UCLA Shows Potential at Texas

While so many fans are bemoaning UCLA's loss to Texas, 68-64, in Austin Thursday, we see the game more as a half-full kind of thing. UCLA showed it was just as good as #8-ranked Texas on its home floor, while the Bruins are brimming with as-of-yet untapped potential for the season...

It's interesting to try to analyze why UCLA fans are so riled up about UCLA losing to Texas, 68-64.

In my opinion, that was a pretty accurate representation of where this team is right now.

We thought it'd be a test of how far the freshmen had come. It proved the freshmen are still a long ways away, and that's entirely predictable, six games into the season. If you look back on the freshman seasons of Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar, probably the two freshmen in Ben Howland's tenure who came in most prepared to play other than Kevin Love, they were still a very long ways away after just their first six games. Heck, Kevin Love in December wasn't the Kevin Love we saw in March.

It proved that Darren Collison, with his talent and experience, is the go-to guy on this team.

It proved how Josh Shipp can be effective, and how his assets can be exploited.

It flashed the type of contribution that James Keefe can make.

It again showed how effective Alfred Aboya has become while staying out of foul trouble. If you remember, it was a major concern for the team heading into the season.

It illustrated how UCLA just doesn't have the rebounding capability that it has in the last few years, and how it will need to definitely keep emphasizing rebounding on a team-wide level.

It proved that UCLA's offense hasn't found itself yet, and will have to get points in transition.

It showed that UCLA is, and always has been, and probably always will be under Howland, a program that starts everything on defense.

What's so surprising? If UCLA had come out of Austin with a one-point win, everyone would be praising the team, instead of whining about its shortcomings. A win or a loss at this point in the season, seriously, doesn't mean that much. You have to be able to look past the win-loss acceptance/rejection threshold and look at the performance more analytically.

While there were many things that showed how far away this team is, there were some very encouraging things. Overall, the fact that this very young team went into a very hostile environment on the road, against a top 10 in the nation, and almost won the game is something. The fact that this UCLA team, at this point in its development, can go to Austin and be just as good as Texas, a veteran team, is a very good sign.

So, let's get deeper into the points laid out above.

It's very encouraging that Collison didn't go through his usual tentative first half, but was shooting the ball from the initial jump ball. He finished with 22 points, and shot five threes, which is probably about what he should average for the season.

There are two sides to Collison dominating the ball like he did in this game. With Collison it's either all or nothing. He's a very unique player – neither being a true point guard or shooting guard. He's a scorer, but he's not a guy who curls off screens, catches the ball and pulls up, like a shooting guard. He's not a guy who has the vision and anticipation to set up his teammates for easy looks like a point guard. He's a unique scorer, one that needs to dribble incessantly, go one-on-one (well, with a ball screen), and get into the lane. In terms of how it applies to UCLA's offense, it's either he decides he's putting the ball up, and UCLA's offense becomes the Clear-Out-For-Collison Show, or Collison doesn't shoot, kind of disappears, and tries to find teammates, mostly ineffectively. Neither is ideal; You'd prefer that the team moved the ball in the half-court much more than they did in this game. But with Collison looking to shoot so much, it's, right now, almost mutually exclusive. But hopefully that can change. UCLA's offense is going to have to evolve into a mix of the Collison Show and a half-court cutting, screening and passing offense, to get others looks. It's entirely plausible that it changes possession by possession. For UCLA to be successful offensively, it will have to be able to score both ways.

Along those same lines, we all have to come to a common place in regard to Josh Shipp. Let's all realize that he's going to be an integral part of this team. There is no way Howland is going to sit him for Mike Roll or the freshmen. That's abundantly clear. Roll out-played Shipp up to this point of the season, but Shipp got 31 minutes against Texas while Roll got 9.

And if that's the case, we're going to have the Anti-Shipp faction fighting against the Pro-Shipp faction for the rest of the season. I propose a middle ground, a Shipp détente, if you will, and hopefully the team can actually reach one also in its use of Shipp on the court. Shipp is effective offensively when he can spot up on an open look, or take a couple of dribbles and pull up from about 15 feet. He's effective when he's being scrappy, like getting a tie-up on the offensive end with under a minute to play against Texas. He's particularly effective out on the break – specifically finishing a break. He's a good rebounder for his position. He's not effective when, in the half-court, he over-penetrates. When he's in, he shuts down the ball movement in the offense, with far less passing and very few looks going into the post. And he's more or less a poor defender.

Okay, we can work with this. If UCLA can emphasize to Shipp that he can't put the ball on the floor in the half-court for more than two dribbles that would eliminate a great deal of the issues. And it seems that has been taking place some; in the last couple of games, Shipp has been out of control on a dribble drive far less than he was in the season's first couple of games.

It would also seem that, when Shipp is in, the Collison Show might be the offense of choice. Collison isn't a very good creator for others himself, and doesn't have great vision. When the two are in, it might be the most effective offensive to let Collison do his one-on-one thing, and then look for Shipp as a second alternative, for a kick-out, or for space where he can take two dribbles and a pull-up. When the Collison Show is playing, see, the offense isn't passing the ball anyway, so it would seem like a good time for Shipp to do his offensive gig, too.

The key here is, though, UCLA then can't let the Collison Show with Shipp as the Sidekick take over UCLA's offense. It needs to be balanced with the passing/screening/cutting offense, too. The "motion" can't be hijacked. UCLA has to then use its set plays and the real version of the motion to complement this. If developed, it could be a devastatingly potent, two-pronged attack that could keep defenses off-balance.

But regardless of how good Shipp is playing in any game, Roll needs to get playing time. Roll is an integral part to that passing/screening/cutting offense. There was one possession in the second half where Holiday took control of the possession. The team went through its cutting and screening, Holiday found Roll on the baseline, and Roll made a baseline skip pass to Nikola Dragovic for a wide-open three that he, well, missed.

But that's the alternative offense to the Collison Show, the one UCLA will have to develop as the season progresses. It will need passers like Holiday, Roll and Jerime Anderson to execute it. It will also be the offensive approach that has the chance to develop a low-post game, one in which has to involve J'mison Morgan, the only guy on the team with low-post scoring capability. It could, potentially, be a very exciting one, and one that complements the Collison Show very effectively. Developing it could make the difference this season between being a team that scraps through the Pac-10 with a one-dimensional approach, with Collison trying to carry the team on his back the entire way -- with definite limitations – or a team that has offensive dimensions that can play offense against any defense.

UCLA goes back to the Cupcake roll call now – so hopefully this will be something we'll see develop over the course of Cal State Northridge, Loyola Marymount, Mercer, Wyoming, etal in the next few weeks.

In addition to the lack of use of Roll, the other aspect of this game that was most frustrating was James Keefe getting just 22 minutes, while Dragovic got 21. Keefe started this game like he was going to have a career night, hitting a couple of threes, getting three rebounds, playing good defense – only to be yanked for Dragovic far too quickly. If Dragovic's one advantage over Keefe is that he's a better shooter and that Keefe is better in just about every other aspect of the game, particularly rebounding and defense (Howland's bread and butter), then there is no reason for them to be playing the same amount of minutes. Dragovic went 1 for 5 from three in this game. Keefe was 3 for 3. Dragovic had some open looks from three in the second half that could have made the difference in the game, and he missed them. Dragovic is shooting 24% from three for the season, while Keefe is shooting 40%.

In the past, we have rarely questioned Howland in his personnel use. Yes, we've complained about him over-using Shipp, and we complained about Russell Westbrook not getting enough playing time. But we could still recognize (possibly) the other side of the argument in those cases. This choice – using Dragovic over Keefe -- is the most inexplicable yet.

Perhaps, to the most discerning eye, the biggest concern you could get from the Texas game is UCLA's rebounding. Without Love or Mbah a Moute, UCLA's rebounding just isn't as strong as its been in recent years. While A.J. Abrams lit up UCLA for 31 points, the thing that gave Texas the edge and the win was out-rebounding the Bruins, 38-34. It was, in particular, the 16 offensive rebounds UCLA allowed Texas, which gave them many second chances on a possession.

It's another reason why Dragovic playing as much as Keefe is inexplicable.

Aboya has to be your favorite Bruin for the season. He had never been a starter (at least, for more than a couple of games) in his three previous seasons, but been the enforcer off the bench. Having already graduated last season, he could have moved on, returned to Cameroon and started on the track to becoming the president of his country, but he stayed. Then, moving into the starting lineup, the issue was whether he could remain on the floor and play effectively while staying out of foul trouble. So far this season, he's averaging 27 minutes a game and hasn't had more than three fouls in any one game. He had 11 big rebounds in this game while averaging 6.2 for the season. In the second half against Texas, he out-hustled everyone on the floor, fighting for rebounds and playing great defense. In one sequence, he was hit in the face on the defensive side, but still got the rebound, and then, while holding his jaw, went down the floor and set a high screen for Collison, rolled to the basket, got the offensive rebound, put it back up and was fouled. Those who design box scores are going to have to start a new column for charges taken this season because of Aboya.

Jrue Holiday, in just his sixth game as a college player, didn't have a good one. He took poor shots and had a couple of key turnovers. But even in a poor performance, there were flashes of greatness, with some nice passes (four assists) and a couple of very nice defensive plays – blocks and steals. With Holiday, it's all good; either he blossoms this season, enough to the point where he is recognized as a Lottery Pick, and UCLA's team this season greatly benefits, or he doesn't, and he potentially returns for his sophomore season. It's not a big stretch to, at the very least, expect Holiday to continue to get better as the season progresses, to better perceive his role on the team, and to be a different play in March compared to now – just like with Farmar, Afflalo and Love in their first seasons.

A very good sign for the team against Texas was, down by 10 four minutes into the second half, the team showed toughness and heart to come back. And they did it with defense, of course. Texas turned the ball over continuously due to UCLA's solid defense and ball pressure, and UCLA turned that into some transition points that put them up by three a few minutes later.

So, the heart is there. And, as we laid out above, there are many other elements that are there that could potentially develop to make this a very interesting and dangerous team in March. You have to look at it that, with so much not working yet, UCLA proved it was on the same level as Texas at this stage of the season. With so much upside, it's a good square to be on right now.


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