It was a simple story line. UCLA struggled to start the game, shooting 23% and scoring a season-low 22 points by halftime. USC coach Kevin O'Neill had a decent game plan, packing it in down low on defense, which made UCLA settle for outside shots early, and on offense spreading the court, making Bruin defenders have to rotate and close out. It kept the Trojan in the game for about 23 minutes, but there just aren't enough tactics in the world to keep this bad Trojan team in a game with even a below-average UCLA team. UCLA went on a 18-2 run at the end of the first half and to begin the second half, mostly based on UCLA committing itself to getting the ball inside and, on defense, well, just waiting for USC to miss its shots. It's not difficult to win when the opposing team scores just 2 points in 8 minutes and shoots 28% for the game.
There's really not much else to say.
The biggest story was Josh Smith having to sit out the first half for violating team rules. With Smith out, it really exposed this team as being very limited in terms of talent. Even when Smith isn't particularly effective, he still creates issues on the court, with opposing teams having to compensate for him inside, which opens up opportunities for other UCLA players on offense. But without Smith, and you see who's on the court, you realize how just under-talented the roster is.
The best thing that came of Smith's benching: He got a huge amount of rest. He played just 8 minutes, with his playing time even limited in the second half when he picked up three fouls in three minutes (with two of those fouls being bogus). It was fortunate, too, since UCLA really didn't need Smith to beat lowly USC, and this way he got some rest to prepare for what could be a four-game stretch in four days. Howland isn't the type to have much foresight in being able to use his bench and conserve the energy of his players, always seemingly playing to win that game, that moment. So, this way, with Smith's violation of team rules, Howland inadvertently had to rest Smith.
It is regrettable, though, that to beat USC Howland still played Lazeric Jones 38 minutes, Jerime Anderson 36 minutes and both Travis Wear and David Wear over 30 minutes. They were still in the game late, when UCLA had a fairly comfortable 15-point lead.
As stated above, this was a game that made you see some things more clearly about this team. The season's almost over, and it's like beating a dead horse, but for lack of anything else to really analyze in this game, here goes a few of the same, repetitive points we've made all season:
• How could Howland have ever thought that David Wear could guard the three spot? He did so in this game, having to match up against USC freshman Byron Wesley, and Wesley looked like a pro on a few possessions in the first half, going right by Wear. Howland then had to put the more athletic Norman Powell on Wesley to take him away as a real threat. But, I guess the question should be: How could Howland think – now – that David Wear could guard Wesley when he has Powell?
• The Wears, God bless ‘em, are hard-working, blue-collar, good kids, with a solid skill set that have continued to improve throughout the season. But this game, like some others this season, really exposed their lack of upside because of their athletic and physical limitations. And it wasn't just the missed point-blank dunk by David Wear. Without Smith, Howland played the Wears 30+ minutes each, and that much time – 61 total minutes – of basically the same player with athletic limitations really grounds the team. There's a reason why UCLA can't get the ball inside consistently when Smith isn't in the game, and it's not because the Wears like to settle for jump shots. They're just not strong enough to carve out space in the post to get an entry pass, even against a team like USC that has poor post players.
Which leads us to some implications for next season. As we've said before, if UCLA and Howland get the recruiting class we're hearing they're supposed to get – which includes Shabazz Muhammad and Tony Parker – there are going to be some playing time issues. Parker, a McDonald's All-American, isn't coming to UCLA to sit behind 60 minutes of the Wears. Can Howland be weaned off the Wears? Watching how enamored he was with them this season it seems unlikely, so it will be interesting to watch how playing time is doled out next season.
• If Howland is benching Smith for being four minutes late to the team bus, how about some consequence for a lack of effort or seeming concern when he steps on the court? His body language in this game, as it's been at times throughout his career, was poor – projecting an attitude that he's still pouting over being benched for a half. If we're trying to institute a new policy in the program of accountability and discipline, it might start with getting your immature, out-of-shape center under control, and maybe start with a zero-pout-tolerance policy. What's more damaging to the team – whether he's 4 minutes late for a bus or the poisonous body language and attitude he projects on the court?
Okay, sorry about that little digression. Just had to let off a little steam for being subjected to watch that poorly-played, inconsequential game that pitted one horrendous team against a not-very-good one.
I think I speak for all UCLA fans everywhere in saying this: I am pulling for UCLA to put together a four-game winning streak to win the Pac-12 Tournament and get an NCAA bid; but on the other hand, after watching that game, there's a big part of me that just wants this season to end.