In general, I think the Bruins are in good shape. If back in October you'd told the coaching staff that they'd be 18-2 after 20 games, they would have been very happy (and rightfully so). Looking at the final ten games, the Bruins will likely be favored in all but a couple of those games (and they'd be very slight underdogs in those that they're not favored). Obviously, anything can happen, but the Bruins are on track to finish the regular season with a record of something like 26-4 or 25-5. Couple that with a good performance in the Pac-10 tournament and UCLA would have an excellent chance to get a #1 or #2 seed and stay in the west for the NCAA tournament.
But while the short-term goals of winning the Pac-10, and getting a very high seed in the tournament, appear to be very much within reach, those are not the ultimate goals. The bigger goals are to reach the Final Four and win a championship in Atlanta. This Bruin team is not the kind of team that you'd make an "odds-on favorite" to win it all. This team isn't like the '95 championship team that was definitely the best team in the country that year. Instead, this Bruin team is one that is pretty clearly one of the top 5-7 teams in the country with a very realistic chance of reaching the Final Four.
So how does this team go from being a very good team to one that might win it all in Atlanta? I don't think there is only one answer. I believe there are multiple possibilities for improvement and growth. I have a few thoughts on the subject, but there are obviously a lot of other possibilities than the ones I mention here.
One area where the Bruins could certainly improve is with their defense. While they have had spurts of very good defense this season, it hasn't been the constant that last year's team had after the loss at USC. Last year's team had several disappointing losses before coming to the conclusion that, if they wanted to win consistently, they had to make defense a priority. This year's squad hasn't consistently played with that kind of conviction yet. The Bruins are 4th in the Pac-10 in field goal percentage defense. That isn't bad, but it's not great. It is offset somewhat by the fact that they're first in steals, but there's no question the Bruin defense hasn't been as consistent as it was the final 6-8 weeks of last season. Even in some of their recent wins, there have been far too many cases of opponents driving up the back of a Bruin defender that has lost sight of the ball. The Bruins aren't playing great team defense consistently. They don't always have good vision off the ball. The weakside help has been late (or nonexistent) at times and the rotations are sometimes slow. This isn't the case all the time, but it has happened often enough to allow opponents to shoot a higher percentage than you'd like.
But while the defense hasn't been consistently excellent, there have been stretches that offer a glimpse of what the Bruins are capable of when they're locked in on defense: The first part of the Kentucky game, the Washington and Michigan games, the first half at Stanford, as well as a few other games. In those stretches, you saw that the Bruins have the potential to play very good defense. Hopefully, as they head into the stretch run, the Bruins will ratchet up the focus on defense and start to dominate people at that end of the court.
The offense is another area where the Bruins could improve. It's no secret that UCLA has struggled, at times, against zone defenses. However, they've also had stretches where they had trouble against man defenses. The biggest culprit I see is an over-reliance on jumpshots. Last year, the team got very little from the low-post game until late in the season. Then Ryan Hollins started producing, his teammates began to trust him and he became a moderate threat by the end of the year. He was by no means a go-to guy, but Hollins did score enough to take some of the pressure off Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar.
As he showed in the Stanford game, Lorenzo Mata can be a threat in the post. He does have a nice touch on his jump hooks – with either hand – and he just needs to get more touches (with the space to operate) in order to be productive. Again, he's not going to be a dominating weapon, but he is good enough to make defenders honor him and hopefully open up some easier perimeter shots.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is another weapon that I believe has been under-utilized. Luc is too big, strong and quick for many forwards to deal with in the post. He also doesn't have to catch the ball right next to the basket to be effective. He can get the ball in the mid-post and make a play – if he's given room to operate. But the guards need to do a better job of getting Luc the ball when he's in position to make a play.
The other guy that is potentially a real weapon as a post-up option is Afflalo. We've seen Afflalo in the last couple games get more touches within fifteen feet of the basket and that's a good thing. Afflalo is not great when he tries to get from the wing to the rim off the bounce. However, he's very effective when you get him the ball anywhere from the twelve feet and in. He's too strong for a lot of guards and he actually has good footwork in the post. I think the adjustments the Bruin staff has made recently in getting him the ball at different spots on the court have been very effective.
In addition to improving through more consistent defense and a more diversified offense, I think the Bruins have a chance to get better with changes in the allocation of minutes. I've lobbied all season for more minutes for James Keefe and Russell Westbrook. I still think Keefe could provide a boost by giving the Bruins a frontcourt scoring threat from the perimeter (as well as an excellent rebounder), but I can also see the merit of going primarily with Mata, Aboya and Luc in the frontcourt. Those guys are more experienced and I'm not sure there's enough time left in the season to really expand Keefe's role. The moments to get Keefe acclimated and comfortable were back in December against a number of out-manned mid-major opponents. With the Pac-10 championship and a #1 seed on the line, Coach Howland may not want to run the risk of playing Keefe over more experienced guys.
Westbrook, however, is a different story, in my opinion. Westbrook remains one of the few guys on the team capable of creating his own shot. He's effective at attacking a zone defense, as well as against man defenses. He's one of the best athletes on the team and gives the Bruins quickness that is badly needed against some opponents. Because of his quickness and length, he can defend a one or two. Westbrook does have a tendency, like most freshmen, to make mistakes at times. However, they're typically mistakes where he's trying to make a play. Those mistakes are more than offset, in my opinion, by his ability to make plays. The Bruin offense has gone through stagnant periods this season and they could really use Westbrook's playmaking ability. Westbrook has as much upside as anyone on the team and he's only going to get better with more time on the court.
So where do the minutes come from to get Westbrook on the court? I believe they should come from Josh Shipp. Shipp is averaging 30 minute a game and he hasn't been a productive enough player to earn those minutes. Shipp is shooting 30% from three-point range – that's 7th best among the Bruins who play regular minutes. I think there is a perception that Shipp is a good perimeter shooter, but that's simply not true. He shot 28% on threes during his freshman season. So 28% for an entire year and now 30% after twenty games this year. We're past the point of "he's in a cold stretch." You simply can't say that Shipp is a good perimeter shooter and the numbers bear that out.
Well, not everyone has to be a good outside shooter to contribute, right? That's true. But then there's the matter of Shipp being a very average (at best) athlete. He doesn't have the quickness or explosiveness that you see with most high-major wings. Therefore, he has trouble making plays consistently for himself off the dribble and he also struggles, at times, to defend athletic wings.
So he's not a good outside shooter and he's an average athlete and defender. What about the intangibles? As many people have noted, Shipp does have a nose for the ball and a knack for making plays around the basket. I think those are both true statements. Shipp has a good feel for the game and he does, at times, find a way to make plays around the basket. He also has the ability, when he's so inclined, to make plays for his teammates.
However, there is another issue with Shipp that troubles me more than the ones I've mentioned. It's not just his poor perimeter shooting or average defense. It's the fact that he doesn't match the effort of his teammates. If you took a poll of the Bruin players, and asked them to rank the other players in terms of effort, I would bet money that Shipp would finish somewhere near the bottom of the poll. And, frankly, Shipp isn't good enough to be playing in cruise control as he sometimes does. If Aboya, Afflalo, Mata, Luc and the rest of the guys are going to be busting their butts all the time, then Josh Shipp needs to join them.
For those that think I'm wrong in my assessment of Shipp's effort level, take a look at his rebounding numbers. In 30 minutes a game, Shipp is averaging 3.7 rebounds a game from the small forward spot. Here are some comparisons from around the Pac-10.
Chase Budinger, in 32 minutes, 6 rebounds a game.
Quincy Pondexter, in 24 minutes, 4.6 rebounds.
Theo Robertson, in 31 minutes, 4.5 rebounds.
Lawrence Hill, in 30 minutes, 6.4 rebounds.
Fred Washington, in 28 minutes, 4.5 rebounds.
Nick Young, in 32 minutes, 4.5 rebounds.
Marcel Jones, in 30 minutes, 6 rebounds.
Kyle Weaver, in 32 minutes, 4.9 rebounds.
Malik Hairston, in 30 minutes, 6.1 rebounds.
Jerren Shipp, in 28 minutes, 3.3 rebounds.
So, to sum up, Shipp is a poor perimeter shooter, one of the worst rebounders at his position in the league and, if you're being generous, you'd call him an average defender. To put it bluntly, he's not playing well enough to justify 30 minutes a game. I know some fans will say "why are you hating on Josh?", but that's not my intention. My intention is to point out potential areas for improvement on this team and Shipp's minutes look like a good place to start.
I'm also not advocating that Shipp be taken completely out of the lineup. As I said, he has been an effective playmaker at times. He does have a nose for the ball and he's an experienced player. I also believe he has the potential to play better than he has to date. But in order for him to improve, he needs to be held accountable. I think if his minutes were cut, you would see a more focused, energetic and productive Shipp.
As I said, I think that Westbrook has shown enough that he should get more than the 9.5 minutes a game he's currently getting. With Afflalo at the three, Westbrook at the two and Collison at the one, the Bruins have a much more dynamic and athletic perimeter. Westbrook is a better athlete and better shooter than Shipp. In my opinion, Westbrook is eventually going to surpass Shipp as a player. It's just a matter of time.
However, if Westbrook is deemed to be too much of a gamble, or too inexperienced at this time for a greater role, then there are a couple other options. One would be to play Mike Roll more minutes at the two, with Afflalo moving to the three. Roll is not the athlete that Westbrook is, but he's a better shooter than Shipp and he's one of the best passers on the team. Roll attacks a zone defense better than anyone on the team and he has a terrific feel for the game. The offense also functions better with Roll on the court because he doesn't have sticky fingers where the ball dies in his hands. Roll does struggle at times with some defensive matchups, but so does Shipp, so it's not a big net loss at the defensive end if Roll gets more minutes.
Another interesting option would be to go big and move Luc to the three. Luc is a better athlete, a much better rebounder and a significantly better defender than Shipp. That would allow Aboya or Keefe to play at the four and the Bruins would instantly become a much better defensive team, and a more athletic team, as well as a better rebounding team. Right now, the Bruins rank 6th in the Pac-10 in rebounding margin. That's not good enough for a team with championship aspirations. Earlier in the season, you might have been worried about losing perimeter shooting by making Luc the three, but the reality is he's shooting a higher percentage than Shipp. That's not to say Luc is a better shooter than Shipp – he's obviously taken a lot fewer attempts – but it's not like you would be losing a great shooter by making the move.
Despite my belief that there is a lot of room for improvement, I still think the Bruins are generally in pretty good shape. They're certainly good enough right now to play with most teams in the country. As presently constituted, I think they have a reasonable shot of making it to the Final Four. But I also believe that if they want to have a very good chance – not just a reasonable shot -- at reaching Atlanta, they need to improve over the next couple months.