When UCLA plays against Stanford, as they did in losing to the Cardinal on Saturday, 73-60, it's evident just how much better basketball players Stanford has.
UCLA didn't play really poorly against Stanford. Its defense was solid, for the most part, and it made an effort to rebound while also maintaining fairly good energy and intensity throughout the game. But while the Stanford train kept chugging throughout the game, consistently executing and converting on offense while also playing tight defense, UCLA's train broke down. It wasn't as much a matter of effort, like it seemingly had been in some of UCLA's previous losses this year. It was a matter of UCLA just not having the ability to keep pace. When Stanford continued to hit shots, UCLA missed theirs. When Stanford was able to break down defenders, UCLA couldn't. When Stanford could muscle up a basket, UCLA couldn't.
UCLA was keeping pace with Stanford for the most part up until about seven minutes to go in the first half. At that point, Stanford went on a 14-0 run that ballooned its lead to 42-23 at halftime. Stanford's train kept chugging while UCLA's ran out of ability. During that stretch, UCLA actually executed fairly well on offense, even against the zone, and had open looks at the basket. But they simply didn't have enough scorers to convert those open looks. T.J. Cummings missed a few baskets, and if Cummings is missing shots then you know the Bruins aren't going to be scoring since he and Dijon Thompson are truly the only real scoring threats on the team. Jon Crispin was in the starting lineup to hopefully add some outside scoring punch, but he didn't, because with his limited height and quickness he can't create any space for himself to get off a shot.
It's really become increasingly clear how much of a liability it is to have a non-scorer at the point guard position in Cedric Bozeman. In this game especially it was very pronounced how a good-shooting point guard could have altered the entire make-up of the game. Plenty of times Bozeman had open looks, opportunities that good-shooting point guards have to take to keep defenses honest, and he didn't take them. And also, while he's fairly good at times at getting to the basket because of his size, it's a random proposition whether he'll be able to convert on those 8-10-foot floaters. Without a point guard as a scoring threat and, as in this game, without another wing as a scoring threat, and without a really strong scoring option in the low-post, how could UCLA possibly keep pace with Stanford? The Cardinal put one incredible shooter, Matt Lottich, on the floor, along with two very, very good shooters in Josh Childress and point guard Chris Hernandez. Inside Stanford has a double-digit scorer in big Rob Little, and then two potential scorers coming off the bench in Matt Haryasz and Joe Kirchofer. Their third-string center, Kirchofer, a senior, is arguably better offensively than either of UCLA's sophomore posts at this time. And that's all with their best front-court scorer, Justin Davis, out with an injury. Stanford, also, can create shots for itself. Childress, Lottich and even Nick Robinson can go to the basket or create enough room for themselves to get a good look.
And that's not even taking into consideration the players' acumen for the game, and their learned fundamentals.
There is no way UCLA has enough scoring power to keep pace.
Yes, this is the #1 team in the country UCLA is trying to keep pace with. But it's a good comparison for UCLA observers to use in getting a good assessment of just how limited this UCLA team is. With limited UCLA playing good defense, Stanford shot 56% for the game. With UCLA putting up a good effort to block out on the boards, they were still out-rebounded 30-25, with Stanford's best rebounder, Davis, not in uniform.
There isn't much else you can do with this UCLA team, given the talent it has, and the stages of development of its younger players. After the letdown in the middle of the season, they seem to be playing with more sustained intensity and competitiveness. But that can only take you so far. Trevor Ariza, in the second half of the season and in this game, is displaying just how far away he is from being a consistently good college player. As the season has worn on, and possibly some fatigue has set in, his lack of fundamentals and experience has been glaring with turnovers, bad decisions, and bad shot selection. Ariza is a talent, but the season's stretch run has proven he needs some considerable development and seasoning. UCLA's two centers, Ryan Hollins and Mike Fey, have improved, but as sophomores they're still a distance away from where they need to be as good Pac-10 players. Again, it's just so hard to come to terms with the fact that an athletic 7-footer with "UCLA" on his chest isn't a great player. And it's not fair to either Hollins or Fey to expect them to be, at least at this point.
If you're looking for a measuring stick on whether Ben Howland is doing a good job this year, for the remainder of the season don't necessarily look at the Ws and Ls. What I think is reasonable for UCLA fans to expect the rest of the season is 1) continued development among its younger players, 2) continued improvement in offensive execution and 3) sustained effort and intensity, especially on defense and in rebounding.
Given what Howland has to work with, this is what we should judge him by in his first season.