C Tony Parker (USA Today)

Bad Effort Dooms Bruins in Maui

Nov. 26 -- UCLA dropped its second game in Maui, losing to an undermanned Wake Forest team 80-77 thanks, largely, to very poor effort on the defensive end...

This is bad basketball.

Look, we can dissect every last detail of every game, and we can talk about who actually gave up a bucket, or who didn’t rotate correctly, or whether guys are playing the right positions or wrong positions, but in the end, the obvious, overarching image of UCLA right now is simply that: this is bad basketball.

UCLA lost to an undermanned Wake Forest team on Wednesday night, and the Demon Deacons basically controlled the game from about midway through the first half on. The Bruins played with poor effort throughout, with basically no attention paid to the defensive end along with some sloppy play on the offensive end. It was the sort of game that if UCLA had given just a couple of spurts of really consistent effort on both ends of the floor, the Bruins probably would have won the game going away. The Bruins were very likely the more talented team, considering Wake Forest was down two of its likely best players, but the Demon Deacons (who, it should be noted, didn’t exactly set the world afire with their effort level either) simply played harder, and with more consistent focus.

This Wake Forest team might end up pretty good, or it might end up a mediocre ACC team. It’s hard to tell based on a game where they were, again, without some key personnel. What’s a little more obvious now is the progressively steeper climb UCLA is facing to get into the NCAA Tournament with each passing game. As Rob pointed out in his preview, this was pretty close to must-win for realistic NCAA Tournament hopes, as it’s unlikely the Bruins beat North Carolina, Kentucky, or Gonzaga. Instead, the Bruins fell, in a sloppy, inconsistent effort that was simply the capper for what was a very disappointing trip to Maui for UCLA.

We’ve been hanging our collective hat on Aaron Holiday being the bright spot for this team through the early going, but he had a really poor game Wednesday against Wake Forest. The freshman point guard had five turnovers, many of them unforced, and flagged a bit on the defensive end, frequently going under screens instead of fighting through them. As we said in the last recap, the worry with Holiday is that energy and commitment on the defensive end could very well start to dissipate if it’s not nurtured by similar play from his teammates, and at this point, we’re not seeing any commitment to defense from anyone else on the team.

Bryce Alford forced the issue quite a bit, including a stretch late in the game, and didn’t shoot it well again. He made a few nice passes in the stretch where UCLA made it closer in the second half, and had a couple of nice drives in the second half when Wake Forest was inattentive on the defensive side. He and Isaac Hamilton didn’t do a whole lot of defending in this one, which is about par for the course at this point. Hamilton once again shot the ball pretty well after that disastrous game against UNLV on Monday.

Jonah Bolden had a pretty bad game, which forced Alex Olesinski into extended minutes once again. Bolden just hasn’t looked comfortable on the court, doesn’t seem to have found a really effective role on offense, and didn’t look like he had a real idea what he was supposed to be doing in man-to-man or in transition defense. It’s a little surprising that he has been in the program for a year and still looks this uncomfortable in the system. Olesinski, for his part, wasn’t a whole lot better, but at least looked like he had a better handle on what he was supposed to be doing defensively. He has shot the ball very poorly so far this season.

UCLA was much more efficient scoring inside in this one, so if you’re looking to take positives from this game, that would be one. Tony Parker seemed pretty engaged, at least on offense, with only the occasional lull in concentration. He put up 18 and 15 and was probably UCLA’s best player on Wednesday. He also went nearly the first eight minutes of the second half without a shot attempt, which probably wasn’t an ideal strategy to start out the second half given his quality of play up to that point (and also given that he was actually pretty engaged on the defensive end for those same eight minutes, recording a couple of blocks).

In any case, the issue isn’t really the offense. UCLA has been able to score pretty consistently under Alford, even if the offense sometimes seems to resort a little too much to hero ball and can go maddening stretches without getting the ball inside.

The issue is the defense. UCLA has looked really poor defensively, and it was exposed especially in the last two games where even the 1-2-2 zone, which looked like it might help UCLA defensively, was sliced apart by the quick passing and three point shooting of both Kansas and Wake Forest. UCLA doesn’t appear to have much of an idea what it’s doing in man defense at this point, with interior defense being a particularly worrying issue (with a bruising big man like Parker and a player with the length of Thomas Welsh on the inside, teams with just one or two real post players shouldn’t be able to score inside with the consistency they’ve been able to this year). The major issue is that UCLA doesn’t appear to be even trying particularly hard on that end of the floor.

As many have said since time immemorial, defense is fundamentally about effort. Yes, you need some sort of athleticism to be an excellent defender, and you need to have some idea what you’re doing, but the fundamental building block of good defense is consistent effort. That’s something UCLA has struggled with for each of the last three years, and until that sort of effort is demanded from the players, with a trip to the bench as a disciplinarian, it’s going to continue to be an issue. At this point, that lack of consistent effort is one of a few calling cards for UCLA basketball.

With the Bruins at 3-3 now, and very little chance of making a big case in the non-conference for an NCAA Tournament bid, this would be the time to demand that effort from the players, and use the bench as a teaching tool. If the starting guards continue to give poor effort on defense, bring in Prince Ali. If the starting posts can’t defend the interior, then maybe bring in Ikenna Okwarabizie to at least knock some guys around and play hard (even if he doesn’t know how to play, really). UCLA almost certainly isn’t going to beat North Carolina, Kentucky, and Gonzaga, but it’s never too late to start building the foundation of a real team. Good basketball starts with effort, and, given what we’ve seen from UCLA this year, that’s exactly where the Bruins need to start, beginning this Sunday.

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