The Picture of this Team is Clearer

Dec. 14 -- UCLA kept it a little respectable against #9 Gonzaga, 87-74, but it showed us the true nature of this Bruin team, and perhaps a glimpse at the types of teams we'll see under Steve Alford in the future...

UCLA got out-played Saturday night against #9-ranked Gonzaga, 87-74, and while it pretty much put on display what type of team the Bruins are, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.

You easily could have envisioned the Zags blowing out UCLA by 20+, but the Bruins hung in, mostly by some strong one-on-one offensive performances and a late defensive surge – and catching Gonzaga on a night they weren’t consistently as good as they can be.

Even though UCLA was clearly a worse team than Gonzaga, and were exposed in so many facets – like fundamentals, decision-making and intensity – it’s clear UCLA has some offensive talent. With literally no offensive sets but relying purely on individuals to score, UCLA went on a 10-2 run with about 6 minutes left to bring the deficit to around 10.

UCLA’s offense, now that we’ve seen it enough this season, is an interesting thing. It really doesn’t resemble last year’s offense, when the team would run some halfcourt sets that also allowed for some individual improvisation. The offense this year is mostly individuals improvising. UCLA has returned to the rolling-the-ball-out offense of Jim Harrick, with any of various players having to shoulder the scoring load at different times by going one-on-one, and it was marginally effective against Gonzaga.

Marginally meaning: Not good enough to win.

Then, after the Bruins made a few individual baskets, they actually got some energy on the defensive end. It forced the Zags to go deep into their shot clock and not take an ideal shot. UCLA got some stops and it kept Gonzaga from posting that 20+ lead, but didn’t really put UCLA in a place to threaten the Zags down the stretch.

What that spurt of defense did, however, is make you wonder about whether the team had sustained that kind of defensive effort for most of the game just how competitive it might have been.

We now have seen this UCLA team against run-and-gunning cupcakes, slow-it-down cupcakes, an athletic high-major and an experienced, well-disciplined, smart high-major. And we previously said we needed to see it this much to draw some conclusions, but from all the data we’ve gotten this season we’re starting to suspect we have a completely different animal on our hands here – not just the team this season, but the types of teams we’re going to see going forward that Steve Alford will put on the floor at UCLA.

It’s taken us a while to come to this point, since we were working off the type of team UCLA was last season.

But we’re now convinced last season was an enigma for Alford, in terms of style and approach. That team was made up predominantly by players who were very well versed fundamentally by Ben Howland, and had a good deal of experience. That team, plugged into Steve Alford’s offense, created a pretty nice offense, one that got points under control in transition but also scored in the half-court with a very nicely executed motion offense that shared the ball.

This year’s team, however, is a completely different animal, and it probably is a better representative of the type of teams Alford will have at UCLA. The team is, admittedly, young and inexperienced, and does some things that are clearly the result of that youth and inexperience. But there is also a marked looseness in the team’s play, moreso than with last year’s team, which isn’t just a reflection of youth and inexperience, but a result of the style Alford has chosen to adopt at UCLA and the type of players he’s recruited.

Pretty much it comes down to this: If you choose to play a loose style that gives players freedom so that recruits want to play for you, you’re going to suffer all of the downside of that style, too. And that downside was definitely on display at Pauley Saturday night.

If you want to run, as UCLA does, but a good team takes away your transition opportunities, like Gonzaga did, you’re relegated to scoring in your halfcourt offense. If you recruit players who are selfish offensively and give them a perpetual green light you are going to live and die offensively by their ability to individually score. Isaac Hamilton is the poster boy for this – living and dying with his green light. Now, if you can recruit some truly elite players consistently, the strategy might work. At this point, though, in Alford’s program, he doesn’t have truly elite players so they’re clearly not talented enough to overcome a better-coached, more fundamentally-sound team like Gonzaga. Whether this team just isn’t capable of executing an offense consistently or it chooses not to, well, it really doesn’t matter, because the end product is what you saw, an offense that has a bunch of individuals that go one-on-one, either taking bad outside shots or driving to nowhere to try to create something randomly. To be candid, if you’re not a basketball purist and don’t care how the baskets are scored but just whether the ball goes in, it really doesn’t matter. In the Gonzaga game, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Norman Powell and Kevon Looney invariably took turns trying to create – on their own – some offense, to varying degrees of success. Actually, unlike against North Carolina where it was an epic failure, this wasn’t nearly as bad. Bryce Alford scored 23 points, with probably only 6 of those points coming in the flow of the offense. Most of them were scored when Bryce took a bad shot or made a really ill-advised drive and either scored or forced a foul. Isaac Hamilton has, essentially, the same offensive approach, and he scored 18. Powell is a little more under control and finds better looks through some of the natural offensive flow – but not by much, and he scored 12. Kevon Looney scored from just pulling up off the dribble or athletically over-matching his defender, and he scored 14.

It’s UCLA’s offense now under Alford, called the Green Light Motion.

There is the faction, though, that has just about no hair left from pulling it out as a result of Bryce or Hamilton going on an ugly drive through the lane out of control and off-balance. See, for those of us going bald it’s just not a matter of principle, we know in the long run it’s a brand of basketball that has a low percentage of success – even if it does it with a load of talent.

But let’s just say that, in future years, the program plugs in some elite talent (and, at this point, if you look at Alford’s recruiting, that’s a big if). But conceding that, there is still the experience factor. If you recruit many one-and-doners, like Kevon Looney, and that makes up a big portion of your roster, you’re always going to be playing with inexperience. It’s just going to be a revolving door of greatly talented – but inexperienced – players. So, the burden then lies completely on getting enough talent to not only make up for the low-percentage approach but for the inexperience factor.

That’s what we realized watching Gonzaga – that the program under Alford, at least the way he’s recruiting and how he’s coaching – is more of a longshot than we had previously thought. It’s a different approach than the one he had had New Mexico clearly, which was based on a slow-down, value-possession style. Now seeing what is going to be Alford’s style at UCLA, with the type of players he’s going to recruit, there are just too many low-percentage factors going against it.

It’s clear the offense isn’t going to deviate from its approach, which is put the ball in the hands of Alford and Hamilton and allow them do to what they want, first, and then if some touches trickle down to the bigs, mostly in the form of offensive rebounds, great. It was evident in this game early that Kevon Looney was the most talented player on the court. He showed it inside and outside, hitting outside jumpers, one very pretty stop-and-pop, and then improvising – without any true post footwork – in the block for a basket. Tony Parker, too, had a couple of nice baskets on the block where he looked like he was too strong to be effectively defended when he got a seal. So, it stands to reason, UCLA should continue to get Looney and Parker – and especially Looney – some touches, but there was no obvious directive of that nature. The offense chugs on like it does (meaning: the guards keep driving and shooting in the Green Light Motion) regardless of the reads of the game, and what the defense is giving it.

If there was something that did stand out offensively for the Bruins in this game is that Kevon Looney is definitely going to be a top-ten pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Playing in just his 11th college game, he clearly is starting to feel more comfortable shooting the ball, hitting a three, that 15-footer off the dribble and a catch-and-shoot on the baseline, as well as one very pretty drive he converted. This offense certainly will allow the freedom of someone like Looney to showcase his talent with NBA scouts looking on in a nationally-televised game on Saturday night.

Defense is the equalizing agent in basketball. If you’re not as talented as your opponent you can always stay in a game competitively by playing tough, stout, active, smart defense. But generally when you put selfish offensive players on the floor, most of the time they aren’t the type that like to play defense. Selfish offensive players the majority of the time make for disengaged defenders. Against Gonzaga, UCLA’s man defense was sleep-walking for probably about 34 minutes. As is typical of this brand of basketball player, they’ll occasionally turn up the intensity on defense, almost exclusively after they hit a couple of shots on the offensive end. Powell, who was developing into a good defensive player under Howland and last year (perhaps just the leftover influence from Howland?), has regressed. His defense against Gonzaga was particularly poor; he looked like he had pretty much given up trying to defend a ball screen. When his man came around a screen, Powell, at least a few times, just stopped. Perhaps the defensive stylings of Bryce and Hamilton are bleeding over into Powell. Perhaps it’s just a lack of emphasis on defense in the program. It’s clear that that’s the case, too, because there are so many defensive techniques and fundamentals this team just doesn’t do. Close-outs are foreign and done with such a poor fundamental style. UCLA’s bigs don’t hedge screens. If they didn’t know how to do it, they could have watched Gonzaga’s bigs, who hedged really well. And, of course, defending a simple ball screen is something UCLA just plainly can’t do, and it’s been the bread-and-butter of the opposition’s offense for most of this season so far. A staple of a good defense has to be good on-ball defense and good post defense. That’s just straight up, good man-to-man D on the perimeter and in the paint. Against Gonzaga, UCLA’s interior defense was particularly poor. Yeah, Looney and Thomas Welsh are freshmen, and all freshman posts aren’t good at post defense. But Tony Parker is a junior and he’s still fairly mediocre at it. And when you generally have young, poor post defenders, you need to double, especially effective post scorers like those Gonzaga has. UCLA did have some efforts at doubling, but it’s a half-hearted, drop-down version from the guards, a kind of sneak-over-and-try to-swat-away-the-ball help rather than real doubling. We’re pretty certain why UCLA doesn’t really double – well, first, because it’s a tough defensive tactic to teach and learn (and UCLA is too busy teaching behind-the-back passes in practice). And secondly, because it then demands some really good rotation and help, which this team – and this man defense – is really bad at doing already. The perimeter on-ball defense is generally poor, and if you watched the game closely you know Kevin Pango’s offensive drought in this game had very little to do with Bryce’s defense. Pangos looked like he was out of it a big portion of the game, making some unforced errors like passes out of bounds, turnovers in transition and slipping on the floor (perhaps we should attribute the best Bruin defense to the slippery Pauley floor).

UCLA’s defense, yes, isn’t good, but the most disturbing aspect of it is that there aren’t even attempts to do what even slightly sophisticated defenses do. At this point, with how devastating ball screens are against UCLA’s defense, we’d be content if UCLA’s bigs could simply attempt some hedges. Yeah, we know that goes against the sagging element of the defense but both tactics are meant to deter a drive and the sagging clearly isn’t working. That and learning how to block out well, because this team gets its defensive rebounding mostly on individual talent and very little with blockouts. That comes into play when there are those mind-blowing defensive trips where the other team, like with Gonzaga, gets four or five offensive rebounds, and then deflates a UCLA defense that already starts from a pretty flat place.

If you’re talking fundamentals, on offense this team is very unsophisticated. It’s predicated by mostly bad decisions – too many bad shots over good shots. But it’s also, with that freedom and green light, choosing to drive into the lane with nowhere to go. These two staples of the offense are clearly, well, staples since Alford isn’t going ape crazy on the sideline and isn’t pulling anyone out of the game when they do it repeatedly. This is UCLA’s offense now. And it’s punctuated with poor fundamental technique, like jumping to pass, high dribbles on drives, one-handed passes, behind-the-back passes and post players putting the ball on the floor.

Again, this is the type of offense that gives you freedom that recruits like.

The question is whether enough truly elite players are going to look at this team – and many of the poorer games this season -- and actually say, “Hey, I want to play in that.” We tend to believe there will be just enough, because never under-estimate the self-centeredness of an elite basketball prospect. Enough of them will see the offensive freedom and the lack of defensive fundamentals and emphasis and, even though the team doesn’t look good, recognize that’s the style they want to play in to try to showcase their talents. They might watch Kevon Looney against Gonzaga and say, "Hey, that's what I want." We said there will be “just enough,” meaning enough to field a team probably a little better than this year’s team, but certainly not enough to have the excessive amount of talent you’d need to win in this style and approach consistently year in and year out.

So while it’s a low-percentage style, it will also be characterized by the unfundamental, loose brand of basketball that is really difficult to watch. It’s essentially AAU ball and we’ve watched far too much of that.

We have a great idea: Ben Howland needs a job. If he could just agree to be an assistant under Alford, he could be in charge of fundamentals and player development, as well as defensive tactics. He could develop the players individually and fundamentally so they could play a more sophisticated brand of basketball – and you could plug that into Alford’s offense. It essentially would be like last year’s team but potentially with even more talent. We think Alford should give Howland a call.

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