of their league when playing against this level of talent – which, again, is an entirely average high-major team in Stanford, with very pedestrian bigs. The Wears just don't have the talent or athleticism to succeed at that level.
Which leads us to the UCLA big that does – Anthony Stover. When Stover was in the game it was when UCLA played its best, since he brings an element to UCLA's zone defense that is probably the only other aspect of the team other than Josh Smith that has elite potential. But we'll get to Stover later.
Jerime Anderson was his typical self, shooting 2 for 9 and missing some key shots during critical stretches, and making some head-scratching plays at times. But he also was a key force in UCLA's first-half run, creating turnovers and making plays on the offensive end that jumpstarted UCLA. At this point, with Anderson being a senior, it's probably too much to ask that we get the Better Anderson more often than the Head-Scratching Anderson, but when he's the Better Anderson he really is the force that makes the team function well.
Norman Powell, perhaps the only other player on this team that has elite potential, played 17 minutes and never really got in the flow, looking a bit overwhelmed in his first Pac-12 road game. He did, though, show those elite-potential signs, like during one sequence when he was the only Bruin to actually be able to stay in front of his man when playing man defense.
So, now on to the coaching.
It was a game in which you could find much wrong with it. UCLA got down 6-13 in the first 6 minutes of the game due entirely to the fact that it was playing man defense. In the last 14 minutes of the first half, when it switched to its zone, UCLA "won," 17-11. It's difficult to understand why Ben Howland would use the incredibly poor man defense and get UCLA in such a hole to begin the game. It's not as if the zone is going to be sprung on Stanford as a surprise. It's not as if UCLA really has a chance of moving between man and zone effectively, since it's pretty much proven out that the man, if played beyond a possession here or there, will make UCLA one of the worst teams in the conference. Did he use it for the first 6 minutes merely because there is some miniscule hope that Howland is clinging to that the man D might be effective? It clearly was the reason UCLA lost this game. It clearly put UCLA in a hole it just couldn't ever climb out of, having 8 chances to take the lead over the Cardinal after the zone allowed the Bruins to climb back in, but not having enough to make it over the hump. What if UCLA had played the zone from the beginning and didn't have to "get over the hump?" If man defense, perhaps, kept players fresher we could understand, but a man D tires out players quicker, and makes foul-prone bigs more vulnerable to fouls. Then, down the stretch, after the zone defense had gotten UCLA back in this game, Howland returned to the man, almost like Howland doesn't still trust the zone, even though it's clearly the #1 element of this team that has made it even remotely competitive this season. With the Bruins down 57-58 and 1:25 left in the game, a not-quick Aaron Bright took Jones, who isn't a great man defender and at this point in the game very tired (playing 38 minutes in this game) off the dribble with ease. Josh Smith had to step over to help and fouled Bright, which anyone could have predicted would happen – with it being Smith's fifth foul. This has to be one of the most inexplicable times to ever opt for the man D, when the only real talent advantage you have on the floor, your center, has four fouls.
Then, in any discussion of the coaching, you have to raise the issue of timeout management. Howland, in his inimitable style, burned through his timeouts, and didn't have one to call before UCLA's last possession of the game. You'd have to say it was a huge contributing factor to Jones making the bad decision on that last play.
Then, there is determination of playing time. We've been maintaining all year that Stover needs to get Wear minutes, and this was a game where it was abundantly evident. Stover played 7 minutes, and those 7 minutes were when UCLA played its best and made its first-half run that got the Bruins back in the game. He's a defensive force that has a chance to be one of the few elite strengths of the team and, after the game that the Wears had, it's clear that Stover needs to get on the court. The Wears, between the two of them, played 55 minutes. And then there's Brendan Lane, who played for one possession, ran up the court, and then was taken out. Lane, at the very least, is a better athlete than either Wear and could add a more athletic dimension to the zone. When the Wears combine for such a poor game you'd think that Lane, at least, deserves more of a chance.
So, it was a game that really illustrated everything we've been emphasizing this season about this team. It also clearly showed what level this team is and, really, what level the Pac-12 is.
Everything is relative, though. As we said, UCLA playing one of the best teams in the conference close on their home floor is a good sign for the conference race. You just need to disregard the level of play in this game, and perhaps imagine those halcyon days of Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute going up against the Lopez twins, Lawrence Hill and Anthony Goods. Those were the days, so long ago (your kids probably don't even remember), when the Pac-12 was good, first-round draft picks battled it out epically, and UCLA was a titan of college basketball.