We were pretty accurate with our guess at what record the team would have at this point, 14-3, and fairly accurate in assessing the team's level of talent.
We, of course, were off on a few nuances, but for a team that had four freshmen coming in, who had never played college basketball and that have ended up being such a huge part of the team in the first half of the season, we were pretty accurate overall.
It's a good time, then, at halfway through the season, to provide a mid-season review.
A subscriber on the message board, brocky, actually suggested it, and it sounded like a good idea. So, we'll answer his questions.
-- Are they better or worse than you thought they'd be?
The 2012-2013 Bruins are a little worse than I thought they'd be before the season, and that's mostly because I believed they'd have both Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb on the roster. The rest of the roster is just about what I anticipated, with a few little differences here and there.
First, here's what I thought Smith and Lamb could bring to the table. Smith, even if he just played 18 minutes per game, was a low-post presence that made other teams have to adapt to match up against him. I believed truly, from what I had heard, that Smith would actually put it together this season -- not to the point he'd be playing 30 minutes and go 18/11, but a solid 22-25 minutes and provide that low-post presence. If you add a decent-to-good Josh Smith to the current line-up, it gives Ben Howland a completely different offensive option. There have been times so far this season where UCLA could have really benefitted from that in its halfcourt offense. At the very least, with teams having to compensate for Smith, many times with double- and triple-teams when he caught the ball, you could imagine the kind of open looks that Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams would have had. An even moderately effective Smith would have given this team something that about 95% of the rest of college basketball doesn't have, and it potentially would have served the team well in matching up against the rest of that 5% come tournament time. Many fans believe that Smith was a chemistry killer, but he really wasn't. He wasn't a disruptive influence on the rest of the team at all. Many fans will also cite that, given Smith's history at UCLA, his inability to lose weight or seemingly take basketball seriously was a strong indication that he wouldn't be a factor this season, and that's valid. There were indications, though, from inside the program, that Smith had turned the corner, at least with his attitude and approach, and I thought that would be enough to make him at least moderately effective this season, and give UCLA that uncommon option that other college basketball teams just don't have. It has to be said: Not being able to develop Smith, nurture him and have him even slightly realize his potential is one of the biggest failures of Howland's time as UCLA's head coach. From what we've heard, Smith is a different type of kid, who clearly had his issues, but in the opinion of many close to the program, could have been saved and developed, but that Howland just didn't have the tool set to do it with Smith.
With Lamb, UCLA would have gotten another guard/wing that had considerable college experience, and good athleticism to play defense, which this team sorely misses at this point. Lamb, in the off-season, had become one of UCLA's better outside shooters, and was probably UCLA's best on-ball defender, better than Norman Powell. With UCLA having such a limited roster, it could really use another wing/guard who could contribute, particularly on defense, especially since UCLA now has only 8 scholarship players and could, still, face an injury situation where it would wish it had a deeper bench. One of the biggest issues so far this season has been the existing players having letdowns because of fatigue, mostly due to playing extended minutes. The addition of Lamb on the roster might have gone a long way to countering those lulls. Some have made the point that Howland can't manage the playing time of more than 7 or 8 players, and that may be true. In a different world, where the coach can keep upward of 9 or 10 players happy and use them effectively, Lamb would have provided a huge potential boost to this team.
Some might think that this team would be worse with Lamb and Smith, and that may be true. But contrary to revisionist history, Lamb and Powell weren't chemistry killers. They were just two other players that brought their own unique talents to the roster, talents that this team could have benefitted from if they had been nurtured and developed, and integrated well.
The one player who is better than anticipated is Jordan Adams. We knew he was a shooter, and even a pretty adept scorer, but not at this level of effectiveness. He has experienced literally no freshman transition issues, and has shown aspects of his game that almost no one, even the scouts on the east coast who saw him play 50 times, could have anticipated. A big part of it is that Adams, in the off-season, lost probably 20 pounds. The Jordan Adams who played for Oak Hill Academy as a senior last year wasn't capable of doing everything he's doing now as a Bruin freshman. He's definitely quicker, and he's used that improved quickness on the offensive end, particularly in his ability to create space for himself. He has a good first step, and he uses that now to either get into the paint and dish or get enough room for a mid-range jumper. His improved quickness offensively has allowed his great natural scoring instincts to come out more. It's enabled him to score with that mid-range game, and exploit his touch from that distance, that we might not have seen had he'd been 20 pounds heavier. His play, and again his fearlessness and lack of any hesitation in making that transition from high school to college, has garnered him an average of 16 points per game, playing 28 minutes per game, which is beyond what anyone could have anticipated. That level of contribution, truly, we didn't anticipate, and has been the difference-maker in UCLA being 14-3.
All of the other players are perhaps just about what we expected. Muhammad is almost exactly as we expected, and pretty close to what we predicted he'd be. He actually is a slightly better outside shooter (45% from three) than we had anticipated, but he's also not nearly putting in the effort on defense that we thought he would. Kyle Anderson is pretty much in line with what we expected. Larry Drew is perhaps a bit better as a passer and distributor than we expected, but just about what we would have anticipated on defense.
What Howland has done particularly well is blend the team's offensive talents, and plugged them in well to his new brand of offense. We said, in the season previews, that this team would have to out-score opponents, but it's been an accomplishment to design an offense that did it efficiently, and Howland has done that. Going into the season, we wondered how someone like Adams and Muhammad, two guys who like to shoot quite often and not necessarily take the best of shots, would flourish in Howland's structured offense (with shot selection historically being Howland's biggest pet peeve), but the Early Offense that Howland instituted has really been vastly successful for them.
Defensively, the team is about what we would have expected. Drew isn't a good, consistent on-ball defender, which has allowed opposing offenses to penetrate and create too easily; Muhammad and Adams struggle in their perimeter, on-ball defense; and Travis Wear, David Wear and Anderson are all limited post defenders. The team is improving defensively, definitely, showing flashes of better help defense. But they are still going to be limited defensively due to a lack of athleticism.
I didn't think they'd struggle against teams like UC Irvine or Cal Poly. I didn't anticipate the early-season issues the team experienced, both on and off the court, that made them play pretty poorly early on.
All in all, when judging whether they are "better or worse" than what we thought before the season, they are probably just a tad worse, since they don't have the benefit of two other scholarship players in Smith and Lamb, and what their talents could have offered this team. But they are pretty close to expectation overall.
-- Had they not lost to Cal Poly would they have met expectations?
I don't really judge whether a team meets expectations by winning or losing specific games. What if they had beaten Cal Poly but lost to UC Irvine? What if they would have lost to both of them, or barely beaten both of them? They'd still be the same team right now, with a slightly altered record.
-- Do they have more or less upside than originally thought?
Just about the same from what we anticipated going into the season. If you're talking about "upside" being potential, they still have the same amount of potential offensively and defensively. They are getting close to reaching their potential offensively. Muhammad and Anderson are playing about as well as you could expect offensively. Travis Wear is having a very good offensive season, and there isn't much more he could do. As we've written, Drew has shown some effectiveness in being able to take his defender off the dribble, and he could do that more, and create some easier baskets in the halfcourt for him and his teammates. It seems like that's one aspect of the offense Howland hasn't tried to specifically exploit. He has tried to post up Muhammad, and provided multiple screens in the halfcourt for Muhammad and Adams to curl around for open looks. Wear has just about an open green light to shoot the ball whenever he touches it. It doesn't seem, though, like Drew has a green light to take his man off the dribble as much as he might.
Anderson, too, still has some offensive upside to realize. He's a better shooter than he's shown (he's going through the freshman transition with his shot), and he hasn't created enough off the dribble himself. He's not lightning quick, obviously, but he's very good at creating a bit of space off the dribble to give himself some room to shoot, take it to the basket with his length and craftiness, or dish to his teammates.
Defensively they could continue to get incrementally better, as they improve their on-ball and team defense. But they are going to be limited defensively because they are limited athletically as a team. Powell, perhaps, offers the team the most potential for improvement defensively, as he continues to improve in his defense. Just having him as an added defender when he's on the court makes the Bruins such a better defensive team.
-- Who's over/under achieved? I don't think you can say one player has done either, but each individual player has had aspects of their games where they've under- and over-achieved, like we detailed out above.
You might put Tony Parker in the category of under-achieving, but it's not necessarily his fault. Howland didn't develop him early in the season, and if he had, it'd be interesting to see what kind of player he'd be now, and by March. Parker has had some injuries that have set him back, but Howland also gets some responsibility for Parker's lack of playing time and development.
David Wear has struggled this season. He was set back by injury and never seemed to fully recover – at least so far. There is a perspective on it that it could be addition by subtraction – that David Wear's lack of effectiveness has led to less playing time, which has made the team better. The premise might not be right -- Howland was bound to give a huge amount of minutes to Anderson over at least one of the Wears anyway – but David Wear getting less minutes has definitely contributed to the development of Kyle Anderson, and the near double-double he's averaging.
-- Do you think they'll win the Pac-12?
Anyone would usually offer a reserved answer to that question. Something like, "There's too much basketball left to be played," etc. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say yes, I think they're going to win the Pac-12, and that they should win the Pac-12. I've now watched enough Pac-12 basketball to know that the conference isn't very good. There might only be four NCAA Tournament teams in the conference. That means that UCLA is playing 8 other teams that, more or less, are not very good teams. Heck, even the other NCAA Tournament teams in the conference don't look like world-beaters. Arizona, which was undefeated and had risen to as high as #3 in the country until they lost to Oregon this week, was vastly over-rated. College basketball isn't very good in general, but even in this year Arizona is more like a Sweet 16 team than a Final Four team. Oregon, Washington, Arizona State and Colorado look to all have a chance to make the Tournament, but man, that's not a good group of teams. The Ducks very well could be the best of the group, but they're probably not even a Top 25 team; Washington is playing better recently but still a very limited team; Arizona State is doing the best with the talent it has, and Colorado is about what we thought they'd be, an NCAA bubble team at best.
So, really, Arizona and Oregon are probably UCLA's biggest competition to win the Pac-12 regular season. UCLA, however, has probably an easier remaining conference schedule, and it already swept two games in one of its toughest road trips. Arizona already has one loss, and still needs to go to @ASU, @Washington, @Washington State, @Colorado, @Utah, @USC an @UCLA, while it also has UCLA at home in Tucson. Oregon has to go to @USC, @UCLA, @Washington, @Washington State, @Colorado and @Utah. Having already beaten Arizona in Eugene, and not having to face them again on the road, and then not having to face UCLA in Eugene is a big schedule advantage for the Ducks. UCLA doesn't have a loss yet either, but has to go to @Arizona, @ASU, @Washington and @Washington State, and has to face Arizona and ASU at home. Not having to go to Oregon for UCLA is a schedule plus. UCLA and Oregon, both undefeated so far in the conference, and having more favorable remaining conference schedules, look like they have a better path to the conference championship than Arizona. And then the only time UCLA and Oregon face each other UCLA has the Ducks at home, in Pauley Pavilion this Saturday (for perhaps the most decisive game of the Pac-12 season). And really, UCLA is a better team that Oregon. The irony is that Arizona is probably the best team of the three, but with the loss @Oregon and the tougher remaining schedule, they have the toughest road to the conference championship.
So, yes, I think UCLA should be expected to win the Pac-12 regular season.
Of course, that's barring any injuries, which this UCLA team doesn't have a lot of room to accommodate.
-- What might we expect for the Tourney if the team continues to improve at this rate?
I don't know if you can expect the team to improve at the rate it has to this point. I think it's definitely improved, but I don't necessarily see a great deal of room for more improvement. That's not saying they won't get better; I think they will. But they probably have done most of their improving already.
In terms of the Tournament, if UCLA wins the Pac-12 regular season it would have a chance at a lofty #3 seed, if some things went the Bruins' way. Let's say UCLA won the conference fairly handily, maybe with just a few of losses, and won the Pac-12 Tournament, it could very well get a #3 seed. If they finish with a less-dominating Pac-12 record and perhaps just a run to the Pac-12 conference final that might mean a 4 or 5 seed.
What's critical for UCLA for its success in the NCAA Tournament would be getting in the West Region, and not having to travel far to play in potentially the first, second, third and fourth rounds. A few different scenarios could make that happen, but winning the Pac-12 and looking like the best conference team in the Tournament would be essential. The NCAA Committee wouldn't, then, have a problem of placing many teams from the west in the same region if they're all from different conferences. UCLA very well could be in the West while Gonzaga and San Diego Stare are also. The Bruins could do that with possibly even a #5 seed. With a #5 seed, UCLA would be in San Jose for the first two rounds and then the Staples Center for the Sweet 16 and the West Region Final. More than likely, if UCLA doesn't win the Pac-12, and isn't the highest-seeded Pac-12 team in the NCAA Tournament, it will get shipped out.
This isn't saying that UCLA couldn't do well in the Tournament it were shipped to another region, but it's pretty clear that it would give UCLA a huge advantage staying in the West Region.
-- What's your opinion of Howland's performance?
Generally good. Howland is a good coach, and his teams usually improve as the season progresses, as we're seeing this season.
You have to give him a great deal of credit for being able to incorporate the Early Offense into his gameplan this season. He adapted to his personnel, realized he needed to out-score opponents to win, and needed to get more and easier shots to do so. Instituting the Early Offense, where the team pushes the ball up the court and not only tries to get points on a break, but in any open early looks in semi-transition, was a considerable departure for Howland, and was quite a bit out of his comfort zone offensively. Howland's much-earned rep at UCLA was to run a very structured offense and value every possession, doing so by minimizing turnovers and bad shot selection. What has been critical in all this is this team's ability to take care of the ball, and you have to give Drew a huge amount of that credit. If this team had been committing 20 turnovers a game in its Early Offense, you could probably bet that Howland would have scrapped the Early Offense pretty quickly.
Defensively, the team has improved, but, as we said, they have limited potential defensively. It would have been interesting to see how good this team might have been defensively if they had been working on a zone since those summer practices preparing for China.
Howland gets lower marks as the program's general manager. Perhaps not in just this season, but overall, since, if he had been able to evaluate, recruit and manage personnel better, UCLA wouldn't be left with only 8 scholarship players at this point. So far, UCLA's limited roster hasn't been that much of a factor, and they might luck out the rest of the way and not be affected by it. But this team is one injury away from being in trouble.
-- If the team wins the Pac-12 and advances to the Sweet 16 or beyond, how might that change the future with Howland, recruits, alums, etc.?
From what I know, it would take a monumental shift in the prevailing sentiment at UCLA for Howland to remain as UCLA's coach next season. Even with UCLA's nine-game winning streak, I haven't heard that the prevailing sentiment has changed.
There is quite a bit of difference between "the Sweet 16" and "beyond." While we could only speculate about what the prevailing sentiment would be in March given different scenarios, we would expect there'd be quite a bit of a difference between making the Sweet 16 and making the Final Four.
When it comes to recruiting, I would be speculating again. But if I had to guess, if Howland did leave UCLA, and the Bruins' had a new coach, I'd have to think that recruiting would be on completely different footing. I've made it pretty clear that UCLA, going forward, will be limited in its recruiting, both in the west and nationally, with Howland as its coach. Perhaps, though, if he did take the team this season to the Final Four it would de-tarnish some of that image. If UCLA did have a new coach, it would wipe the slate clean in recruiting, and a combination of a big-named coach at UCLA, with a new Pauley Pavilion to sell, would be a pretty dynamic package in recruiting. At this point, as I said, it's all speculation based on scenarios that have yet to play out this season.