The Bruins ran out of gas mentally in the second half and the wheels came off the cart.
The Bruins were in the game in the first half, trading punches with Cal, doing it by playing fairly well on the offensive end and trying to at least slow down Cal by alternating between man-to-man and zone defenses on the other end.
Then Cal went on a 10-0 run to start the second half, going up by 11, and the game was pretty much over. The Bears made that run clearly because UCLA started the half with little energy or focus, and Cal was playing like it was the beginning of the game. On offense the Bruins were sloppy, turning over the ball, and defensively they were listless, allowing Cal to get open looks in the halfcourt and an easy lay-up on a break in which UCLA dragged itself back.
Cal played like a team that was well-conditioned, disciplined and focused, and had a desire to win. UCLA, as soon as the second half started, looked like it didn't want to be there, like it was looking for a reason to let up and check out, and it got that out of the way in the first couple of minutes.
Like the Stanford game, Cal was another good measuring stick of just what this UCLA team is this season. Cal, perhaps, is one of the two best teams in the conference, and they're decent, not great, especially without their starting center, Richard Solomon. UCLA, clearly, isn't on the same level. If they're playing well, and getting a career game out of one of its players (Tyler Lamb), they can hang with the likes of the Bears for about a half, but then the odds go against them, and sooner or later the fact that they clearly aren't as good as the Bears in just about every facet of the game is going to overtake them. They're not as good from the standpoint of talent, basketball acumen and mental toughness, and all three of those elements were vastly exposed in the second half.
UCLA just isn't very good. They're below average athletically, which is the first and primary reason the team is in the spot it's in. But even besides the lack of athleticism, the Bruins just aren't very good basketball players. There are basic elements of the game, the mental aspect of it, in which they're C students. It's one thing to not be quick enough to be able to help and rotate on defense, but it's another to stand flat-footed and not recognize when to do it. Ben Howland has put together a team mostly made up of players who aren't very athletic, mentally sharp or instinctual about basketball. Because of that, there will be breakdowns against better teams, sequences in games where UCLA can't get a stop and can't get a basket.
And then on top of being poor in both those areas, what was most disappointing – and most apparent – in the Cal game was the lack of mental toughness and intensity. After that 10-0 run to start the second half, UCLA was ready to roll over. Collectively, it's clear that this UCLA team is soft mentally.
So, when you're talking about what a team needs to be good and can widdle it down to those three primary elements – athleticism/talent, basketball savvy and toughness – and you're below average in all three, that's not a good sign for the season. Up until this point, with UCLA going 7-5 against mostly cupcakes, we suspected this was the case but you couldn't tell completely. Now, after this weekend, it's pretty clear.
The problem for Bruin fans is this team still has 17 games remaining on its regular season schedule. And even though the Pac-12 is bad, the league is at least good enough to make every one of those 17 games another exercise in exposing this UCLA team for what it is. The league is bad, but it's not UC Davis, UC Irvine or Pepperdine bad.
And you can see what Howland is going to try to do to eke out some success. He'll mix his man and zone defenses, which he'll have to do, mostly because neither is really very good and the only thing he can do is keep opposing teams off-balance by throwing a different one at them at different times. The zone has been by far the most effective of the two defenses for UCLA this season, but Pac-12 teams will scout it out, as Cal did, and really, unless it dramatically improves, making opposing teams have to prepare for it and adapt to moving between that and man is probably Howland's best defensive strategy.
It's, well, pitiful that the once-proud UCLA defense, the one that just a few years ago people talked about with fear and reverence, has been reduced to this.
Offensively, UCLA struggles mostly because Howland has installed an inside-outside attack – without any inside. It actually executes fairly well in the half-court, with its playmakers, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson, doing decent jobs of executing Howland's offense, and it generally takes care of the ball. The problem is that UCLA has been massively let down by its bigs. Josh Smith is the biggest disappointment and, to be candid, the #1 reason why UCLA is what it is right now. Who would have thought he'd be playing less minutes, and averaging less points and rebounds this season than last? Yes, he's the primary focus defensively for opposing teams this season, but he's clearly not even close to as good as he was in the second half of last season. It's uncanny that he's regressed since last season, and it's as much his fault as that of the coaching staff. Then, you have the loss of Reeves Nelson, who might have ultimately been more of a detriment, but clearly there is a loss of talent on the court. Then you have Travis Wear and David Wear, who have not been what Howland advertised, by any means. So, UCLA, is executing its offense, getting the ball to the post for inside touches, but UCLA's bigs just plainly aren't good enough at this point to either convert consistently or create out of the block for the rest of the team. It's interesting to think about Kevin Love being in this offense, one that is clearly more designed to getting the post the ball than the Howland offense of 2007-2008, and you could make the case that it has perimeter players (Jones, Anderson and Tyler Lamb) who are better at executing and getting the ball inside to the post than that Final Four team (with Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook and Josh Shipp).
Howland seems to have recognized, through some vision, stubbornness or plain desperation, that he has to keep trying to develop Smith, and hope sometime in the next 17 games the light turns on. It really is his only chance offensively. Unlike that Final Four team, this Bruin squad doesn't have perimeter players that are talented enough to shoulder the offensive load game in and game out. One night, Jones will carry the load and score 20-something uncharacteristically, or Lamb will have a career night like he did against Cal and score 26, but they just don't have the capability of doing that consistently. Jones, to his credit, has become a positive force, and offensively has shown the capacity to limit his issues and exploit his strengths. Lamb is a player that has the potential to be good, say, about as good a player as Josh Shipp, but certainly not on the level of Westbrook, Collison or Arron Afflalo. Norman Powell is someone Howland clearly recognizes has the upside and talent beyond both of them, and he's trying to get him enough time for him to develop (he played 25 minutes against Cal). But, really, Howland doesn't have the talent to be a perimeter-oriented team, he's been severely let down by his inside players, and the off-chance of Smith putting it together this season, really, is his only chance offensively.
Defensively, there is a chance the zone could incrementally improve, but that's about it. It's highly more likely that Pac-12 teams are going to scout out the zone as the season goes on. But it's really not about whether UCLA plays a zone or a man defense; it's about the fact that UCLA's players aren't great defensively in either. They're collectively not very athletic and, as I said above, aren't greatly intuitive defensively. They struggle on penetration, help and rotation in either man or zone. It just plainly is what it is. As I said, it might improve incrementally, they might recognize slightly better when they should rotate and do it slightly quicker, but they haven't shown much acumen for it in either man or zone, so expecting them to vastly improve in the next 17 games would be too high of expectation.
Then there is the question of why this team apparently has no heart or mental toughness. The question that hangs over the team – and the program -- is whether that is a direct reflection on Howland or not.
So, this is the team you have, Bruin fans. We now see it for what it is after the Bay Area Exposure Trip. The other question is whether this team, with all of these now fully exposed issues, will be able to improve even a little bit to make the next 17 games occasionally watchable.