Bruins Try to Find Handle Against CSUN

UCLA will try to get back on track after its loss to Cal Poly when another Big West team comes to Pauley Wednesday in Cal State Northridge. The Matadors present their own match-up issues...

This is going to be a particularly personal game preview for me. You see, it really doesn't matter what UCLA's opponents do right now, short of simply laying down at the opening tip. The Bruins are, for good or ill, their own best friend or their own worst enemy, and that goes all the way up the roster to include Coach Ben Howland. Every game preview I write from this point on should really refer to one thing: whether the Bruins will individually and collectively show up ready to play with intensity and focus. After the embarrassing loss on Sunday night to Cal Poly (perhaps I should get out of the prediction business altogether), the Bruins will host Cal Northridge on Wednesday at Pauley Pavilion. This will be a huge game for the Bruins as they will either use the Cal Poly game as a wake-up call (as if the Irvine game shouldn't have provided that) or will really start the funeral procession for Howland's coaching tenure in Westwood.

Forget Northridge for a moment and focus on UCLA. The Bruins have some massive issues right now and it remains to be seen if any, let alone all of them, will be fixed in the foreseeable future.

First, the Bruins are a mess defensively. That's because Howland insists on playing man defense with a roster full of lengthy but slow players. Further, Howland currently has only 2 post players who even have the desire, let alone the ability, to play solid man defense, and they're both freshmen. I am not going to belabor this point as both Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks and seemingly hundreds of posters have written the same thing: this is a lousy man defensive team.

Now, if Howland were to switch to a zone, even for portions of games, this area might be somewhat mitigated. He did say in his press conference Tuesday that he would start utilizing a zone more often.

The personnel use on this team has been confusing at best and pseudo-nepotistic at worst. It's not just the playing of the UNC transfers for so many minutes, it's the putting, or in this case, not putting, players in the best floor positions for them to be successful. If Howland insists on playing man, why not go with the four frosh and Norman Powell? At least that team would have a semblance of a chance at being pretty decent defensively by the end of the season.

After having coached high school and now college sports at a fairly high level (okay, the college part isn't a high level, but at least it's college), I think I have a pretty good handle on reading the body language of athletes. As has been pointed out on the BRO message boards, the players on this team clearly aren't having fun. That's a foundational concept. That doesn't mean a coach doesn't berate them or have high expectations and consequences when those expectations aren't met; it means that these kids, especially the freshmen, probably dread having to play basketball right now. It could be because they feel constrained by the offense, the substitution patterns or simply by perhaps the thinking that they aren't quite as good as they thought they'd initially be. Both Pierson and Hicks have both written that the players on this team know who should be playing and that they know those players are not getting the bulk of the playing time. Regardless of what the reasoning is, it is incumbent on the head coach to get the kids to buy in and that is clearly not happening right now.

In the course of my own coaching I have always thought that I had good relationships with my players and teams, that I had my finger on the pulse of both from year to year. However, I never really knew until this past fall. I was "invited" by an official to leave a game early, and my team lost a game it was positioned to win. That was because, after my ejection, the team played as if they individually and collectively had no idea what to do. When I asked the captains after the game what happened, I was told, paraphrasing, that the players had come to rely on me to be there for them when times were tough and when the going got tough in that game, I wasn't there. Hooray for me, right? No, that's not the point; the point is that you get the sense that if Howland were ejected from a game that these kids would play as if the weight of the world was lifted from their shoulders…at least until the coach returned to the bench.

The point of all of this venting is simply to point out that the season and what becomes of it really is in the realm of UCLA's team -- the players and coaches. It really doesn't have to do with the opponents, especially with the schedule looking like there isn't a team on it that has a talent edge on the Bruins. Sure, there will be some athletic mis-matches and playing on the road is never easy, but its not as if UCLA is scheduled to play last year's Kentucky squad.

This thought process that I've been spewing out on these pages has something to do with the loss to Cal Poly, but it started the week before with the less-than-inspired play against Irvine. As Pierson wrote in the Cal Poly game review, the difference in the two games was a couple of made (or missed) free throws. The style of play by the Bruins was the same.

It can, however, change quickly. The one thing I am sensing from the freshmen is that they are competitive. You can see from body language that they don't like losing. They are, though, still getting themselves established at this level, and it's clear that they are thinking too much on the floor and not simply allowing their instincts to take over. Now, they did try and take over when things went pear-shaped (my soccer term for the day) against Cal Poly. It was clear Shabazz Muhammad wanted the ball in his hands for many of the late possessions. He simply missed the shots. If he had made them we would all be writing about what a warrior he is and how he's the team's leader, etc. Jordan Adams wanted the last shot (and Howland drew the last play up for him) and that takes a certain mentality.

With all of that in mind, the funny thing is that this team can realistically be a two-loss team going into Pac 12 Conference play…the Bruins could also lose five more games between now and then. It is all up to them.

Coach Bobby Braswell's Northridge squad is simply a better team than Cal Poly so, if the Bruins lose yet again, don't be surprised. However, the differences between the Matadors and the Mustangs are probably enough in certain areas to project Wednesday as a Bruin victory.

The key differences between Cal Poly and Northridge is how the Matadors simply don't take care of the ball like Cal Poly does. On Sunday, even when the Bruins were shutting down the Mustangs for the first part of the second half, it wasn't as if Cal Poly was throwing the ball away. As the game became a possession-by-possession contest, the areas the Bruins needed to step up were rebounding and contesting of shots, neither of which the Bruins did well.

Northridge averages more than double the number of TOs per game compared to Cal Poly. Northridge plays a faster brand of offense, but its not as if the Matadors run like crazy. They simply make more mistakes with the ball than does Cal Poly.

Like Cal Poly, Northridge doesn't shoot well as a team from the outside (31%), but Cal Ploy wasn't supposed to be a good outside shooting team coming into Sunday's game and they lit up the net in the second half.

Individually, Northridge does have some players that can and will cause UCLA issues. Junior Josh Greene (6'0" 180 lbs.) and sophomore Allan Guei (5'9" 160 lbs.) are both the kind of quick guards that have given UCLA trouble throughout Howland's tenure in Westwood. Greene is clearly the point guard, and a pretty good one, while Guei, although small, ostensibly plays the shooting guard role. Greene is better than any point guard on the Cal Poly roster so here's hoping that Larry Drew's lack of ability on the defensive end is more the result of his injured ankle than anything else.

Freshman Tre-Hale Edmerson (6'9" 215 lbs.) and sophomore Stephen Maxwell (6'7" 220 lbs.) are the main inside players for Braswell. Neither is an outside threat, but if the Bruin posts had trouble with Cal Poly's front line, especially Brian Bennett, then the two Matador posts are going to have the upper hand against the Bruins. Maxwell is a ferocious rebounder and will demand serious attention.

Northridge's best player is probably sophomore wing Stephen Hicks (6'6" 200 lbs.). He is the team's leading scorer at 18.4 PPG and shoots better than 50% from both the field and from behind the arc, although he hasn't taken many deep shots. Like Maxwell, Hicks is an excellent rebounder, averaging a team-leading 8.4 RPG. Very often Braswell will utilize Hicks in a way that both Pierson and Hicks have suggested Howland use Muhammad -- as a power forward. He presents major match-up issues. Ironically, assuming Muhammad is on Hicks, that is probably a better match-up for the Bruins when they play man then either of the guards or forwards. Give Howland some credit for finally conceding in his press conference that he's going to play more zone, because this is another game that cries out for the Bruins to play it, especially with the probable quickness deficits the Bruins will face at several positions. If Howland is in a conceding mood, he might want to play Josh Smith increased minutes against the Matadors, too, since they have no answer him, whereas they will probably be able to neutralize both Wears.

It is frustrating being a Bruin basketball fan right now. It is incredibly rewarding when, as a fan, you watch your team grow and play collectively better than the sum of its parts. This seems to be the opposite scenario, with the Bruins seemingly playing far below the sum of their individual talent.

UCLA could clearly lose this game, especially if the team's confidence is down after Sunday. The Bruins could come out flat and disinterested. They could also come out angry at what happened on Sunday and use it as a wake-up call. However, I thought the Irvine game would have done that.

Because I dougt Howland will change his rotation, and because I still believe he'll prdominantly play man, and mostly because I think Howland has lost the spirit of the players and the team, at least at this juncture, I really think the Bruins are looking at a losing streak that will stretch at least through Saturday's game against SDSU. That would put the Bruins at 4-4 and those fans out there clamoring for a mid-season change may actually have a case.

Northridge 74

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