With UCLA starting out 2-2, including a stunning loss at home to local rival Pepperdine, message board participants are on familiar ground. Indeed, they appear to be rolling in it like proverbial pigs in you-know-what. Whether a seemingly perpetual state of hysterical agitation and blind panic is merely a healthy sign that fandom is alive and well in LA is anyone's guess. It's always dangerous and often delusional for me or anyone else who isn't a college basketball coach to presume to criticize the coaching staff (pretty much the last 5 years bear that out), but then this is the Internet and I guess we can all do whatever we want. Who's going to stop us? In any event, it seems appropriate to take a look at where the team and the program are at this frozen moment in time, both in terms of the season and the future.
With freshman point guard Ced Bozeman now out for 4-6 weeks following surgery for a torn cartilage in his knee (an injury apparently suffered in the opening exhibition game against EA Sports), and with the apparently cavalier and casual revelation at last Tuesday's press conference that both Dan Gadzuric (back, ankle) and Matt Barnes (ankle) have been playing hurt (Coach Lavin told me at the warm ups on Tuesday that Bozeman had already had his knee drained of fluid at least once, and that the staff originally thought that Gadzuric was "out for the season with a broken back," but apparently no one at UCLA decided it was worth mentioning any of this to the press), some things make more sense now than they did before.
When three of your starters are injured, you're not going to be as good as expected. Especially when the two most serious injuries are to your starting point guard and your starting center. Then you take into account that Matt Barnes is easily the most important player on the team with respect to the effectiveness of the Bruins' press, and it's easy to detect a pattern here. Denuded of an effective press, a point guard picked by some observers as the preseason national freshman of the year and two of its best three inside scorers, UCLA has not been as good as we had all hoped for this early in the season. It would have been nice if somebody at UCLA had bothered to inform us of this news. I knew that practices were closed. I didn't realize that this meant a virtual press blackout as well, unless you have a brother on the SID staff…
The Bruins are now in the same position that many other teams around the country find themselves in, with injuries of varying degrees of severity to key players. Virginia, Kansas, Georgetown, Kentucky and other high-profile programs have suffered from the same fate. The remaining players will just have to figure out how to adjust to their new circumstances and simply step up their level of play. More importantly, the coaching staff is likely going to have to make adjustments in the utilization of their current assets until Gadzuric, Barnes and Bozeman return at full strength.
Who Starts Now?
I think we will see Dijon Thompson move into the starting lineup at the point guard spot. At 6-7, point guard is not Dijon's best position. On the other hand, while he made 4 turnovers against Pepperdine, he only made 3 total turnovers in the Bruins' 3 previous games, and has played with a great deal of poise so far this season, with a 3-assist game and a 4-assist game. He's averaging 7.3 ppg on 12-23 (.522) shooting from the floor (33.3% from 3), and has been the most aggressive scorer among the freshmen. The Bruin offense has seemed to work best when Dijon is on the floor. Now that we know why Ced Bozeman has seemed two steps slower than when he played in high school (I would estimate that Ced Bozeman had played at less than 50% effectiveness ever since his injury, and that might be too high a number), it's probably unfair to compare the two players, but Ced's lack of aggressiveness and inability to penetrate off the dribble has been a major factor in the Bruins' inability to break down the overplay defenses Pepperdine, Ball State and everyone else is going to throw at them from here on out. So far, Dijon has gotten inside those defenses fairly easily, and I expect that, in the short term, UCLA will become a more efficient, versatile offensive team with Dijon playing 30 minutes per game.
I also think Ryan Walcott will play more minutes. Rico Hines has played 60 fairly ineffective minutes so far for the Bruins, and while he seems to be one of the few healthy players on the floor, besides Kapono and Knight, to have a good grasp of the 1-4 offense, he simply isn't producing enough positive results. In 9 minutes, Walcott has 2 assists and zero turnovers. He's also a lot quicker than Hines. In the Pepperdine game, Walcott ran the Bruins' only fast break of the game to perfection and actually passed the ball inside to Andre Patterson, something that apparently didn't occur to any of his teammates (Andre didn't score, but TJ tipped in the offensive rebound). Unless Rico makes a big turnaround soon, I vote to play the guy getting assists, making plays and not making mistakes. Ryan has had some trouble defensively, but I'm not sure that Rico has been any better.
Right now, Gadzuric is averaging 3.5 ppg and 3.5 rpg in 16 mpg. This is not the Dan Gadzuric we thought we'd see this season. Until Dan gets healthy, the Bruins desperately need TJ Cummings and Andre Patterson to play major minutes, and to do it by getting inside. TJ is obviously going to be an excellent player for the Bruins (no wonder Coach K wanted him). He's averaging 14.3 ppg and 5.5 rpg and shooting the ball extremely well. But he needs to step up now and become much stronger inside at both ends, especially on defense. He needs to actually block a shot now and then. And Patterson has to play. If Barnes and Gadzuric are hobbled, the Bruins need both another credible inside presence and they need to find an alternative to power inside. Andre isn't powerful, but he's extremely quick, with advanced low post moves and a great nose for the ball. If the coaches are interested in my opinion, I vote for Andre and TJ to start against UC-Riverside this Wednesday. The Bruins will receive additional help in the middle if 6-11 C Mike Fey qualifies and joins the team on December 15 in time for the UC-Irvine match. But Fey has to have passed the SAT he took December 1st, and he hasn't played any organized basketball since March and it's simply unrealistic to expect that he'll make a major impact immediately.
I don't really have anything to say about Jason Kapono or Billy Knight, except to say that both players have played extremely well. Jason remains something of a liability on defense, but I'll take his 22 ppg and 60% shooting from 3 and nearly 90% shooting from the free throw line and accept the defensive lapses. Jason's one-on-one skills appear to be much improved from when he first entered UCLA, and he's the only player on the team who consistently shows non-stop motion off the ball, which is supposed to be how a 1-4 offense works. Billy has actually been perhaps the most effective all-around player on the team, and he's also displaying a more versatile offensive game as well as increased athleticism. Hard work obviously pays off.
The Juicy Stuff
But let's get onto the juicy stuff: The systems, and the coaching staff. On offense, the Bruins are getting a lot of great looks for Jason and Billy, which is a good sign. However, without any credible inside attack, and with the apparent reluctance or inability of most of the players to take people off the dribble, we're seeing teams really crowd/overplay the ball at the high post, taking away most of UCLA's backdoor release plays and feeds into the low post (where are all our inverted plays for our tall guards?). Without Gadzuric's inside presence and Barnes' drives, most teams are able to bring their post defenders up to the free throw line and even double-team the Bruins on the wings, and the result has been a lot of turnovers up top combined with too many fast-break baskets on the other end. The Bruins also seem to send 4 guys to the offensive glass too often, resulting in poor positioning to stop transition once the other team gets the ball. I watched Oklahoma play Arkansas the other day, and it was a game featuring a fairly slow 1-4 team against a fairly quick, running, pressing team. Oklahoma might not have a point guard and they might not be really quick, but they always keep 2-3 guys back behind the free throw line on almost every sequence, and Arkansas couldn't get any good long runs going the other way. Now, the Sooners' wings are quicker than Jason and Billy, but I have to think the Bruins can position themselves better to reign in their opponents' transition game. It's hard to see UCLA's 1-4 working really effectively until Bozeman, Gadzuric and Barnes are 100%, but the coaches can start making adjustments now.
Defensively, the Bruins are in trouble. Last year, they were slow up top and dealt with that problem with a fairly effective press, combined with a lot of traps and swarming defense in the halfcourt. Whether it's the loss of Earl Watson, or the injury to Barnes, or whatever, UCLA's press isn't working so far, and I haven't seen many traps in the halfcourt defense, either. They caused 17.3 turnovers per game last year and they're only causing 10.3 per game this year. Against Pepperdine, the Bruins' guards and wings showed off their improved defensive stances and followed their coach's orders by playing 4 feet off their men, hoping to utilize their size to minimize the differential in quickness. At halftime, somebody in the Pepperdine locker room said, "Hey, they're standing 4 feet away from us!" Pepperdine Assistant Jim Nielsen was the one who said that. In the second half, Pepperdine went to a weave on the perimeter and UCLA's defense completely broke down. That's my take, at least. In a weave, the offensive players are moving "forward" from sideline to sideline. The defenders have to slide their feet as they move between sidelines, which slows them down in relation to the offensive player, whose "forward motion" gives them a speed advantage. This spaces the defenders out, allowing for isolations which give the advantage to the quicker players. As Pepperdine freed up Craig Lewis, Terrance Johnson and other jump shooters for wide-open 3s, UCLA's wings stepped up and opened a huge hole inside for Jimmy Miggins to operate at will. Jimmy can obviously go to his right. I wonder if maybe someone should have told Barnes or Cummings to force him to his left…
I'm no coach, but I don't think UCLA can mask its lack of quickness by having its guards and wings play 4 feet off their men. That kind of defense is too passive, and it gives the opponents too much space for open jumpers and unobstructed passing opportunities. Watching Arizona play Kansas today, I couldn't help but shudder at the thought of what Jason Gardner and Salim Stoudamire are going to do if UCLA leaves them wide open from 20 feet out all day long because they're worried about dribble penetration. And I can't help feel that Luke Walton might set a single-game assist record against us. The Bruins are making 18.3 turnovers per game and causing 8 fewer turnovers per game. Against a guard-oriented Pac-10, that will prove fatal. I don't see another possible result, unless the coaches adjust the style of defense their team plays. It doesn't appear to be a question of doing something better. It appears to be a question of doing something different.
If the Bruins, for whatever reason, can't press this year, and if they can't trap and scramble in the halfcourt, I don't see any solution except for a zone. Not just a matchup zone, but a 3-2, a 2-1-2, the works. Something like Syracuse, Wake Forest and Temple use so effectively. UCLA seemingly has one advantage over almost all of its opponents this year: Height. They're not only tall, but a lot of them have really long arms, especially the freshmen. Maybe some coaching gurus out there can help me out, but I can't help but think that the only halfcourt defense that will work consistently for a relatively slow, tall team with a lot of long arms is an active zone defense. Teams which zone tend to give up a lot of offensive rebounds. At this point, I'd say that with UCLA outrebounding opponents by more than 10 per game with Gadzuric and Barnes being hurt, I'd take my chances on the rebounding part. The Bruins need to find a defense that obstructs their opponents' game plans. I think a zone can do it. Now, having said that, I must admit that when UCLA was 4-4 last year, I advocated a zone. Many Internet posters advocated more drastic measures. Lavin put in a press, which no one suspected. It turned out that Lavin knew a lot more than any of us did. Maybe we'll see if that's true this year as well. But somebody better figure out something in time for Alabama and Georgetown, or UCLA won't get a top seed in the west even if they win the Pac-10.
The Bruins have lacked quickness for 2 years now, and that reflects poorly on the recruiting done by the coaching staff. Lavin has actively recruited some quick players recently (Aaron Miles last year, Andre Barrett, Chris Duhon and Tony Parker the year before), but he didn't sign any of them. The staff chose to pass on some other quick players (e.g., Marlon Parmer, Victor Williams). While Lavin has recruited more high profile players to UCLA than any coach since John Wooden, and while he and his staff certainly deserve a great deal of praise for what they have accomplished, they also must take the heat for their inability to sign more quick players. After watching a number of Pac-10, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Big 10 teams in action this past week, I can't help feel that UCLA is one of the slowest High D 1 programs in the country. That's a bad sign. I think that UCLA will land 6-2 Marcus Williams of Crenshaw in the junior class, and that's a start. If he has the grades, it sounds like UCLA leads for 6-2 Ayinde Ubaka, and that would be an even better start. 5-11 Khalif Ford is still another quick guard. But right now Lavin has definitely created a major problem for his team by not recruiting more quickness. With the possible exception of the Michigan State team from two years ago, most of the other national champions recently have featured quickness over size. Quickness, not size, not shooting ability, seems to rule college basketball, with some very notable exceptions (Stanford, Wisconsin, Gonzaga come to mind). How Lavin works this all out will be a test of (and testament to) his coaching ability.
Some posters have asked why I don't criticize the coaching staff more. One reason is, I'm not a coach, and it's hard for me to question professionals when I'm a rank amateur. Another reason is, it's way too early in the season for anyone to make any concrete calls on what's going to happen on January 1, let alone April 1. Finally, the injuries to Bozeman, Gadzuric and Barnes have to be taken into account. You don't have 3 starters playing way below their best game and not expect to suffer some diminution of your team performance as a result. At the same time, other top programs have been forced to deal with injuries, rely on deep reserves to play unexpectedly large roles, at least on a temporary basis, and in some cases the coaches have planned ahead for just such eventualities. The team's play over the next 4 weeks should perhaps tell us more about this team's character, and the abilities of Steve Lavin and his staff, then any other micro-moment in the last 5 years. Then again, UCLA might go 2-3 over the next 5 games and then win 15 straight. They say that those who don't remember the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. The problem is, many Internet posters have the feeling that UCLA remembers the mistakes of the past all too well, but they're repeating them anyway. The next 4 weeks should tell us if that's true or not…
We'll do another "State of the Program" address on January 1…