For UCLA, it was a familiar story of finding a way to lose on the road. After the disastrous start to the season, UCLA has done a pretty good job of winning the games it should win at home. But on the road, it has been a different story. Away from the friendly confines of the Sports Arena (yes, that's a joke), the Bruins have found a way to lose several winnable games. As is typical with bad teams, they seem to lose their poise and focus on the road. They take a couple bad shots, turn over the ball with a bad decision, don't match up in transition, miss a crucial blockout (as happened with Jerime Anderson on the last St. John's basket), don't rotate properly on defense, etc. This Bruin team isn't good enough to win when not doing all the little things right. And they did a lot of little things wrong Saturday in Madison Square Garden.
As I said, St. John's isn't very good and they're obviously ridiculously young with all those freshmen. However, they also play in the Big East and they have benefited from playing really good teams all year long. Yes, they have lost the majority of games to those teams, but they have had to learn to play hard all game long just so they won't be embarrassed. The Bruins, on the other hand, play in a really bad Pac-12 and they've played a lot of games where they didn't even have to play their hardest to win games. The Red Storm are clearly far more athletic than UCLA, but they're also tougher mentally and physically. When you play five freshmen against teams like Syracuse, Georgetown, Marquette, Louisville and Notre Dame, you have to compete all game long or it's going to be ugly. And the Red Storm definitely competed all game long against a more talented Bruin team.
As is typical with a bad team, the Bruins had several players do a few good things, but nobody played a good game overall. Tyler Lamb came the closest to a good game, with a team-high 18 points, to go with six rebounds and four assists. But he also had eight critical turnovers, many of them on careless plays or bad decisions. Travis Wear had a game-high 13 rebounds, but offered little in the way of interior defense. The Bruin perimeter defenders aren't great and they often get beat off the dribble. However, the Bruin interior defenders are even worse. They are consistently late with their rotations and offer little resistance in the paint.
For most of the season, Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones have taken turns having decent to good games. They rarely both play well in the same game, but don't usually play poorly in the same game. Against St. John's, they both had bad games. Anderson did manage to contribute a game-high seven assists, but he went 0-7 from the field and missed a number of open shots that he usually makes. Jones was pretty much a non-factor in the game, going 2-8 from the field and taking a couple of questionable shots. And in a game where the Bruins desperately needed some senior leadership, neither player offered much in that department.
Josh Smith had a few good moments, going 6-7 from the field and, at times, looked like he could dominate the smaller Red Storm in the paint. However, he also had trouble matching up with the quicker St. John's players and the pace of the game got a little quick for him as well. As we've said all season, Smith is the one potential favorable match-up UCLA has in any game and it might have made sense to play a little zone in order to make it easier to keep Smith on the court. He played 22 minutes despite having only two fouls for the game.
The Bruins had several players go over 30 minutes in the game, but the Red Storm entire starting lineup went more than 30 each, with two players going the full 40. So you wouldn't think that fatigue would be a factor that you could point to as an issue in this game. But the difference in athleticism was a huge factor. And that athleticism was critical in the late stages of the game. St. John's got to most of the loose balls late and had numerous second chance points. They were quicker, more active and seemed to want it more than the Bruins.
One of the advantages of having really good athletes is that they can sustain effort for a longer period of time. The Wear twins play hard, no question, but they also have a tendency to wear down (no pun intended) as the game goes on. They're playing as hard as they can just to keep up with the superior athletes they're facing most nights. They might be more effective playing fewer minutes where they're not exhausted. Josh Smith often starts out the game with some nice plays early (he had two emphatic dunks in his first couple touches), but then you see him lose energy later in the game. Even when he's fresh, he has difficulty defending against quicker player. But when he gets tired he's much more likely to break down on defense or miss a rebound he might normally get. All of which makes it even more puzzling that Coach Howland has taken Anthony Stover out of the rotation. The one Bruin big man that can actually defend the paint, and change the game with his defensive energy, has not played in three consecutive games.
Going to a short rotation might make sense if the players in front of Stover were obviously clearly better, even when fatigued. But based on what has happened in the season to date, that's just not the case. All of the Bruin big men have holes in their games. Smith has trouble defending and is prone to lapses in effort and focus. The Wears are very poor defenders and offer zero interior help defense. Stover isn't an offensive threat and needs to improve as a rebounder. But after watching the opponents get more lay-ups in any season since Howland's first with UCLA, one has to wonder if going with the better defender for once might not be a good idea.
Watching a bad St. John's team beat UCLA purely on athleticism and hustle was disturbing. This wasn't a case of getting out-athleted by Kentucky, UNC or Kansas. This was a bad St. John's team starting five freshmen. And it wasn't the first time this year where the other team had a clear advantage in athleticism. The Bruins have faced mid-major teams this year that were much quicker, bouncier and faster. Frankly, that can't happen at UCLA. It's one thing to lose because you have a bad shooting game or turn the ball over too many times. It's quite another thing to lose because the other team just has superior athletes. With very good to great athletes, Coach Howland has shown that he can get his team to defend and have a high level of success. He's also shown that he's not very successful with team full of mediocre to poor athletes. It may be time to start emphasizing athleticism and defensive potential over players with a perceived higher skill level.