UCLA lost to (now) 2-5 Oregon State in Corvallis Thursday, 87-84, and it was a game that accurately represented just how good this UCLA team is this season.
UCLA has had a few tests so far this year, and this was another one. UCLA had been tested a few weeks ago, when it got swept in the Bay Area, and then it won its last three home games and had looked like it had improved. It then took its improvement out for a test run, this time on the road against Oregon State, and it really put the level of the team and its improvement in perspective.
UCLA has improved. Considerably. But this is just about as good as you're going to get, given the personnel on the team this season.
In other words, Ben Howland has done a good job of getting this team to improve and peak during the last half of the season, and this is, more than likely, these Bruins peaking.
I don't know, given the limited talented and athleticism, if you can expect to get more out of this team this season than what you saw against Oregon State. They actually played a good game – again, given the personnel. UCLA shot 57.6% from the floor, and executed its offense efficiently and effectively. Seriously, this team could be Howland's best offensive executing team he's ever had at UCLA. They run his sets consistently better than any of his previous teams. That game was an example of this team at just about the optimum level offensively.
And, actually, that's about all you're going to get defensively. UCLA's defense wasn't good, but with this personnel, there isn't much more you can expect. So, this was this year's UCLA team playing at about 90% of what it's capable of. Give the players credit for really putting it together, finding their roles and optimizing their talent to actually reach the point that you saw Thursday night.
Again, it's unlikely that it's going to get any better than this.
Of course, the problem is defense. And this game illustrated (again, as so many games before it have done) that defense is truly what makes for a legitimately good team. Your offense will win you some games on occasion, but you won't win consistently or at a high level without a superior defense. UCLA played almost as well as it could offensively Thursday but lost to a 1-5 Oregon State team. If there was ever evidence that it's all about defense, for Howland, UCLA, and really just about any college basketball team, that game was it. It's Evidence for the Defense.
If UCLA had played with just a slight hint of the defense it had during its Final Four years under Howland, to go with that efficient offense, the Bruins would have blown out that OSU team by 20. What cancels out when you shoot 57.6% is when your opponent shoots 58%. If UCLA held the Beavers to, say, the typical 38%, like it used to in those golden defensive days, Oregon State would have made 10 less shots, which are those 20 points.
But these Bruins can't play that type of defense. They're just not capable of it. And you can't blame them. They're not good defensively – individually or as a team – but you could probably make the case that they're coming close to optimizing their defensive potential in their performance Thursday. There is just no way you're going to get a frontline of Josh Smith, Travis Wear and David Wear to play any quicker. This is just about as good as you're going to get Jerime Anderson or Lazeric Jones to guard their man on the perimeter. Howland, too, has instituted some adjustments that have minimized this team's defensive liabilities, like plugging and not hedging most of the time, and switching on screens, as well as alternating zone and man-to-man defenses. Could we nitpick a few things about the defense? Sure. This team would probably be better defensively if Howland played zone more often. It would definitely be better with Anthony Stover getting more minutes, and Norman Powell instead of one of the Wears. But that might not even be enough to do the trick. Even with those changes, this UCLA team just isn't capable of being even a good defensive team, much less one like in Howland's Defensive Glory Days.
What's a bit crazy, and sad, is that when, in the last few years, a UCLA team had played this poorly defensively the TV announcers typically would say something like: "This is not a Howland-type of UCLA defensive team." But in the telecast Thursday, the announcers didn't utter anything like that. In fact, a number of times, when UCLA was getting torched on the defensive end regardless of what little fixes Howland was trying to orchestrate, the announcers didn't harken back to UCLA's Defensive Glory Days but actually said UCLA was playing well defensively. Of course, it'd be foolish to put any credibility into the observations of the game announcers, but it is telling from the standpoint of where the program has come. It's now so far down the road from Howland's great defensive teams that announcers don't even cite them anymore. In fact, in comparison to earlier in the season, UCLA did actually play better defensively in this game, and that's what the announcers now are noting.
This is it. If you wanted to come up with a date when UCLA's reputation under Howland as a superior defensive team died, this is it. It's not even a distant memory anymore. It doesn't define UCLA's reputation anymore. It's like an old uncle you hadn't seen in a number of years dying. R.I.P. UCLA's Defense Under Howland. You'll Be Deeply Mourned and Missed. The coup de grace will be, of course, when ESPN's Jay Bilas can go an entire UCLA game and not refer back to UCLA's Defensive Glory Days. And that's probably on its way.
So, you have to give Howland credit, first, for this team's efficiency on offense, and then for doing what he can with this team defensively, but you also have to make him responsible for the personnel he has populated his roster with that has limited him so much defensively. As we've been harping on now for three years, it really is mind-boggling that Howland has allowed his program to go from perhaps the one with the most defensive-minded reputation in the country to what you saw against Oregon State Thursday. As we've said many times, Howland's recruiting choices have led him to this point. This is the progression of how this evolved:
1) Howland reacted from losing three Final Fours by thinking he needed to upgrade his talent. The thought was: He can't win a National Championship with just defense; he needs NBA-level offensive talent, like the kind that beat him on those Florida and Memphis teams.
2) So, he went out nationally, thinking he could recruit with the Dukes, North Carolinas and Kentucky. He was looking for superior athletes who could defend, but also could really shoot and score. And he basically struck out.
3) Because of those whiffs, trying to salvage some recruiting classes, and then not being prepared for defections to the NBA, he settled for some players. But his mindset had changed. If he had settled for athletes that could defend that would have been fine. But he was tired of players that couldn't score. So, he found guys who could score – but because he was sorting among second-tier recruits, they weren't good defenders, mostly because they weren't superior athletes. Again, like I've said before: If Luc Richard Mbah a Moute were a Los Angeles-area high school player right now Howland probably wouldn't be recruiting him.
And that led us to Corvallis.
What's a bit stunning, too, is the lack of self-realization. If you talk to college coaches, they'll tell you the most important aspect of their job is self-scouting. Knowing their own personnel, their strengths and liabilities. Perhaps you can understand Howland going down the perspective-changing road we described above. It was in an effort to upgrade UCLA's talent. It might have gone down the wrong road, but it was an ill-fated effort to make UCLA better. What is a bit inexplicable is, now, once you have this team with this level of talent and athleticism to not recognize that they aren't a good, natural defensive team. It appears that Howland did actually think, going into this season, this team could be a good man defensive team. To the outside observer, even one with an untrained basketball eye, it was pretty clear this team was crying out for a zone. But it took a third of the season for Howland to come around to it. It took him a good chunk of the season to realize that this team is not athletic enough to hedge or push through screens. Sure, they've gotten better defensively, even in their man defense. But this is it. This is just about the optimum operating level of UCLA's defense, what you saw against Oregon State last night.
What could change this instantly? Getting personnel that could play Howland's old-style of man defense. Until he does that, it's going to be this way with UCLA's basketball program. There will be tests in which the team gets exposed. Then they'll improve a little and get deluded playing poor teams at home. And then they'll get exposed again. Until the program re-dedicates itself to bringing in athletes who can defend this is what you're going to get. It might get a little better in certain seasons, but it could also get worse.
UCLA's defense used to take it to a big stage – to huge wins in NCAA Regional Finals and to places like Indianapolis and San Antonio for Final Fours. Now, it wimpers almost in completely anonymity in places like Corvallis.