The team, at this point, plainly isn't very good. Its primary issues are how it's struggling on offense and in rebounding.
On offense, the team struggles to get a good look from the set plays it's running. That's due primarily to the inability of the team to get a good look inside, either because the post players aren't posting up well enough, or the perimeter players are resisting feeding them. Once the set play doesn't materialize, the offense is supposed to segue into a motion offense, but that motion often breaks down into individuals trying to go one-on-one and create their own shot, which has been very unsuccessful.
The set plays were operating decently for the team's first four games, and then really broke down in the second half of the Boston College game. It looked, again, as if the team lost confidence in Michael Fey after he missed an easy lay-up. It came out in the second half looking to get the ball inside, but once Fey missed that gimme, the ball stopped going inside. And it appears like the fault for that is as much on the perimeter players as it is Fey. It appears that Fey himself loses confidence once he misses a shot like he did.
Ryan Hollins is ineffectual offensively. He's struggling as a four man, really unable to execute the position the way it needs to be executed in Howland's offense, which demands the ability to hit open 15-foot jumpers and be able to put the ball on the floor and pass inside. He, also, is still very raw in his back-to-the-basket moves. It is pretty evident, though, that he's much better at the five than at the four, having shown some capability of posting up this season. His rebounding is, really, atrocious. He, as a 7-footer, only got 1 rebound in 26 minutes against BC. He's had a total of 3 in his last two games and is averaging just 3.2 per game in the first five games.
Fey, obviously, has problems finishing. He doesn't have enough explosiveness to finish strongly when he doesn't have momentum under him. He also looks like he has a mental block on easy lay-ins. But, between Fey and Hollins, it looks like Fey is the obviously better choice to provide low-block scoring this season. It isn't ideal, but it's the best the team has this year.
Lorenzo Mata is, as we've told you, raw. But he made some strides against Boston College, just his second game as a collegian. He had five rebounds in 18 minutes, as many as Fey and Hollins in their combined 43 minutes. He also started to show more comfort playing in the post on offense, working harder to post up for position.
Matt McKinney is, right now, UCLA's best option at the four position. He is the team's best rebounder, is a decent passer and is by far more capable of executing the position than Hollins. But of course, the curse of the four position for the last couple of years continues. McKinney is hampered by a mysterious ailment that causes him to get winded very quickly. Doctors have yet to determine what it is, but believe it is due to a limited lung capacity. Hopefully as the season progresses, the medical staff will determine what the ailment is, how to treat it, and McKinney will be able to play more than 2 and a half minutes at a time. The offense doesn't struggle near as much with McKinney in the game, and rebounding is drastically improved.
Dijon Thompson, too, if you've noticed, is a clamp on the set plays Howland calls. The team will be executing its set play, passing the ball around the perimeter, but when the ball goes to Thompson he's either considering shooting it or putting it on the floor with every touch. Thompson, quite clearly, has shown his limitations in the season's first five games: He's limited athletically, unable to finish inside well, and unable to get separation from a defender because of a lack of quickness. He's effective when he's posting up smaller defenders. He, actually, should be limited offensively to posting up smaller defenders and catching and shooting open looks from the outside.
Brian Morrison has been particularly disappointing. If he isn't on with his outside jumper, which he hasn't been for the last several games, he's a liability on the floor with his over-penetration and poor decision-making.
The freshman starting backcourt has also shown its limitations – those that we spoke about before they ever came to UCLA. Both Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo are not particularly quick, and lack the ability to take defenders off the dribble. So, when the set play hasn't been executed and the offense reverts to its so-called motion, neither are able to penetrate and be able to either create for themselves or others. They are both far more effective in the set offense.
Josh Shipp, coming off the bench, is also limited in that same manner. He, though, has provided a true spark off the bench with his composure in hitting big shots and nose for the ball on defense and in rebounding.
Generally, UCLA's defense has been decent, except in allowing too many offensive rebounds to its opponents and too many second chances. It has, though, improved its on-the-ball defense. Its interior defense has been pretty sound, and Lorenzo Mata, who was struggling defending the post previously, looked improved against Boston College.
Overall, it's quite evident, though, that the team just plainly isn't very talented. Despite the many claims to the contrary, there isn't a clear-cut NBA-potential player on the roster. Perhaps the two with the most potential would be Farmar and Afflalo but, at this point, they don't look like they'd be candidates for early NBA entry (That, actually, is the sliver lining in all of this).
So, what do these Bruins do?
Like it or not, your only true low-post scoring threat at this point is Fey. The team will have to try to get him the ball, and live and die by it. If not, they become far too perimeter oriented, and defenses will be able to extend and pressure the ball more, as Boston College did. Plus, without any real threat to penetrate from the UCLA perimeter players, defenders will be able to play up on the ball even more and take more risks defensively, as we've also seen in the last couple of games. It's vital, then, that UCLA improve in its execution of its set plays, and get the ball moving inside-out, to get Fey some easy chances inside and build his confidence, and to then get open outside looks as a result.
Fey and Hollins on the floor at the same time, though, has proven detrimental. Hollins, playing the four, can't execute the position, and it makes him even more ineffectual rebounding the ball, taking him further away from the basket. The two of them playing at the same time drastically hurt UCLA's rebounding capabilities. Mata, after his improvement in the Boston College game, needs to get more minutes, playing the five, backing up Fey, or in a two-post offense along with Fey. As long as Mata can rebound, he deserves to take more of Hollins' minutes.
Any minutes you can get out of McKinney are vastly needed. McKinney executes the four the best and his rebounding is vital. Hopefully his minutes will be able to be increased. If not, again, UCLA is severely short-handed in its frontcourt.
Boston College confused UCLA defensively for long periods of the game Sunday. Its matchup zone had UCLA's perimeter players out of sync. But there was a short stint where Afflalo, Morrison and even Shipp were able to get a little daylight in penetration, which opened up shots and dunks for others. UCLA will need to do more of this to be effective offensively once the set play doesn't create a shot. With a lack of perimeter quickness and ability to break down defenders, UCLA will have to screen better to allow its perimeter players to penetrate and create.
With Thompson possibly out due to a re-injury of the cut on his shooting hand, Shipp's minutes will undoubtedly increase. It will be interesting to see if Shipp continues to lift the team as he has with his increased minutes. Shipp simply has a good feel for the game, which is an advantage over Thompson.
So, really, Mata and Shipp need to join their freshmen counterparts, Afflalo and Farmar, and play more. The most minutes, right now, should go to Farmar, Afflalo, Shipp, Mata, Fey and McKinney, when he's capable of it. Morrison needs to provide offensive punch off the bench. Hollins should get minutes backing up Fey and Mata at center, and some minutes as a back-up at the four. Thompson, when he's healthy, should be sharing the majority of the wing minutes with Afflalo and Shipp. It not only could be the best recipe for the rest of the season, but it will only help the program in the future to get the younger players more playing time now.