Because of so many factors – mostly because the Pac-12 is so bad – there have been times this season when you thought the Bruins might actually be better than you thought. We had said that when they out-played Washington in Seattle it showed that the Bruins had a chance to make a run in the conference and in the conference tournament. And of course, anything can happen still. But in getting easily out-played by Cal at home is very telling. There have been Exposure Games this season, the ones that clearly put the team in perspective and context, and this was definitely one of them. In fact, it was the definitive one for the season. Cal, a decent team, was clearly better than UCLA, and the Bears easily cruising to a win in a home game for UCLA, put the Bruins in perspective.
This is UCLA's limit. They've topped out. They've improved and they're pretty much at their ceiling, and they are 14-11 overall and 7-6 in conference, which puts them in sixth place, in one of the worst Pac-12s ever. And that's about it.
The Cal game came down to the Bears clearly being more talented and athletic, and a collection of smarter, more intuitive basketball players. For UCLA to win it would have taken a flawless game and one in which the coaching and tactics gave the Bruins an advantage. Regrettably, that wasn't the case.
It's not good when the only talent advantage you have on the court is Josh Smith, an immature, undeveloped behemoth who is still a long ways away from realizing even a bit of his potential. Other than that – and that doesn't even manifest itself on the court in terms of real production – the Bruins got nothing on the Bears. Cal's Jorge Gutierrez is probably the best player in the conference, better than anyone on UCLA's squad, better than any of UCLA's three guards, and he's a questionable NBA player. The other guards/wings, Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe, are just okay athletes and good shooters -- and better than UCLA's starting guard or wing. Harper Kamp and David Kravish are arguably just as good, if not better, than either Travis Wear or David Wear, especially athletically. That's saying something: a no-name freshman like Kravish is able to athletically cancel out your two McDonald All-American twins.
Let that sink in. UCLA has less talent than Cal. And that's a Cal team that has average talent. Understand, too, it's not a matter of Cal out-recruiting UCLA, if that means that Cal has been bringing in more heralded recruits. It's a matter of Cal out-evaluating UCLA in recruiting, being able to better recognize talent in recruits. It's a case of Cal's players ultimately being better than expectations and UCLA's players ultimately being less.
And then here's the important thing: It's a case of utilizing talent in a way to optimize it.
I don't know if there's much else to say. I could break down the game, but it feels irrelevant. UCLA was out-talented, out-played and out-coached – by a decent team -- and that's about it.
It does tend to make you reflect on the bigger picture however. Things like:
• Will Smith ever really grow up? It's very unlikely it happens this season. But will it happen next season? Last year he improved as the season went on, and with just an average amount of improvement anticipated from a freshman to sophomore year it was expected coming into this season he'd be one of the best centers in the country. But it was strange that he didn't, in fact, get better but even regressed. Given that, there is no way a fairly objective person would now definitely expect him to get over that hump and realize his potentially elite talent by next season. Most players do tend to improve and overcome their immaturity during their college careers but sometimes, well, they don't.
• Is this the ceiling for the Wears? They're only sophomores, so they have two more years to improve. They could improve and expand their skills – definitely could become better shooters. They'll get better in Howland's system the more they get accustomed to it. But they really don't have any upside athletically. In terms of athleticism, they are what they are. And while the Cal game wasn't a good game for either of them, and that will happen to the best players, it did expose their athletic limitations. When they catch a ball on the block and struggle to finish over Kravish it's not a great indication of tremendous upside.
Between the Wears and Smith they had to leave probably 20 points on the table in missed gimmes around the basket.
• Was this an example of Howland's coaching limitations? It's, of course, easy to second-guess a coach (and we're very good at it at Bruin Report Online). But it's not really that big of a stretch to again wonder a few things about Howland's coaching in this game. Namely: Might it have been a good time to attempt a zone? At one point in the second half, when Cal was making the run that pretty much iced the game, it was shooting over 60%. It shot so well because most of its shots were within five feet of the basket. UCLA's defense was horrendous, with many UCLA players going back to their old struggles with defending screens. So many Bruins got lost on defense in this game I thought their faces would be showing up on milk cartons. Then, also, the Bruins were gassed. You have a guy in Smith who isn't exactly in tip-top shape to begin with, and then UCLA can't play without a Wear or two on the court, so your frontline is dragging. Wouldn't it be prudent, at some time, just to attempt a zone a little? Maybe just one or two defensive trips, after your man defense is getting sliced apart for layups. Try it, see how it goes. You can always go back to the man. At the very least, it couldn't be any worse, and you could get your guys a little bit of a breather.
Anthony Stover was indeed injured, so he wasn't an option. But Brendan Lane was available. In his post-game comments, Howland even brought up the notion that the Wears were gassed and he should have played Lane more. So, I guess we can question the coach if he's questioning himself, right?
Howland's offensive sets, too, that have been nicely effective in recent weeks, went up against a well-coached defense, one that clearly knew exactly what to do to get UCLA out of its execution. Many times a Cal defender just bumped a Bruin cutter, or stepped into a passing lane, just to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the play, and that was enough. UCLA couldn't execute and started breaking down and trying to create shots individually, which it's just not good at doing. UCLA went the majority of the first half without an assist, and had just 7 for the game. It's not as if UCLA was going up against some great athletes who were lighting quick and shut them down in a pressure-style man D. No, Mike Montgomery's Bears are just very well coached and prepared, and it seemed easy for them to do a few little things to take UCLA out of its offense all day. Just a thought, too: It wasn't out of great execution or just complete randomness that the Wears were getting open shots. If you're going up against a Montgomery-coached team and certain guys are getting open looks it's by design. So, one coach, with his defense, is allowing certain players to get open looks, and the other coach, the one coaching the players, has greenlighted those guys to shoot. Who won that coaching battle? The Wears shot 5 of 19 for the game.
There are probably more bigger-picture issues, too, but, heck, at this point in the season they feel agonizingly belabored.
At this point, after this game, there is really just one storyline for UCLA basketball: It just isn't very good. The 2011-2012 team is now completely a known commodity, we've seen their ceiling, and they're just not very good -- not good enough to probably finish better than sixth in perhaps the worst Pac-12 (or Pac-10) in history.
And that's about it.