Overcoming the Hubris

NOV. 28 -- UCLA's issues were exposed against North Carolina Thursday, getting blown out by the Tar Heels, and now it's also about the Bruins realizing who they are...

Many UCLA fans weren’t able to see the UCLA/North Carolina game, and lucky them.

Most of the potential issues we’ve speculated could happen with this team when it played against a formidable, high-major opponent happened Thursday, with the Bruins getting blown out by the Tar Heels, 78-56.

Really, the only way to succinctly describe the game is that the wheels came off. In a nutshell: The Bruins were hanging in a bit in the first half, but then Kevon Looney picked up his fourth foul just a few seconds into the second half; Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton then tried to do far too much, and combined for 3-for-16 shooting, 0-for-9 from three, while committing 13 turnovers; Alford scored 10 points and Hamilton 0; UCLA looked like it gave up, North Carolina smelled blood, hit some threes and it spiraled out of control from there.

While it’s early in the season and UCLA is almost certainly not going to play this badly all season, it does raise some concerns about this team and whether it can play competitively at all against a good level of competition.

North Carolina, too, is pretty good, but not nearly as good as some of the teams that are on UCLA’s schedule. So, it’s really disconcerting envisioning those games.

The question is: Can this team overcome some of the issues we’ve discussed before the season and warned about when the Bruins were running over its bad non-conference opponents?

They were certainly all on display Thursday, so it’s easy to analyze.

There is obviously a depth problem. The primary depth problem, too, is that UCLA just can’t be without Kevon Looney. With Looney only playing 23 minutes in this game, there was a plain lack of talent on the court, and UCLA isn’t good enough, without him, to beat half the teams on their schedule. So keeping him on the court is key. That’s going to be a random proposition for probably the rest of the season, because you can’t hamstring him by making him worry about fouls. He’s a freshman and learning how to play college basketball, so he’s bound to get in foul trouble – especially now, with other future opponents realizing what happens to UCLA when he’s on the bench and making an effort to draw fouls from him.

It doesn’t seem like there’s much to do on this front but work to bring along Looney quickly, hope he matures and understands how to stay out of foul trouble better as the season progresses. How much smarter and composed Looney plays by the end of the season is going to be a big coaching challenge.

In this game, Bryce Alford bumped his head on the ceiling of his talent. Facing a high-major opponent he had his limitations and bad habits exposed – the kind that don’t show up or he can get away with against Nicholls State.

With Looney out, it was clear that Bryce thought he had to take the team on his shoulders, and dramatically over-estimated his ability to do that. When playing against a higher level of athleticism and defense, his shot was off, and the shot selection wasn’t good. In the cupcake non-conference, Bryce would make poorly-chosen shots, but he missed many in this game, and looked like he was out of his depth doing it. Desperate, he did his thing of penetrating-to-nowhere and turned the ball over repeatedly. There was a few-minute sequence in the second half when UCLA got a fresh shot clock on offense a couple of times, and Bryce was the only Bruin who touched the ball during that time, and then was the only one on the next possession – with all of those possessions resulting in a bad, missed shot or a turnover.

Hamilton might have been worse. His lack of ballhandling skills was exposed, getting picked a couple of times, and he also tried to force shots and drives unsuccessfully. He went 0 for 6 from the field and 0 for 5 from three. Hamilton isn’t a point guard, we’ve known this since he was in high school, and it was foolish to believe the hype that he had turned himself into one in his year off. He does have talent, and he’s not nearly as bad as he showed in this game, however. It’s just a matter of him realizing who he is and playing to his own strengths within the team concept.

Team Concept is an interesting concept. It certainly vanished in the second half. Bryce, as we said, has a perpetual green light, and he indulged it poorly Thursday. Hamilton, too, doesn’t seem to have much reservation about shooting or attempting to drive and abandoning the offense.

It was fairly apparent that this didn’t go over too well with the rest of the team. Body language wasn’t good. It looked like Norman Powell and others got frustrated watching their teammates force shots and adopted an attitude a bit of: “If he’s going to do that then I have to get mine.” Powell then forced some drives and shots himself and looked like Powell from a couple of years ago in the second half. The chemistry on the team wasn’t great, then, with some chirping going on between players and some freezing-out happening.

This was all offensive issues. Defensively, it was more of the sagging man and the zone, and both didn’t fare well. What’s amazing, though, is that North Carolina’s offense really wasn’t even very great. Marcus Paige was a tough matchup, but the rest of the Tar Heels weren’t exactly offensive juggernauts. North Carolina shot just 42% from the field and 35% from three, and it wasn’t because of UCLA’s defense. What we’re saying is – if North Carolina was a good offensive team it could have far more exploited the open outside looks and seams in UCLA’s defense. In other words, there will be better offensive teams coming that have the potential to make UCLA’s defense look even uglier.

But while UCLA’s defense might get incrementally better, it really isn’t the key to the season. It is what it is. Defense is so much about athleticism and effort, and this team doesn’t have much of the former and hasn’t displayed much of the latter. But, like with last season, hopefully by February and March they’ll learn how to sustain defensive effort better.

With the way this team is built, the key to the season, really, is the development of UCLA’s offense, primarily. Well, and, again, keeping Looney on the court.

And maybe a key is UCLA coaches and players doing some effective self-scouting, to be able to know who they are and what they’re capable of.

They plainly aren’t good enough to play North Carolina straight up like they are Long Beach State. You can’t employ the same tactics against North Carolina as you did against Montana State. To be competitive against a better team, they have to adjust tactically. You can’t think, first, you’re going to run with the type of athletes North Carolina has. You have to limit possessions, slow down the game, use your shot clock, and try to keep the game close. That means much better shot selection, and not perpetual green lights. It also means, possession by possession and player by player, knowing who you are and how effective you can be against who’s guarding you. Again, you can’t drive against North Carolina like you can against Montana State.

The fate of the season, really, relies on whether this team can subvert individuals forcing things and play in a team concept. They simply aren’t talented enough to win with individuals (Well, again, maybe in Looney’s one-on-one match-up). The only way to beat better teams is to acknowledge which teams are better and then play within a team concept against them.

We said we really didn’t have enough to go on after UCLA’s first few games to draw some conclusions, but we did come away from this game with one clear conclusion: The program – the coaches and players – seem to lack a very needed awareness of who they are, how good they are, and tactically what they’ll need to do against better teams on their schedule.

All of the things we talked about as potential pitfalls for this team, and the things we warned against when they played cupcakes, we can now conclude were pretty accurate. We can also conclude, however, there’s enough talent on this team, especially compared to the rest of college basketball and the Pac-12, to finish with a fairly strong season. After North Carolina, though, there’s one more conclusion: to be competitive with better, more talented teams on its schedule, the Bruins are going to have to overcome their hubris.

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