But you wouldn't think it'd be about the team that won by 34.
We voiced some of the concerns in UCLA's exhibition against Cal Baptist Monday, and it might be overly worrisome to write another column that is mostly dedicated to more concerns.
But the exhibition game was more worrisome than CBU – not only because it's closer to when UCLA starts the real season (next Wednesday against Prairie View A&M), but because it was far more worrisome.
Now, all of these issues could very well work themselves out as the season progresses. These were just exhibition games, and you can't necessarily take too much from them. Plus, the players need to settle into their roles, which a team with new players is still in the process of doing when it plays its exhibition games.
But hear me out. These points might be overly apprehensive, but we need to get them out so we can move on.
This team has a great deal of development to do if it's going to be a top five team in the nation.
Here are a number of issues:
The defense, so far, has been questionable. The team doesn't look to have the strong, rugged kind of interior defense it's had in years past. NAIA players like Rocky Hampton and Josh Miller were far too effective in the paint Friday. While many were celebrating the fact that Alfred Aboya played 23 minutes without a foul, he seemed, as a result, to be tentative defensively, which is exactly what you can't have when you have a bunch of defensive question marks behind you in the post. Again, it seems that, in trying to get Aboya able to stay on the floor, it could remove the essense that is Aboya.
James Keefe, too, has been disappointing defensively. We thought he finished last season with some great defensive games and expected him to pick up where he left off. He very well still could, that it's just a matter of him getting back in the swing. But overall (and as everyone knows, we're big Keefe fans), Keefe has been disappointing in the first two exhibitions. While he had 8 rebounds against Biola in 25 minutes, he probably should have had 15. There were a number of rebounds where he had position and he simply was out-jumped or out-hustled for the ball. He had a lay-up blocked easily – again by an NAIA player. This is just speculating – but in the overall quest for players in the program to bulk up, does it seem that Keefe, with probably 10 more pounds of muscle, appears a step slower and less bouncy than he did last season?
The team also lacks the overall defensive intensity that has been the calling card of UCLA teams under Howland. There doesn't seem to be a flag bearer for the cause, which was once hoisted by Arron Afflalo and then Russell Westbrook. Jrue Holiday definitely has a chance, but he's still stepping gingerly, trying not to step on the feet of the veterans. In that case, shouldn't it be Darren Collison's role to insist on constant defensive intensity for what should be his team? He hasn't shown it personally yet in the two exhibition games, with only very limited bursts of defensive energy, but mostly a lack of consistency of effort and focus.
We'll see if the Bruins find that Howland-esque defensive intensity against Prairie View. They look like they're capable of it, since you could see it for about 7 minutes against Biola to start the second half. The Eagles went 1 for 6 to start the half, with the Bruins not giving them a decent look until about the 13-minute mark. That spurred UCLA onto a good defensive half, which limited Biola to just 15 points.
But that was after a dismal first half of defense in which Biola was schooling the Bruins inside and outside. Biola was patient in their half-court offense, and that was smart, because the distracted Bruins couldn't sustain defensive focus for an entire shot clock, and Biola eventually found decent holes in the Bruins defense for good looks. If this is Duke – or even Cal State Northridge – this lack of defensive intensity is going to slap the Bruins across the face.
UCLA, though, has some potential defensively. It could be just a matter of the veterans stepping it up in the real games and the youngsters following the lead, and Holiday taking over the mantle of defensive poster boy.
But offensively, there could be some situations that might not be as easily fixable.
We've heard that Josh Shipp thought last season he didn't play to his strengths – that his role was outside spot-up shooter, and that's not what he does best. He, apparently, believes he should drive to the basket, to create points by slashing into the paint and creating from there. That mindset was definitely evident Friday against Biola, with Shipp driving into the lane without seemingly anywhere to go. You've heard of Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere; This is UCLA's Drive to Nowhere. He drove the baseline three times – into three, collapsing defenders – with his head down, trapped along the baseline with, well, nowhere to go, ending the game with four turnovers.
If this is a preview of Shipp's season, well, abandon it.
Maybe what Shipp has mistaken is, in his freshman season, he didn't get points from slashing to the basket; he got garbage points by being clever, slapping rebounds away from defenders when they were coming down with the ball, stepping into the lane of an outlet pass, etc. That's the most effective Josh Shipp that we've seen at UCLA, and for whatever reason we haven't seen him near as much since that initial season.
Another aspect of the offense that doesn't look to change is Collison's inability to be a real point guard – that is, fulfill his role of creating opportunities for others and finding his shooters. Mike Roll had the hot hand Friday, but Collison missed him wide open a few times, just a beat too late in recognizing where Roll had spotted up. Collison even admitted it in his post-game comments. Collison's in his fourth year in the program and he knows the offense about as good as he's going to know it, and he's going into his fourth year of playing with Roll. And this isn't necessarily Collison's fault; as we've known since we first saw him as a sophomore in high school, he's just not a true point guard. In fact, and this would be a radical move that we can't antcipate happening (but we've suggested it before), Collison should handle the ball less and be more of the two guard. Collison is probably the best outside shooter on the team, and he just doesn't look for his shot enough – since he's too busy trying to do what he can't do, and that's be a point guard.
Holiday, on the other hand, does have the vision and ability to create and find shooters. While we hold very little hope that Holiday will be given the reins of the offense, we hold out a slight hope that maybe he'll have the ball in his hands more often, and let Collison find open spots on the floor to knock down jumpers or open lanes to split.
The offense is a bit disjointed, but when freshman point guard Jerime Anderson is in the game it runs better and more assuredly. Anderson is a pure point, who knows how to execute an offense and its intentions, and knows where to find his shooters in it. In two exhibition games, Anderson has seven assists and no turnovers. When the youngsters were on the court together for the latter half of the second half, with Anderson running the point, the offense gelled more than it had in any stint in the first two exhibitions.
We're not advocating that Anderson should start, or even play more. We're just using him as an example of what Howland's offense can do when it has a true point guard executing it. Or at least someone with a point guard feel.
The thing we doubt that happens, too, is that there is a realization on this team that Jrue Holiday should be the focal point of the offense. It's doubtful it's going to happen, since Shipp and Collison are seniors and consider this their year, and Howland certainly trusts them and won't relinquish control of his team and his season to Holiday when he has the those two seniors who have, admittedly, taken him to some Final Fours. The offense might, truly, be okay oriented as it is, around Collison and Shipp, but it seems like it might not reach its potential without Holiday given the ball more and being allowed to be unleashed. As of right now, having known Holiday and watched him from when he was a sophomore in high school, he's playing tentatively. That's understandable, as we said, because he doesn't want to step on any toes. He's still, easily, the most talented player on the team, even holding back. During one four-minute stretch in the second half, he was completely dominant. He had a pretty touch pass in semi-transition that hit Collison in the hands under the basket for a lay-up; he took a charge on the other end; he then had a beautiful pass to Keefe under the basket (which Keefe couldn't finish); then he hit one of his three effortless three-pointers (going three for four for the night).
It is a shame, though, that if Holiday goes pro after this season, which is the prevailing sentiment, we wouldn't ever get a chance to see him in a UCLA uniform with it being his team, with him being the centerpiece.
The biggest positives from the game were Roll and Malcolm Lee. People were wondering if Roll, after sitting out last season with his foot injury, was going to live up to his billing, and he showed he's capable of it Friday. He shot five for eight, and finished with 11 points, hitting a three and some very quick midrange jumpers. Lee, after a slow start in the CBU game, showed some of what he's capable of against Biola, using his great quickness on both sides of the ball. He was able to guard the quick, small Biola guards; when he gets the ball on the break he doesn't have to give it up but can lead the break; he's quick and clever driving through the lane; he's a good, athletic rebounder (six boards); and you still haven't seen him hit his outside jumper yet, which is a very good one.
Drew Gordon also was a bright spot. He's clueless in many ways since he's a freshman, but he's one of few that plays defense with intensity and hustle all the time. We said months ago we thought Gordon could step ahead of J'mison Morgan in the post hierarchy since Gordon plays so hard, and it looks like it's going to be true. He had three nice, controlled blocks that created a transition the other way. Physically he was pushed around a bit by Biola's inside guys, which isn't a good sign, but every freshman post we've seen at UCLA in recent years looked a bit raw defensively in the exhibition games.
The best sign for the game was UCLA, after a pretty dismal first half, especially defensively, coming out in the second half and playing more like it's capable of. If UCLA hadn't put together that half – where it limited Biola to 22% shooting (as opposed to the 40% it allowed in the first half), the worries expressed here would have been quite a bit more pronounced.
Hopefully, while the Bruins sort our their roles offensively, they realize that playing defense with intensity and focus is what's going to carry it through the early part of the season. Heck, perhaps the entire season.