It did Thursday night, but it just happened to lose to Washington State, 55-48.
Thursday the team played tough defense and rebounded decently, the two cornerstones of the early season. It just lost. Well, yeah, there might be a little more of a certain ingredient added to the stew now -- that this team might be more quick to pack it in mentally than it was in its first twelve games. While the rest of the schedule could see UCLA play relatively tough defense and rebound, that increased element very well could provide enough weakness for them to lose games they might have won at the beginning of the season. It wouldn't take much; if you remember, UCLA squeaked out all of those first nine wins.
The team didn't play with the predominant lack of energy, defense and rebounding it had in the last five games. Instead of playing lethargically for 35 minutes like, say, they did against St. John's, Thursday night they only let down for short stretches.
Regrettably, those short stretches were critical. Perhaps the most was, with UCLA within four points and making a run with four minutes to go, UCLA's effort on the boards was abysmal. A couple of very key rebounds bounced to Washington State, right past a UCLA player seemingly stuck in cement shoes.
In this game, that was the difference between the beginning of the season and now. At the beginning of the season, if you remember, this team stayed relatively tough late in the game, held off other teams or made successful comebacks. Now, it appears they just don't have the energy to see it all the way through.
If, now, there is anyone still out there who is going to contend that UCLA has good talent, we need to have a serious talk. T.J. Cummings can't post up a Pac-10 also-ran in Chris Schlatter. WSU's Jeff Varem (who?) worked Cummings on the defensive end. Dijon Thompson is limited to being no more than a catch-and-shoot guy. An average Pac-10 player, Washington State's Tom Kelati, has developed into a better all-around player than Thompson at this point. There really isn't any player on the UCLA roster who can, on the offensive end, consistently put the ball on the ground and dribble it more than twice and control it, much less provide any significant dribble penetration. Trevor Ariza has shown flashes, but he's still raw and undisciplined. Brian Morrison probably is the best at it, and maybe we'll be able to see it sometime by the end of the season (the prognosis is now that he'll be out for a couple of weeks due to the ankle sprain he suffered Wednesday in practice). As evidenced by this game, perhaps the best dribble penetrator is a walk-on, Janou Rubin. There were only two real instances where offense was created by dribble penetration against Washington State. It took until 10:45 in the game when Ariza penetrated into the WSU paint and dished to Cummings. A few minutes later, Rubin did the same thing, to make it two instances during the game where offense was created off the dribble. And this team probably offers the worst degree of inside scoring talent in many, many years of UCLA basketball. Just about every team in the Pac-10 has better interior scorers than UCLA.
In assessing the talent, it doesn't really matter whether it was over-hyped out of high school, or undeveloped since coming to college, or both. Right now, the stark reality is that you simply can't be fooled by athletic-looking guys wearing UCLA uniforms. This game really emphasized that fact; UCLA's talent is on par with Washington State's.
But while UCLA maintained some intensity on defense, truly the loss against Washington State was on the shoulders of the offense.
The lack of talent, the lack of fire, and perhaps Ben Howland's offensive scheme are probably not a great combination for this team. Howland's offense demands you maintain aggressiveness offensively, passing the ball crisply, looking for seams in the opposition's defense to exploit with penetration and passing. In the Washington State game, UCLA came out and had good energy on offense for probably the first eight minutes. UCLA's wings were trying to aggressively push into Washington State's defensive seams, and it created some easy baskets. But then, their offensive energy deflated. They stopped aggressively attacking, and fell into their somnambulistic routine of swinging the ball around the outside and being content with an outside jump shot. When you don't have any kind of real inside scoring threat to go to, or anyone who can easily create off the dribble, this will happen – your perimeter guys will stop looking inside and stop aggressively trying to attack. The opposition's defense then remains packed in, with no penetration to draw them out, and is completely content with UCLA taking 17-footers. UCLA was up 10-4, lost that initial offensive aggressiveness, went down 10-11 and the offensive tone was set for just about the remainder of the game.
While he's not a savior by any means, Brian Morrison's talents are severely missed. Not only does he bring good outside shooting to the team to stretch defenses and provide more room to get inside, he offers perhaps UCLA's best talent for 1) penetrating inside 2) staying aggressive and attacking offensively 3) providing consistent energy and aggressiveness on defense 4) stamina and 5) mental toughness. It's a laundry list of everything this team generally lacks.
Going through the long process of realizing just how limited the talent is on the team, it's taken some time to realize that Janou Rubin, the former walk-on, might bring at least just as much to the game as Dijon Thompson at this point. He plays better and more active defense, he's probably just as good of a spot-up shooter, he handles the ball better and is able to create a little offense off the dribble. And he plays hard all of the time.
The challenge now, for the remainder of the season, is whether this team can mount any kind of comeback. It played well defensively Thursday, and maybe that's something to build on. Their mental state is so unstable that it's reasonable to believe that if they got a win, say against a charging Washington team Saturday, it could infuse them with some confidence. It possibly could help to minimize the quicker-to-give-up attitude we've seen in the last six games. There is a glimmer of hope – in that this game against Washington State was more similar to the first twelve games of the season in its nature than it was the previous five. It's not a hope that this team can turn it around, make an unimaginable run and get into the NCAA tournament. It's a hope that, at this point, this team can find enough competitiveness to at least end the season on a good note and garner a little self-respect.