When UCLA squeaked by Miami (Ohio) in the second round of the 2K Classic Thursday, 64-59, the reaction of many UCLA fans is a knee-jerk, sky-is-falling one.
Understandably, there are some considerable issues, as evidenced by the game.
But if you want to be a Bruin fan this season, it's this simple: You have to hope that there is some considerable development for this team as the season progresses. There is no way you can expect the Bruins to be in March Madness shape in November, given that three of their starters from last season are currently wearing NBA jerseys and five true freshmen are getting playing time.
It's a bit preposterous that many UCLA fans were expecting more – now, at this time of the season. The Bruins are going to have to work out some things for this season to be considered a success. Know that while you follow the team this year.
Here are a few things that the Bruins will have to work out:
-- The #1 development issue that you can take away from the Miami game is UCLA's lack of any kind of inside presence. Yes, we know that UCLA has done it before without an inside presence, but at least the Bruins of the past looked to dump it down to Lorenzo Mata every once in a while, just to keep defenses honest. The Bruins on Thursday didn't even look to post up anyone, didn't even slightly glance down low for a post feed. The offense was all high screens and cutting 15 feet from the basket. Not to slight Miami, who was pretty good, but that UCLA one-dimensional offense is going to get completely shut down by better teams this season if it doesn't develop some kind of ball movement through the post.
Yes, we all have now realized, even some of the slower Bruin fans on the uptake, that Drew Gordon or J'mison Morgan is not Kevin Love. They are closer to Lorenzo Mata as a freshman than Love. But get real, people: There isn't anyone coming out of high school and walking through the doors of any program that is even close to Kevin Love. Knowing high school prospects pretty well, it's safe to say that there simply aren't any freshman post players in the country that will come in and give any program, at any level, an immediate low-post scoring boost that would even resemble what Love did last season for UCLA.
What Bruin fans can reasonable hope for is that someone among Alfred Aboya, James Keefe, Morgan or Gordon – or a combination thereof – can at least offer a threat of a scoring presence inside. You need to dump the ball down low to make the defense have to defend it so that your other four players can then get spacing to execute and shoot.
Aboya looks to be the most logical candidate. He has a bit of a low-post game, with a decent jump hook along the baseline. The fact that didn't happen at all against Miami is just as much the fault of Aboya as it is the perimeter players or the coaching staff; Aboya didn't post up much when he had the opportunity. By the end of the game, when he started to, UCLA's perimeter players looked so locked in to the options they had been getting out of the offense for the first 30 minutes that they simply weren't looking to feed the post.
Morgan, as Howland said in his post-game interview, is probably the next best candidate. The 6-10, raw freshman will get more playing time than he did against Miami against other teams with players he matches up better against (Miami didn't have a true center, but 6-8, 220-pound guys that Aboya, Keefe and Gordon were better against). Now, Morgan isn't Karl Malone on the low block, but has shown a modicum of natural ability with his back to the basket.
There is also some hope for Gordon on the low block. He's got a great deal to learn, but he knows that his game isn't entirely on the perimeter and he'll needs to be able to catch the ball with his back to the basket and at least pose as a scoring threat.
In the case of Keefe, he might not be a guy you would dump it down to that has an arsenal of low-block moves, but he needs to be able to finish down low when he has a player sealed and is given a good feed.
Howland in his comments after the game, obviously recognizes all of the post issues.
If you remember, even with Kevin Love early last season, the issue was still that UCLA wasn't looking at the low block enough. In this offense, it's easy to get caught up in the perimeter movement and not look at the post.
Probably the aspect of the team that gives you more hope than in any other season that they'll be able to get the ball down low is the fact that this team has more perimeter players that are naturally aware of that aspect of the game and capable of making an entry feed. After Mike Roll went down last season, UCLA was, essentially, without any perimeter players who know how to look down low and consistently feed the post. They had to be force-fed (don't mind the pun) to do it. At least this season, you now have Roll, along with Jrue Holiday, Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee, who do it far more naturally. Just as significant as having a good low-post guy is that you have perimeter players who can get it there, and UCLA has more candidates for that task on this team than ever under Howland.
So, there are enough pieces in place, at least to get a little low-block dimension on offense. How well this team develops that part of its offensive game is going to be a huge factor in its success.
-- UCLA is going to be led by Darren Collison and Josh Shipp this season. Face the fact. It's their team, handed to them by Howland. So, if you think the keys are going to be handed over to Holiday to let him drive this baby it ain't going to happen.
But that doesn't mean things can't work out. Would we prefer to see Holiday the main playmaker and Collison off the ball and able to score? Certainly. But it's not gonna happen. So the best you can hope for is that Holiday is able to find room to assert himself within the framework of Collison and Shipp. Holiday is not only very talented, but he's a smart kid, who will know how to effectively work the situation. He's already doing it now, being careful not to step on any toes. It's entirely reasonable to expect him to further assert himself with the touches he's getting, earning the confidence of both Shipp and Collison as another equally viable option on the perimeter. Remember, these guys have only been playing together for a matter of weeks. We knew it would take some meshing between veterans and freshmen for this season to work and you couldn't expect it to miraculously happen in the first two games of the season. There is the basis for it to happen, since Holiday is such a gifted player, so you can reasonable hope for that.
The fact that Holiday struggled a bit in this game and that Howland yanked him after he couldn't guard Michael Bramos and made a sloppy pass at a critical time in a close game in crunch time isn't worrisome at all. If you remember, there was also an issue when Howland didn't play Love at the end of a game at the beginning of last season because he was struggling to guard an opposing post player. It's what happens – especially for successful programs that have talent in every class, and don't need to rely on just its true freshmen. Even the most talented freshmen – Lottery picks like Love and Holiday -- have things to learn. Heck, there's always a bonus here in the fact that if Holiday doesn't learn and grow enough this season, he might return for his sophomore year at UCLA. Darn. What a blow that would be.
Holiday's biggest issue isn't going to be his decision-making, but his defense. He picked up two quick fouls guarding Bramos, and throughout the game gambled too much in guarding him, and Bramos exploited it. Roll, who isn't near the athlete that Holiday is, came in and played very good defense on Bramos, since Roll, the veteran, has learned how to do it under Howland. Remember, last season's defensive stopper, Russell Westbrook, consistently got burned in his freshmen season as a defender. Let's hope that Holiday doesn't take his entire freshman season to learn how to play better on-ball defense. It's reasonable to expect him to become a very good defender as the season progresses.
-- Keefe has to step up. It's that simple. Let's concede that he's not going to be one of the first scoring options on this team. But he's in the game to defend and rebound, and he didn't do either very well Thursday night. There were a number of times he let his man get around him fairly easily, or was caught out of position on switches. He had 3 rebounds for the night. He also, as we said, needs to be able to finish easy lay-ups inside. Those are his roles this season, and if he doesn't fulfill them fairly quickly you could probably see Howland going to Nikola Dragovic or Drew Gordon (who would play the five and Aboya would slide over to the four). The theory would be, if Keefe isn't rebounding and defending well, you might as well have Dragovic on the floor to give you a better jump-shooting option. Or, you'd rather have Gordon's natural ability to rebound and finish. Keefe is a big key; it's not that the team would collapse without him, but Howland was relying on him fufilling his roles on this team and it would put the Bruins into somewhat of a scramble if he doesn't.
So, people, calm down a bit and put it in perspective. This team is working in some new players to significant roles. You couldn't expect the team to pick up where it left off last season. This is a work in progress. But it has a chance to be, well, maybe not a masterpiece, but a pretty significant work of art. Is the team currently worthy of the #4 ranking in the country right now? Almost certainly not (unless the rest of the country is even worse than suspected). The team is going to take some considerable lumps along the way to its finished product. It might not get to where we hope it's going; there could be some factors that don't develop that leave this team limited. But there are also some realistic expectations for the team to develop, and that makes this season such an interesting one – to see if this team can grow and develop, with a focused objective, and become a cohesive unit. Fans should relish the uncertainty of it all, the drama of whether this team can become a very good one by season's end. Because if you don't, and you think that UCLA can just re-load every season without any growing pains, you might want to find yourself a different hobby, one with more certainty, like model building. But for those fans who thrive on it all, this is it. This is what it's all about. It's like one of those B movie trailers with its melodramatic teaser lines:
Can veterans Shipp and Collison accept talented newcomer Holiday as one of their own?
Will Keefe heroically step up and be the player he can be?
Can Captain Howland mold this motley, dog-faced crew into winners?
Tune in next week, and for the next 18 weeks or so, to find out...