Indiana State: Reality and Hope

UCLA doesn't play well against Indiana State, despite how the score looks (86-59), and it exposes the Bruins' issues. But there are still many reasons to be optimistic...

In its season opener, which christened the new Pauley Pavilion, UCLA beat Indiana State, 86-59, Friday night, and we got our first glimpse of the new Bruins.

It wasn't an impressive first glimpse. The score indicates a blow-out and UCLA was really never in any danger of losing to the Sycamores. You wouldn't even say that they struggled in this game. But UCLA didn't play well, by any means.

Some of that you have to chalk up to first-game kinks, of course. Plus, there was probably an element of distraction from all of the Pauley fanfare. So UCLA will undoubtedly get better.

But, of course, there are some concerns.

If you never looked at the box score, or even the score board, and you went off purely your overall, general impressions of the game, you'd say:

-- Indiana State is bad. Of course, we had to get that qualifier in there, as we traditionally do with every non-league cupcake. But it's important, in analyzing the Bruins, to put into context just how good -- or bad -- their opponent is. And the Sycamores aren't good. If they could actually shoot, just decently, this would probably have been a close game.

-- UCLA lacks athleticism. There's a team-wide lack of quickness. Of course, we knew this going in, but if were talking first impressions it really jumped out at you. And against ISU, comparatively, UCLA should appear like other-worldly athletes.

-- The off-season hype of UCLA fast-breaking didn't come to fruition. Even without looking at the stat sheet (which indicated 0 fast break points for either team), your impression would be that UCLA didn't seemingly intend to push the ball that much, and didn't look like they really have the personnel to do it.

Even though this UCLA team will clearly get better, and perhaps even get its fastbreak charged up, it seems there are two inherent general issues that UCLA could be fighting throughout the season: the lack of athleticism and the use of personnel. It's become a familiar refrain for the Bruins in the last several years, and while this team is more talented than teams in the recent past, these two aspects will still be the major issues in determining the potential of the team this season.

You, first, have to face some reality -- that the team just isn't very athletic. So, what does this do on the offensive and defensive side of the floor? On defense, it's well-documented, and it's been pounded into our brains over the last several seasons. This team isn't capable of playing the type of man defense that Ben Howland wants to play. In this week's press conference, Howland said, because of the team's lack of athleticism, this year's man D would look and function more like a zone at times. That means it will have to make up for lacking great individual defenders with good team defense. Luckily that's something that can be learned, and we've seen Howland's teams in the past improve at the season progressed. Hopefully that will happen in this case, but generally there is a ceiling on just how good this team can be defensively, playing man-to-man, because of that lack of athleticism. On offense, it means there aren't many Bruins who can take their man off the dribble, and that was evident Friday night. There is lack of quickness around the basket, with UCLA's posts being more slow and deliberate.

It also means that UCLA is going to have be far better fundamentally in its rebounding technique, to optimize its rebounding, and team rebounding.

What we said above -- that the two prevailing issues for the season will be lack of athleticism and use of personnel -- definitely impacts one another. On a team that lacks athleticism, you would think you'd want to optimize the athleticism you can get on the court, but if this first game is any indication, you'd say that wasn't the case. Just about the entire game Friday, if you looked out on the court, there was only one player who you'd say had decent to good athleticism wearing a Bruin uniform. That was, most of the time, Norman Powell. Then, easily the next best athlete is Tyler Lamb. When either were on the court they brought a marked degree of quickness that stood out. But the issue is -- the two never really saw the court much together. UCLA was operating with, for the most part, one athlete and four non-athletes on the floor. That's a tough proposition -- not Friday night, when you're playing what is essentially a low-major Indiana State team -- but when you play against even a decently athletic mid- to high-major team. You are going to be out-manned in terms of athletes.

Of course, it was Lamb's first day returning from a three-week setback from injury, so he was limited in his minutes. But we don't necessarily believe that his minutes will significantly increase when he's completely healthy. UCLA seems married to other players, and we believe there is no budging from those players getting the bulk of the minutes.

In analyzing the play of David Wear and Travis Wear, fans fall into trap. They don't play well, like in this game against Indiana State, and fans jump on them. Then, they play against another low- or mid-major team and play well, and the other side of the fan equation jumps to pump them up. Both fan reactions are naive and knee-jerk. It's not how you scout or evaluate talent. It's the old Ryan Walcott Syndrome. You can't go by one game here or there, because any player at this level on any given day can have a good day against a high-major opponent and a bad day against a low-major opponent. You evaluate a player's level by determining his talent ceiling, his limitations. It's not how he plays on any one given day against a low-major opponent, but how he plays over the course of many games against high-major opponents, and his potential for doing so. In the case of the Wears against Indiana State, they didn't play particularly well, and looked a bit harried and rushed, making some mental errors, like trying to put the ball on the floor with their back to the basket in the paint, repeatedly. They turned over the ball 8 times between the two of them. They will definitely get better throughout the season -- probably by next Tuesday's game against UC Irvine. What you can take away from this game, which we were pretty clear about last season, is the athletic limitations of the Wears. Against the Sycamores you'd say they were pretty evenly matched athletically. They struggled inside to finish against the Sycamores low-major post players and, on the other end, the Sycamore posts had at least a few moments in which they got the better of the Wears.

The freshmen, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, too, clearly aren't high-level athletes. Anderson got beat off the dribble a few times in this game, and Adams, truly, didn't play much defense at all. On offense they both move very deliberately, without much fast-twitchness.

If you have all four of these players on the court at the same time or, say, Josh Smith in for one of the Wears, you just plainly are going to be limited athletically. There just isn't any way around it.

Well, there actually is a way around it, and that leads us to player personnel. It would seem that, given this personnel, you'd want to get as much athleticism on the court as possible. But if the Wears are going to get 30 minutes per game each, and Anderson and Adams about 25, it's just not going to happen.

So, what can we hope for in terms of the season?

As we've said a number of times: Hope for this team to outscore everyone. While they were a bit out-of-sync offensively Friday night, this team does have enough offensive elements to be a good half-court offensive team. The Wears are good shooters, and have even improved, looking almost automatic when facing from 15 feet and in. Anderson didn't have a great offensive game, looking tentative in his shot, but we've seen Anderson play enough to be pretty confident that he is going to settle in and be a very good offensive player. And not just from a scoring standpoint, but from his vision and passing ability setting up his teammates to score. Adams, clearly, is a very good shooter, and, as we've said previously, he can be a crafty scorer. He might not be able to do what he did Friday night against more athletic opponents, but he's going to get a good amount of points each game from crafty little runners and such. Norman Powell clearly has improved his offensive skills, looking far more comfortable with his outside shot and also in putting the ball on the floor to get into the paint and attack the basket. UCLA's offensive execution was poor Friday, with 16 turnovers resulting from over-handling the ball in the paint, bad, weak passes, and less-than-crisp movement in the execution of the halfcourt sets. The Bruins ran a high-low set a number of times that was there for the taking, but they couldn't execute it, mostly through poor passing. But these are all things that will sharpen up as the season goes on. This is going to be a good-shooting team -- not necessarily a good three-pointing shooting team, but one that makes a very high-percentage of its open looks from within the arc.

We have to admit, we'd be far more on the halfcourt offensive bandwagon, too, if Anderson was designated the starting point guard and Howland just put the ball in his hand. He flashed some of his play-making ability Friday, and that's just scratching the surface of how he can create offensively with his exceptional vision and passing. UCLA's offense was far more dynamic when he had the ball in his hand. Larry Drew, in watching him in the China exhibitions and Friday night, doesn't have that type of play-making ability. Howland, in his post-game comments, cited Drew having 5 assists and no turnovers against ISU, but they were pretty non-descript assists and you can chalk up the turnovers to not attempting an aggressive pass or dribble drive anytime in this game. Unless he completely steps out of the character we've seen of him, and know about him, Drew doesn't look like much beyond a back-up level point guard. Hopefully, as the season progresses, Anderson will show his playmaking ability more and more and Howland will succumb to handing over the reins of the offense the majority of the time.

How does the fast break factor into this equation? That's an excellent question, and one we can only guess as to the answer. This team, with its lack of athleticism, doesn't seem well built for a fast break. Howland has cited that the Wears get out and run and are good finishers for big men, and that might be true. But post players are usually closest to the defensive basket and the last to get down the court on breaks, and that's why the success of the break depends on your guards and wings. Drew hasn't shown that he's a great leader of the break, with a particular penchant for pushing the ball or finding teammates in transition. Anderson looks slow getting up the court. If UCLA could, in fact, get some easy baskets from the break this season that would only help them out-score their opponents, but we're skeptical. As we've said before, the Bruins could be good in the secondary break, with the Wears and Adams finding open looks in semi-transition.

Rebounding is going to be a big factor this season, especially if the team hopes to get any fastbreak opportunities. Against ISU, in the first half, the Bruins only out-rebounded the Sycamores by two. In the second half, as Howland said in his post-game interview, the Bruins started blocking out, and then outrebounded ISU by 17. Without the athleticism, UCLA is going to have be very good fundamentally sound in rebounding. It's going to be a very big indicator throughout the season: Watch for whether UCLA's bigs are able or unable to block out against their opponent. If not, you can pretty much know that UCLA's fast break is going to be a non-starter, literally.

We've belabored the athleticism issue ad nauseum over the years. We've discussed endlessly how UCLA got to this point of mediocre team athleticism through recruiting. We've also beat the dead horse about how the use of personnel seems to exacerbate the lack of athleticism. But we're done with that.

We're going to put all of our hope for this season in the against-the-odds chance that Howland will eventually opt for a zone with the personnel he has. If UCLA played a zone, and had been working on one from the summer practice sessions for China, we would really be confident about this team being able to do some serious damage this season. There's still a chance, though. Howland has, in the past, gone to a zone when he's desperate defensively. We think that could happen when this year's man defense gets exposed against athletic teams like Georgetown, Indiana (possibly, if they meet them in the tournament final in New York), San Diego State, Texas and Missouri. Heck, Long Beach State.

We also still cling to the idea that Josh Smith is a potential difference-maker. Yes, we've been down this rabbit hole before with him, but we don't see anyone else on the team that clearly could be dominate and unstoppable against elite high-major opponents, except for Smith. Hope that Smith's lack of playing time (he only played 13 minutes Friday) finally lights a fire under that big body of his (which, actually, looked not as big Friday, a good sign).

And then, if you're looking for some hope, a chance, it's named Shabazz Muhammad. Being very familiar with Muhammad's game, and then watching the Bruins Friday night, it's clear that this team has a big hole in it, in terms of talent and spark. It's like a jigsaw puzzle, and the biggest piece is missing. I don't want to raise expectations too much and put too much on Muhammad himself, but he has the capability of taking this team to a completely different level. He's a Pac-12 Player of the Year caliber talent, so try to imagine the impact of plugging in a player of that level to this team. It's like all the supportive, secondary pieces are there, it's just missing the centerpiece.

Hopefully that happens next week.

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