The Odd Feeling About UCLA Hoops

The Bruins beat the under-mannned Bears, 79-65, and did it with a new intensity on defense. But, as a BRO message board poster expressed, there is a strange ambivalence to UCLA hoops...

On the BRO message boards there is a long-time poster named Russ Smith. He's been on the site so long that his username on the message boards actually has a space between his two names. That means you were one of the original posters on the site when was launched in 2003.

Russ is a basketball guy. He knows basketball well, and always has good insight about any UCLA game. He also never insults any posters, doesn't have an agenda.

After every game, I try to do two things with my game analysis: evaluate the game accurately, and provide a Bruin fan perspective.

After last night's game, when UCLA beat Cal, 79-65, I think Russ summed up the Bruin fan perspective better than I could. On the BRO Premium Hoops Message Board, he wrote:

Obviously I've made it clear I want a new coach next season, which makes this season really odd to me. Ben Howland is a good coach. I've always said that, and you can see the impact of his coaching on this team…

…but I still very strongly feel he's the wrong guy for the program? Just an odd position for me. I love the kids on this team, want them to all have a great year and right now it looks like Howland has them moving in the right direction.

I almost find myself feeling guilty that I'm so convinced Howland has to be replaced after the season.

Here's his full post.

Now, I know that might be off-putting to some UCLA fans who want UCLA to retain Howland as the UCLA coach. But I think Russ represents the majority of the UCLA basketball fan community well.

It is a very odd season. The UCLA administration has created a very odd situation, and it's clear to perceptive fans like Russ, but also for just about every, even-less-informed UCLA basketball fan, that it's an odd season and situation.

Like Russ said, it's difficult not to enjoy watching this team develop. Last night against Cal, it appeared the Bruins took another step forward in that development.

Now, of course, the third thing I have to do with these analyses is temper everyone's opinion of most games by pointing out that UCLA's opponents aren't very good. It has to be done again with Cal, which started off the season not very talented, and has proceeded to lose some players, to the point Thursday night they were playing with essentially 6 guys, and without three players that were part of their early-season rotation.

Also, you have to take into consideration that UCLA has gone on a stretch of five straight games playing at home. It's actually been great timing for Howland and this year's team, coming off a poor end of November/beginning of December, to then return to Pauley Pavilion and be able to get better in the comfort zone of your home court.

Take into consideration, then, that the team you've seen for the last several games might be a bit different when it goes on the road in the Pac-12, which happens next weekend at Utah and Colorado.

Taking all of that into consideration, still, there were some signs against Cal that this Bruin team is taking steps in its development. Mostly it was a step in terms of its defense. Cal shot just 40% from the field for the game, which is one of the lowest field goal percentages by an opponent this season. UCLA had been beating teams by out-scoring them, with opponents often shooting close to 50% on the game. Now, Cal shot pretty poorly, and didn't make one three-pointer (0 for 13), but UCLA's defense also had something to do with that. UCLA went through its usual lulls in this game, particularly defensively, but then sustained longer periods of defensive intensity than it probably has in any other game this season. That's a very good sign, considering that you think UCLA might be a bit uninspired coming off its biggest win of the season against Missouri and having to wait five days to get back on the court.

Perhaps the main catalyst was Norman Powell, the athletic sophomore wing. When he was in the game, he provided a considerable boost in athleticism, on both ends of the court, and particularly on defense. His added defensive ability, particularly his on-ball defense, makes the team come close to being a passable defensive team. He significantly limited Cal's big-scoring wing, Allen Crabbe, and frustrated him to just five points in the first half. While Crabbe is a very good shooter, he's also developed a game where he can create off the dribble, but Powell got right up in him, to take away his perimeter shot but then also, with his athleticism, was able to stay in front of Crabbe. Now, if you're playing against a team with essentially two offensive players (Crabbe and Justin Cobbs), if you take away one of them, and the best one, then you're generally going to do pretty well.

But it wasn't just Powell defensively that made a difference. After a poor defensive first half by Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams, and then a pretty significant defensive lull in the middle of the second half, both turned up the defensive intensity like neither had done so far this season. In the second half, it appeared UCLA was getting fatigued, and was really losing its effort level on defense. Cal pulled to within four points, 61-57, at about 6:30 left in the game, mainly because they were getting easy shots against UCLA's defense that was on the verge of folding. Going into the game, you thought that it could be Cal that would putter out due to a lack of depth and a bench, but it was appearing like it was going to be the Bruins at that point. Cal, in pure Mike Montgomery style, was utilizing many screens, which further physically wore down UCLA's defense. Powell was slowing a bit having to get around so many screens to stay with Crabbe. But then both Muhammad and Adams were possessed by the UCLA defensive spirit of Arron Afflalo, or something, because they both got a considerable second wind, and it showed defensively. Adams looked like a different defensive player in applying ball pressure, and Muhammad had a couple of good defensive trips where he really made an effort to move his feet and stay in front of the ball. UCLA's help defense, too, improved, particularly with Kyle Anderson and Travis Wear sliding over to clog the paint if a Cal player penetrated. The game had a number of runs, but that pick-up in defensive intensity fueled a 7-0 run over the course of 2 ½ minutes that pretty much iced the game for the Bruins.

Anderson had an exceptional game. His rebounding ability is truly a phenomenon – how a marginally athletic player can be so effective in rebounding really is a testament to Anderson's great, pure instincts. In this game, though, he showed more of his slow-mo offensive prowess, with his cleverness and skills around the basket to score a team-leading 19 points, while getting 12 boards.

Muhammad and Adams, UCLA's two leading scorers, had 16 and 7, and were off for most of the night offensively. Muhammad did hit a big three-pointer at the end of that 7-0 run that was the dagger, but for the most part he and Adams were out-of-sync. To Howland's credit, he clearly recognized this in the first half, and went with Powell for a good chunk of minutes instead. Powell actually played 15 minutes in the first half compared to Muhammad and Adams playing 13 each. He was a very influential force on the court at the time, but not just defensively, but offensively. Powell had 8 of his 10 points on the game in the first half, and didn't only score, but is very adept at finding his teammates for open looks. When UCLA runs its multiple baseline screens and curl for its perimeter scorers, Powell is the one who consistently passes when he catches the ball out of the curl, finding teammates who have been freed up as a result of all of the screens.

And again, you can't say enough what Powell's type of athleticism does when you add it to the floor. UCLA is now clearly running some back-door looks out of its 1-4 offense for Powell, and he threw down a monster dunk and finished on the break well.

Travis Wear also carried the team offensively in the first half, getting 11 of his 15 points in the first 20 minutes. He was, again, deadly in his catch-and-shoot jumper from 15 to 17 feet. In the second half, Cal's posts began stepping out to attempt to take away that shot, and succeeded to a degree, with Wear missing a number of contested shots. But it also looked like Wear started to lose his legs again, and when he gets fatigued the shot tends to not go down as often in the second half. His fatigue was also apparent on the defensive end, with some slack defensive help in the key. He, though, picked it up in the last six minutes, as the entire team seemed to get infused with defensive energy.

Larry Drew had a typical game for him, dishing out 9 assists against just 2 turnovers, with some very nice passes, particularly in transition. Defensively, he struggled at times to keep Cobbs in front of him, and slacked off on his defensive effort, which he's prone to do at times. We did, though, think we saw a couple of times when Drew actually turned up the on-ball defensive intensity himself.

David Wear didn't play particularly well, looking very slow-footed and clueless defensively. When Cal made their second-half run, many times David Wear watched as a Bear penetrated into the key without providing any help defense.

Many UCLA fans are wondering what UCLA might be like this season if it actually had a low-post presence. The funniest thing about that is it actually does – Tony Parker – but he only played 2 minutes against Cal Thursday, and saw no time in the second half. It's frustrating to think about what type of player Parker might be right now if Howland had played him more minutes early on – and if he could have been at least a partial answer to the question of a low-post threat.

Since it's an odd time for UCLA basketball it inspires some other what-ifs. What if Howland had instituted his Early Offense during the Final Four years? What if he had loosened up back then and had the 2007-2008 team trying to find an open look early in the shot clock, with Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook pushing the ball up the court, or Kevin Love throwing his amazing outlet passes, and Luc Mbah a Moute, Josh Shipp (who was a very good finisher and cherry-picked anyway) and Westbrook out on the break, and Mike Roll looking for a secondary open three? It, actually, had that low-post presence in Love. And that team played great defense, and had a good half-court offense.

Oh, what if?

You never know, the situation now might be entirely different, kind of like the short story by Ray Bradbury, "A Sound of Thunder." If the past were slightly different, it's impossible to know how it could exponentially alter the future. If Howland's Final Four teams had had a legitimate rep for transition might that had been the difference in winning a national championship? Would that, and the difference in style, had appealed to more recruits, or made players actually want to stay in the program? Might it have effectively loosened up Howland personally? Could it all have contributed to a completely different, current environment to the program, and Howland being in a completely different situation in terms of his job status?

It very well might not have brought us to where we are now, with great UCLA fans like Russ Smith feeling oddly ambivalent toward the team and the season.

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