It's hard to believe that the Branch West game would be a typical one for this team – or any team. They played very poorly, lacked intensity and didn't have any toughness or fight in them. You just have to believe that this was one of the worst performances and efforts of the season – that it's at least toward the low end of performances this year. What's going to be significant here in trying to project how good this team could be is determining what is the more typical quality performance of this team – and then what is the high end performance. Will this be a typical type of team in recent years that looks to be able to lose to anyone on any typical day or beat anyone on a typical day? Even though it might be premature to draw any conclusions, but the Branch West game might have given us a clue that, at least, this team, could lose to anyone on any given day, at least early in the season. But how good is their ceiling? Will it be good enough, like in years past, to beat Kansas, Duke or Arizona? Perhaps a big barometer for the season will be the Duke game. If the team can put together an effort and play Duke tough, then that's a huge sign that the Branch West game might have been an abberation. Or, at least, that the team, while capable of low swings, is also capable of very high swings of performance also.
Keep in mind, this is a very young team and you have to take into consideration, logically, that they're going to drastically improve as the season progresses. At least as individual players, and you would also believe as a team. Dijon Thompson looks to be the best all-around player on the team and should continue to get better this season. Cedric Bozeman is also bound to get more comfortable, and should get more confidence as he learns the limitations and parameters for himself in the offense. So, here are some points that we'll have to see the team improve on for it to succeed this year as a team.
There were really three things that were the most striking about the Branch West game: 1) Lack of intensity and toughness, especially on defense 2) No interior play, on offense or defense and 3) the starting five consists of five wings, essentially.
Within the first five minutes of the game, the biggest impression was that the five starters are essentially wing players, or want to be. Jason Kapono and Dijon Thompson are, by definition. T.J. Cummings wants to be. Ray Young is, not really possessing the playmaking skills of a guard. And Cedric Bozeman, because of his lack of ability to defend guards, looks more suited right now as a wing.
There was very little, if any, interior play in the Branch West game. In the first half, the team got 0 offensive rebounds. The stat sheet said they had five for the game, but it didn't appear there were five in the second half. Interior defense was a "matador" defense, with UCLA's frontcourt players doing very little to defend or even alter the shots of the Branch West frontcourt players.
The most distressing is the lack of intensity on both sides of the court. You kept thinking that they'd get pissed off, start playing hard and make a run, the entire game. But it never came. Not even remotely.
Also, even though we almost always assume that UCLA will have an athletic team, another thing that was evident is how this year's team isn't that athletic. Kapono isn't. Thompson and Bozeman are not really quick and not really explosive. Cummings can get off the floor if he has his legs under him, but also doesn't move well laterally. Among the first seven or eight players, Ray Young is UCLA's best athlete and he's fairly stiff himself.
So, how does this team improve?
First, play Mike Fey. He's the one true center on the team. He looked like the only one who could post up on offense and the only one who could body up on defense in the paint. And every minute you let John Hoffart play you're taking a minute away from Fey's development. Giving Fey minutes early in the year could very well pay off considerably later in the year. Keep him in the game, let him make his mistakes, but get him experience.
Next, bench T.J. Cummings if he's not going to get in there and bang for rebounds. Even though if you keep him off the court you'll miss his shooting touch, all in all, keeping him off the court isn't going to hurt you that much. Send a message to him that he has to get in there, play defense and rebound. Dijon Thompson looks like the best rebounder among your first 7 players anyway.
Play John Crispin and Ryan Walcott more. Even though there's a drop-off in talent with these two in the game, they brought intensity when they were on the court Wednesday. Bozeman and Thompson are smooth, gliding type of players that seem to, at this point, lack real energy to their games. Crispin and Walcott are an infusion of it. Crispin, with Ray Young on the court, also toughens up the team. The starting five are 6-6 to 6-8 skinny guys who are pretty soft physically. That team on the floor lacks physical toughness. If you watched any of the Coaches for Cancer games on ESPN last night, the most striking thing, in comparison to what you saw Wednesday night at Pauley, is the physical difference. Georgia and Alabama have some thugs. In the past several years, UCLA had some tough guys; Matt Barnes did UCLA's thug work, Earl Watson was a warrior, Dan Gadzuric never backed down, and even JaRon Rush played hard and tough. Again, Mike Fey brings you some physical presence. He looked like the only guy who put a body on someone defensively within 10 feet of the basket. He's very large and even though he's still learning how to do it, he knows how to body up in the post.
Press. They did it for a short stretch and got Branch West trapped and forced them to call a timeout. That looked like it could be the incendiary point of a run. But then they didn't press and again lost intensity. Given, UCLA doesn't necessarily have the quickness to press a lot, but they do have some very long-armed guys in Bozeman and Thompson. And pressing in spots will increase their intensity on the court, turn it up a notch and keep them playing hard. Also, in the half court, this team looks like it will have to zone. It needs as much help as it can get to keeping opposing players out of the paint. It will help protect Fey with fouls, too. It will keep UCLA's frontcourt closer to the basket, in better position to rebound. Also, some half-court traps might work – using those long arms on the perimeter to trap smaller guards.
After Wednesday, it's also pretty evident that the return of Andre Patterson is key. He is just about everything that the team showed it lacked against Branch West. He is a rebounder, he can score around the post, he's an explosive athlete, and he's an intense competitor. You wouldn't want to place too much pressure on the kid to be the savior of this team when he comes back, but his contributions could be a huge difference-maker for the season. Reports are it's about 60-40 odds that Patterson will return to the team.
The next exhibition game Tuesday, November 19th, is against EA Sports All-Stars. It's hard to get a good assessment of the team since they've had a shifting roster, which is quite common for exhibition teams. Even though they're 0-8, their original roster, on paper, looks quite a bit better than Branch West. Kansas beat them by 17, 111-94, and they took Missouri into overtime before losing 81-80.
EA Sports All-Stars Record:
L, Missouri 81-80
L, KU 111-94
L, Xavier 92-63
L, Louisville 98-90
L, Tennessee 95-90
L, Pittsburg, 84-66
L, Florida, 91-79
L, South Alabama, 76-67
Nov 15th, Auburn
Nov 16th, Murray State
Nov 17th, Florida St.
Nov. 18th, Georgia
Nov 19th, UCLA
But it appears some of that original roster isn't playing with them anymore. They have Adonis Jordan, the former star guard from Kansas. Shea Seals, the athletic scoring wing from Tulsa, and Kelvin Gibbs, the 6-6 load of a power forward from Pepperdine, played only the first couple of games with them and haven't played since. They picked up Fred Vinson, formerly of Georgia Tech, who got some pro looks out of college. When they play UCLA they will also be playing their fifth game in five nights, with UCLA being the last game of their 14-game exhibition tour. And the four previous games before the UCLA game were on the east coast, so this team should be pretty tired.
And you would think that, after Branch West, UCLA should be pretty fired up...