Now that the team has gone on a 0-3 skid, after losing to California, 76-62, Saturday, in Berkeley, some fans, because of those over-inflated expectations from just a couple of weeks ago, are now disappointed. It's easy to see how living with quick, knee-jerk expectations like this can make you nuts. It would be like riding an expectations roller coaster.
But there was nothing that this team did as of its 9-3 overall mark that would lead any balanced, rational fan to believe that they were any better than it was. They were playing in stops and starts, still struggling with a many aspects of their overall game, and getting it done with defense and rebounding. They were about as good as you could have expected; in many ways better, but in many ways not as good as you might have thought.
But all in all, it wasn't hard to predict before the season – and even at 9-3 -- that this team was very capable of losing to Arizona, and Stanford and Cal on the road. In fact, in our preseason preview, we predicted they'd do exactly that. In that prediction, at this juncture we predicted the team would be 8-7, so they're still operating a bit above expectation at 9-6.
And they've done it mostly without the services of Brian Morrison, who very well could prove to be the most critical player on the team. The team has lost three games in a row because of two very simple concepts: It lacks superior talent and mental toughness. Morrison has the potential to be its most effective player, since he's its best outside shooter and potentially offers the best chance at being able to break down defenders, along with intensity on defense. His return will definitely upgrade the team's talent level. But also, Morrison will severely upgrade the team's mental toughness; he is one that doesn't stop playing hard during bad patches and sustains a high intensity and effort.
We shouldn't place so much emphasis on the return of one player, since, as we stated, fans' expectations are volatile entities. And it isn't fair to Morrison to place so much pressure on him – to have to "turn around" the team by his return. But the type of player he is should be integral in shoring up some of the problems that are central to these Bruins.
As stated, the team has lost to Arizona, Stanford and California because it lacks superior talent and mental toughness. Even if it was considerably tougher mentally, it still would have been very hard to beat the superior talent of Arizona and Stanford. So, the lack of talent probably led to those losses. But the lack of mental toughness was probably more the reason for the loss against Cal.
While analyzing the talent debate, though, it's still very easy to recognize that Cal has at least as much talent as UCLA, especially without Morrison. Cal's freshman Leon Powe is such a dominating player that he alone probably tips the scales in Cal's favor.
So, while you might concede that UCLA, from a talent standpoint, very well could lose to Cal on their home court this season, it's also pretty easy to recognize that the team wasn't as competitive as they could have been against Cal, as well as against Arizona and Stanford, because of its lack of mental toughness.
They have shown quite obviously that, in the last three games, this team mentally will deflate and collapse. You can tell by their intensity and effort on defense, as well as their overall body language. On defense, they don't push through screens, they half-heartedly get out on shooters and are getting lost in switches and such. Rebounding is almost 75% effort, and in the last three games there have been stretches where their lackluster effort has gotten them beaten clearly on the boards. It's not difficult to analyze; Head Coach Ben Howland has reiterated that the way this team would win is through defense and rebounding, and they've lost simply because they haven't done it in the last three games.
A couple of weeks ago, when the team was 9-3, we might have been a bit premature in stating that this team had proven itself as a good defensive team.. Since then, UCLA hasn't played close to the type of defense it did in those first 12 games. When they have, they've made little runs on their last three opponents. In the Cal game it was perhaps the most evident. When Dijon Thompson played hard on-the-ball defense, it translated into two Cal turnovers in the second half. In the last 10 minutes of the first half, UCLA overcame a 14-2 deficit to lead at halftime, 31-30, fueled mostly by effort and defensive intensity by its bench, Josiah Johnson, Janou Rubin, Ryan Hollins and Ryan Walcott. Those four, along with Trevor Ariza, lent a spark through playing defense and rebounding that got UCLA back in the game.
In the Cal game, at about the six-minute mark in the second half, UCLA trailed by three points and it was obvious – right then and there – the team that wanted it more would win. Cal, while having some talent, is also young, inexperienced and prone to mistakes that can easily be exploited. But Cal showed clearly it was the team that wanted it more, getting four offensive boards in a row during critical possessions, including two Cal free throws, that basically sealed the win for them. There were rebounds and loose balls during the last 6 critical minutes where it was obvious that Cal wanted it more than UCLA.
It's also obvious that Howland is doing just about everything he can to get the team to play with heart and intensity. He's playing Johnson quickly over T.J. Cummings, when Cumming has no energy. He's opting for Janou Rubin, who plays hard all the time, when Thompson and Ariza go into a funk. It's a difficult thing to manage, because while Howland is using his hard-working bench to try to get some energy on the court, he knows the drop-off in talent will still hurt him. He's been orchestrating it very well, trying to light a fire under the butts of the starters while also utilizing their talent as much as possible.
What's a bit startling is not only does this team go into a lack-of-effort lull during the middle of games, it's opened games with bad effort. It's hard to determine why. Is it that, after getting a few wins, it started to believe it was actually really good? Did it actually delude itself into believing it is so vastly more talented than Cal that it could cruise to a win in loud Harmon Gym? Without Howland's micro-managing orchestration, this UCLA team would have been blown out of Harmon Saturday because of that lack of intensity.
Fifteen games into the season, we now have a clear picture of this team. They aren't great offensively (especially without Morrison), lacking players that can both create and score. It particularly hurts them when their opposition throws zones at them, taking advantage of UCLA's inability to penetrate and attack. Their inside scoring is struggling, to say the least, with Michael Fey going through a bad patch (we say a "bad patch" since he did exhibit signs of productivity early on). It's very evident that, offensively, this team has to execute well, take care of the ball, and limit mistakes, and that gives it a chance to eke out enough points to win.
But again, as is Howland's mantra: It's all about defense and rebounding. This team hasn't done it in the last three games. And most of it is because defense and rebounding are about effort and toughness. Howland's challenge this season isn't in the Xs and Os. It's getting players who are showing some mental softness to toughen up. And even with Howland trying to do what he can to get them to play hard, wouldn't it be self-evident to the players? For Cummings, when he was re-instated, he played well and hard, but has gone into a considerable lull in his effort recently. If he believes he can actually play basketball for a living, wouldn't he want to sustain intensity for his entire senior season? On Saturday, a 6-7 freshman power forward – who because of his limitations might not even translate into an NBA player himself -- owned him down the stretch. For him, or any of the other players who think they could play in the NBA: how much more effort do you think it would take in an 82-game season than a 30-game season? And also, for those players returning next season, they should be hearing the footsteps behind them of the incoming freshmen who have fire in their eyes...