UCLA Gets One for Coach, 64-58

On the day that the UCLA community came out to honor its national treasure, John Wooden, the team provided a win, beating Michigan State, 64-58. The strengths and weaknesses of this team, now six games into the season, are very apparent, and it's clear what UCLA will have to improve upon to be successful this season...

With UCLA beating #25-ranked Michigan State 64-58 before 12,432 fans in Pauley Pavilion and one very special 93-three-old man, the predominant characteristics of this team are now becoming very evident, and the areas they need to improve.

It was, first, though, as Head Coach Ben Howland said after the game, necessary that UCLA won the game, on the day that the floor of Pauley Pavilion was named ‘The Nell and John Wooden Court," and UCLA paid tribute to its living legend and wise man.

It would have been nice, in the ceremony, to have heard from some of the assembled former players. I don't think that anyone could generate the emotion of talking about Coach Wooden like his former players. If there was ever a time I wanted to hear Bill Walton speak, this was it. But it was great to see them all at Pauley, and see the court finally have John Wooden's name on it. And it's always a goose-bump event to see Coach Wooden being honored in any way.

Since the team was in the retro-1964 uniforms that read "BRUINS' on the front of the jersey with no name on the back, it occurred to me how retro this team is in a way.

Five games into the season, it's now pretty well accepted that this team is going to play great defense, almost reminiscent of how John Wooden's team's played defense.

They held Michigan State to 35% from the field, and are holding opponents to 39% for the season. It's obvious that, playing this kind of defense will probably keep this team in every game they play this season, and give them a chance to beat anybody. Defense has become the defining characteristic of this team. The perimeter players are putting good pressure on the ball and they're contesting almost every shot (we're starting to get spoiled over Brian Morrison blocking opponent's outside jumpers), while the interior players are generally playing intelligently, hedging on screens, switching and playing good positional defense well. With good defense comes good rebounding, as UCLA out-rebounded Michigan State 36-33 for the game.

With the offense still sputtering, you almost look forward to UCLA's trips to the defensive end of the court.

The offense, though, is still under construction.

And, now, after five games, it's pretty easy to recognize where it's failing. UCLA simply isn't getting enough points from interior scoring or in transition.

Potential points off transition isn't that big of a concern. It's something you can't necessarily program into a game, like you can an interior offense. It's completely dependent on getting stops, getting rebounds, and then the other team's ability to get back and defend in transition. It's pretty obvious that this team might lack the personnel to be a running team. It rebounds just okay (even though it was very obvious that this team had blocking out stressed in practice this week. MSU didn't get many second chances on their offensive side of the court), and doesn't have a quick, push-it kind of point guard in Cedric Bozeman. It also has struggled once it actually has the ball out on the break, with some mis-catches and travels. I think it's reasonable, as the season progresses, to expect UCLA to get more baskets in transition, mostly in getting open outside jumpers before the defense can match up with their defensive assignments. But it could be too much to ask of this team, given its personnel, to become a real running, fast-break team.

Getting more interior scoring from a well-executed offense and post players that get position is far more likely. The team is operating its offense fairly well, spacing, setting its screens and moving the ball, but the one aspect of its execution where it's failing is to get the ball inside. It's not necessarily the fault of the guards for not being able to feed the post, but probably more the fault of the interior players for being unable to post up. Cedric Bozeman and the other perimeter players are looking inside, but Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins are still young and inexperienced, and not generally able to get position to catch the ball. Opponent's defenders know that they can physically beat Fey and Hollins to interior position, and are doing it successfully. A couple of times against Michigan State when UCLA did get an easy basket from one of its posts players was when Fey was able to take advantage of a Spartan defender over-playing and fronting him. With the post players unable to establish position, the perimeter players tend to then not look for them as much. So the offense then becomes perimeter-oriented, which isn't going to get it done with a team that has only decent outside shooting (45% from the field and 37% from three for the season). It's going to get you beat against a team like UC Santa Barbara, when your shooters, Dijon Thompson or Morrison, don't hit their shots. It will then get you a win, like it did against Michigan State, when Morrison and Thompson hit some very big, clutch outside jumpers. But it's no way to go through the season.

It is entirely within the framework of this offense for its interior players to be able to get the ball in their hands. And, not to pinpoint one player, it does really come down to Mike Fey being able to work as hard as he can to get position and demand the ball. We're only calling out Mike Fey a bit here since between him and Ryan Hollins, he's the post that has the true capability this season to score consistently inside. He's shown it in stretches this season, especially in the second half of the opener against Vermont when he scored 18 points. It's the primary reason Fey was named the starter over Hollins. He has some effective scoring moves when he catches the ball down the low, and a good touch. It's a matter of Fey getting position, and then also being able to catch the ball. Ryan Hollins played 22 minutes to Mike Fey's 18 against Michigan State, due seemingly to Howland's dissatisfaction with Fey's intensity on the boards. Fey, admittedly, isn't a great rebounder, and you're giving up some rebounding capability when you have Fey in the game and not Hollins. But Hollins is limited in the post with his back to the basket offensively. And this team needs to start getting 5-6 baskets more from within ten feet. In the first half, Mike Fey didn't have a shot attempt. The team had one shot from within 10 feet of the basket, off a back-door lob to Trevor Ariza. For the game, Fey shot the ball twice.

It could also really give the offense a boost if they could get more inside scoring from T.J. Cummings. At his four position, in this offense, he does have easier opportunities to face the basket and shoot. But there are many options within the flow of the offense and its plays for Cummings to choose to post up. He attempted it a few times against Michigan State, but it appeared more like a going-through-the-motions effort. One time when he did get the ball in position in the paint, he traveled. Ariza isn't going to be a back-to-the-basket type of scorer. Cummings needs to get 2-3 baskets a game from posting up, and he needs to work hard at getting position in the post, instead of settling for his 15-foot looks.

Not to dampen the glow over the win, but it's necessary to put the win over Michigan State in perspective. You could easily make the case that Michigan State is an average team, and one of the most over-rated teams in the country. You can also see why, with seemingly some good individual players, but very little chemistry and ability to play together in a team concept. You could make a very good case that UC Santa Barbara is a better team than Michigan State. UCLA, at points in this game, had opportunities to blow up the lead to a far more comfortable margin, but kept shooting itself in the foot with turnovers, bad execution and, as we all saw, horrible free throw shooting (47% for the game, 30% in the second half, and missing seven in a row down the stretch).

The win, though, got UCLA's record back to where you thought it would be at this point in the season, 4-2. The team is playing within expectation, and possibly a bit above it. Five minutes into this game it was very evident that UCLA was a better team than Michigan State, unlike the first five minutes against UC Santa Barbara, and it would have been under-achieving to have lost. So far, this season, the two teams that looked to be at least as good as UCLA were UCSB and Kentucky. Judging them by their capabilities as a team, and not UCSB's mid-major status, it then is still completely within the realm of expectation that UCLA lost those two games. In fact, if you want to say that UCLA under-achieved against the mid-major Santa Barbara, you could say that the Bruins over-achieved in looking like the better team for three-quarters of the game against the current #1 team in the country.

The team did experience a setback by the loss of Brian Morrison to a hamstring injury, which is expected to keep him out for two weeks. That will make him miss the road game against Michigan on December 27th, and more than likely the opening weekend of Pac-10 play against the Oregon schools at home. With UCLA only able to go comfortably 7-deep, and Morrison being one of its two best outside shooting threats, it's a considerable blow. In our pre-season expectation, we predicted UCLA would get two wins from the Oregons at Pauley on that weekend. If UCLA can get two of three wins from those three games without Morrison it would be considered a considerable achievement.

But with the loss of Morrison, and less outside scoring power, it appears even more critical that UCLA get more scoring from inside. Instead of expecting Janou Rubin to replace Morrison in production, Mike Fey, Ryan Hollins and T.J. Cummings will have to make up for losing Morrison's 11 points per game, and even moreso. This team is doing everything you could reasonable expect of it, given its personnel – playing defense, executing an offense, setting screens, playing hard and not giving up. But you have to wonder: How much can it continue to win with so much pressure to get its points from the perimeter?

It's pretty simple: the team needs to get some easy baskets...

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