What little chance the UCLA men's basketball team has of salvaging its season (and Coach Ben Howland's job) almost dissipated last Saturday in the empty confines of Houston's Reliant Stadium. Instead, the Bruins rallied from an 8-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining to narrowly defeat Texas by a 65-63 score.
Now the Bruins face a critical four game stretch that will dictate whether or not the season sill go in the proverbial toilet. That four game stretch, which is the end of the Bruins' non-conference schedule, begins on Saturday when arguably the "easiest" of the four opponents, Prairie View A&M, visits Pauley Pavilion.
Coach Byron Rimm II's Panthers enter the game with a record of 5-5. They are the ultimate poster children for "home cooking" in that they are 4-0 at home and 0-4 on the road. Of all of UCLA's early season opponents, the PVA&M probably most resembles Northridge in that the Panthers are fairly athletic, like to get up and down the floor, like to shoot ‘3's and tend not to be very good at it. Remember, the Bruins defeated Northridge by 30 last month.
What Bruin fans should be looking for is incremental improvement of effort, defense and offensive execution. Each one of these is going to be key to the rest of the season at least in terms of what limited goals the Bruins can yet realistically achieve.
Prairie View's roster looks quite a bit like Northridge's in that the Panthers have some size, but it is length rather than girth. They really don't have a true "low post" player, instead relying on the team's decent athleticism to get them boards and get to the rim on offense. They average over 42 RPG, but that number, while impressive must be taken with a large grain of salt. Of PVAM's five victories, three have come over non-Division I programs. That is why an improved and more consistent effort by the Bruin is paramount for Saturday and the remainder of the season. For a team that relies so much on facing the basket to rebound like the Panthers do, a sustained effort to cut them off as they enter the lane is critical. Even if the offense and defense don't come around at all on Saturday, a sustained effort will allow UCLA to win very comfortably.
The Bruins have given effort in fits and starts this season. Take the end of the Texas game; the Bruins gave a substantially greater effort the last 2-3 minutes of the game and it allowed them to overcome an 8 point Texas lead in that time span. Of course if the Bruins had started that way Howland could very well have had his walk-ons in at the end of the contest.
The Bruins only have to look at their almost-loss to Irvine and the loss to Cal Poly to know the negative ramifications of a lack of effort. Look, (and I wrote this before the Cal Poly game, too, so take with a grain of salt), the Bruins should win fairly easily. When looking back at the Cal Poly game, the Bruins missed an inordinate amount of shots late (although much of that can be attributed to poor shot selection, etc.) and Cal Poly made an inordinate amount of shots, ones that on almost any other night wouldn't collectively fall, even with UCLA's poor effort to finish the game. That's not an excuse, but a reality. It shows just how important effort is to this game of basketball. If the Bruins had just given a good, not great effort in that final 12 minutes against Cal Poly then the Bruins most likely don't see their 18 point lead fall into single digits, let alone lose the game.
The defensive side of the floor is where it has been truly indicative of the Bruins' lack of effort. To compare, simply look at the last 2-3 minutes of that Texas game and how on two straight possessions (hey, it has to start somewhere) the Bruins forced Texas into two contested, poor shots. That was about effort and nothing else. On the play after the Bruins took a one-point lead, Larry Drew II was able to (finally) stay in front of Texas PG Javon Felix and force a shot that was essentially a turnover…and it wasn't great defense! Drew's body was too straight and he was off balance, yet the key was staying in front of Felix. It's amazing what that can do.
While PVAM doesn't have an ultra quick PG, they do have enough athleticism to bother the Bruins if UCLA doesn't give effort on defense. Senior wing Jourdan DeMuynck (6'6" 205 lbs.) brings a nice competitive streak to the court and will force Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Norman Powell to play defense. He averages 13.9 PPG and 6.1 RPG. He is, however, a poor outside shooter so he is going to look to try and get inside.
Senior point guard Carl Blair (6'2" 205 lbs.) is a powerfully built player who also likes to drive. Like DeMuynck, Blair is a poor outside shooter. That means Drew and Powell will have to bring effort to keep them Blair out of the lane. Both Blair and DeMuynck are very good free throw shooters.
Senior guard Ryan Gesiakowski (6'4" 195 lbs.) is the opposite of Blair and DeMuynck in that he wants to sit outside where he has been the one dangerous shooter on the Panther roster (his 19 made ‘3's is almost as many as the rest of the team combined) and he doesn't go inside much. He is especially questionable when forced to go to his left so whomever Howland places on him should be shading him in order to force him to that side and to put the ball on the floor.
Juniors Josh Eleby (6'10" 255 lbs.) and Jules Montgomery (6'11" 220 lbs.) provide the only sizable post presence. However, it's effect it really isn't much. Eleby should start but he only plays about 12 MPG while Montgomery is almost strictly a face-the-basket player. Montgomery will be willing to shoot from outside and can handle the ball pretty well for a big man. To be honest, if he were on UCLA's roster right now he might get a few minutes of floor time. He is also the team's leading rebounder at 6.7 RPG. The knock on him is that he isn't physical enough.
Junior Demondre Chapman (6'7" 220 lbs.) missed a few games this season but is starting to round into form. He's beginning to get minutes from Eleby because he is more of a consistent scoring threat and a better rebounder. Chapman is more athletic and that fact alone should see him present more of a match-up challenge to UCLA's frontcourt.
The lack of effort has also infected UCLA's offense, too. The Bruins have had a tendency to suffer mental breakdowns in their offensive sets when the game is tight in the second half (witness the Georgetown, Texas and SDSU games). Heck, it can be argued that UCLA didn't beat Texas because of any great offensive execution but rather because of great individual effort baskets by Jordan Adams. UCLA's effort needs to be mental as well as physical. Howland's offenses have gotten better each season as the year's progressed because he's always been able to teach his players a solid offensive set that gets open shots. That's not happening with this team and it may not before the year's out. The problem has been understanding time and score as well as situation. The Bruins hurry when they don't need to, they have in Adams and Muhammad, players who take too many shots too early in the possession and players in the Wears who shoot too much considering their limitations. Drew's point guard play has looked good on stat sheets, but when has it been apparent that he has taken over the team on a given possession, the way, say, Kyle Anderson has done? This may come with time but right now the Bruins are playing offense as a group of talented individuals rather than as a team. That has to do with mental effort and execution. The Bruins could certainly use a great deal of practice in that area and the only way to get the players to buy in is to sit them when they make an egregious mental mistake on the offensive end…like Howland would do, at least with certain players, earlier in his UCLA tenure. Howland certainly is up against it with only 8 players in the rotation, but it's not impossible to do this. PVAM, as well as Long Beach State on Tuesday night, represent opportunities for Howland to impose this sort of mental discipline. However, I wrote that about last year's squad and the squad from the year before and it didn't happen, so why change now, right?
Have you ever seen the episode of "Family Guy" where Peter and Lois are trying to practice singing for a local talent show and don't have any inspiration? They end up smoking a lot of pot and get so stoned that when they go onstage at the show, they think they are the second coming of (insert talented singing artists here), yet in reality they sound like my 5 year-old having a temper tantrum? Hilarious…and its where I'm at right now. My prediction for this game is going to be the same as it was for the Cal Poly game; a UCLA blowout. However, I am making that prediction under the assumption that I am sane and lucid. I should warn everyone, though, that my young daughter has given me her cold. Stuffy nose, headache, slight fever…what I think looks like Pulitzer Prize writing and insightful analysis and predictions could in reality look like the ramblings of a 5 year-old having a temper tantrum. It's like the reality that UCLA may simply not be very good and that the Bruins won't get any better. They look talented and very good on paper, but on the court they've looked less than the sum of their parts.
Let's see if there's effort, if there's a defensive presence and if the offense looks crisp and focused. If not…well, there's always Tuesday
Prairie View 58
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