In the last few years, when UCLA lost – say typically this game, on the road in Seattle – UCLA played below their capability.
It's uncertain if this performance was really significantly below this team's capability.
The game exposed pretty much what just about every knowledgeable UCLA fan knows about this team. The question is whether they'll be able to overcome their weaknesses and continue to improve the rest of the season.
But in this game Saturday, it was like a diagram of what's wrong with this year's Bruins.
It's not tough t analyze either. Those who can't figure it out are probably over-analyzing it. Even the stats bear it out.
UCLA didn't rebound or defend very well. Washington out-rebounded them, 31-29 (closer that it seemed, actually), and they allowed the Huskies to shoot 45% from the field.
Probably the other indicative stat is Washington going 36 of 43 from the line, while UCLA went 10 of 15. Washington scored 26 more points from the free-throw line than UCLA did. Even if you take away the free throws made at the end of the game as a result of UCLA fouling Washington intentionally, the Huskies still made 20 more free throws than the Bruins.
Now, many UCLA fans will point to poor refereeing as the reason. There were some marginal calls, no question, but, you might have noticed, the refs were completely fair in how bad their calls were for both teams. Washington merely forced calls – and bad calls -- more often than UCLA did.
And that mostly came off of UCLA's poor defense.
As we've said all season, UCLA's defense this season is not near what it's been the last three years. Despite all of the other issues that many UCLA fans incessantly list about this team, the one aspect of it that is limiting it, keeping it from achieving more, is its mediocre defense. For UCLA in the first half of the season, it had been mostly very poor rotations out of traps and double teams. But UCLA, curiously, didn't trap or double-team as much against Washington. If there were an opponent on UCLA's schedule you'd think they'd really try to double just about every time he touched it, it would be Jon Brockman. They did double him, but not nearly enough and not aggressively enough.
But the rotation issue wasn't really the one in this game. The main defensive lapse was with UCLA's guards being able to stay in front of the ball. Darren Collison is a sensational player. He's had a very good season, one that very likely could get him on some All-American lists. He has continued to get better in his vision and passing. But we have to come to terms with the fact that Collison is not the on-ball defender he's hyped to be. Howland has continually said he could be the best on-ball defender he's ever coached, and that might have been true at some time in the last four years, but it's not this year. Collison is getting beat by opposing guards on the dribble, and it was a glaring issue in this game. Washington's quick guards took him and Jrue Holiday off the dribble continually, getting into the lane and forcing those horrible foul calls. Washington's Isaiah Thomas scored 24 points, going 9 for 12 from the free-throw line. Justin Dentmon was 10 of 10. Back-up guard Venoy Overton was 4 of 5. They collectively were 23 of 27. In comparison, Collison (the best free-throw shooter in the country) was 2 of 2, Holiday was 1 of 1, and Jerime Anderson was 1 of 2.
It created the vasty majority of Washington's offense, the penetration either creating a dump down to Jon Brockman, a kick-out to a shooter or a foul and a trip to the free-throw line.
You almost can't blame Collison. He's being asked to do probably too much. He's the leading scorer on the team, so he's asked to score. He's the primary ball-handler, so he's asked to create and set up others to score. He's the go-to guy, so he's given the ball when UCLA needs a basket. He played 36 minutes in this game, he's averaged 37 minutes in the last three games, and it appears he's starting to get worn down some. And while you can see little cracks in parts of his game (having not hit a three-pointer in four games), the aspect with the biggest impact is easily his less effective on-ball defense. Opposing guards who have some quickness are now getting around him and being able to create offense.
That was clearly the Washington offensive game plan, too. Washington's guards had a green light to use their quickness and penetrate. Washington's Lorenzo Romar knows that they can be out of control and make bad decisions, but he also knew that Thomas and Dentmon would be able to challenge Collison and Holiday, perhaps get to the line, maybe get UCLA's guards in foul trouble or, at the very least, tire them out and frustrate them. All of the above. Collison fouled out in this one.
Holiday, athletically, has a chance to be a great on-ball defender. We've seen flashes of it this season, like against DeMar DeRozan in the USC win. But he's very inconsistent. It doesn't appear to be fatigue, but focus. He doesn't seem to have grown past the high school and AAU mentality that most elite players have – that they occasionally play with defensive intensity, rather than sustain it throughout a game. He also can make bad defensive decisions, flying out on the wrong shooter and leaving his man open for a three (which he did in this one). It's very reminiscent of AAU ball, where defense is merely a random act in constant disarray. Howland says he's learning and improving defensively, and that's good. But he didn't look like he had learned much in this one.
Holiday will hopefully realize, like Arron Afflalo and Russell Westbrook before him, that defense is a major calling card on his way to the NBA. It was a huge part of both of their games that improved their stock considerably and legitimized them with NBA scouts.
On the other side of the court, wouldn't it, too, make sense to have Collison and Holiday penetrate at will themselves? You do have the best free-throw shooter in the land, and two of the most purely talented players for taking defenders off the dribble in the Pac-10. But it doesn't seem like Collison or Holiday are looking to penetrate much, especially in this game where it would have made sense to go right at Thomas and Dentmon, two guys who are sloppy defensively and would potentially have a problem with fouling themselves. Very simply, it would seem to make sense to get the ball in Holiday's hands against either of them, since he has such a size advantage. I think I saw Holiday post up Thomas one time, but didn't get the ball thrown to him.
UCLA's offense this season is pretty good. Even without inside scoring, it's more productive, mostly because it has a group of better shooters than it ever has in the last few years. But it seems very rigid within Howland's system, and not very adaptable to its opponent. We heard early on this season that there'd be more motion, but it seems that Howland has relied more on his set plays rather than relinquishing any more control to his players on the offensive side of the ball.
Rebounding continues to be an issue. Alfred Aboya had one of his poorest games of the season, and, like Collison, you probably can't blame him. At 6-7, he's being asked almost single-handedly to defend the opposing team's best post player in every game, commonly guys who are a few inches taller than he is and probably 20 to 40 pounds heavier. He also looks worn down. He's never been a great rebounder, and the demands on him are eroding that effort. He had four rebounds in 24 minutes, and has gotten just nine in the last three games. He was in foul trouble in this one, seemingly losing the discipline he's played with this season defensively, and reverting a bit to the bull-in-the-China shop mentality. Aboya's a warrior, but he lately looks like an aging warriors that is losing his edge in battle.
You know your rebounding situation isn't great when Collison and Holiday tied for the most rebounds in this game, 5. It doesn't help when your best rebounder, James Keefe, has some limitations that have kept him off the court. Nikola Dragovic, who has taken over the starting four spot from Keefe, provides so much more offense than Keefe, but it will be interesting to see, now that Dragovic has proven himself to be a legitimate threat from the outside, what happens when opposing defenses now cover him on the perimeter. As he gets less open looks, and becomes less effective, will Keefe, who has been playing better recently, see his playing time increase? Coming off the bench seems to agree with Keefe, getting him to play with more effort. It's a real dilemma for Howland; with a huge issue being rebounding, does he bite the offensive bullet and play the better rebounder more? Keefe had five rebounds in 14 minutes and seems like one of very few players on the team who can get an offensive rebound.
Perhaps the other one is Drew Gordon, the freshman post. Gordon is very active, and is a very good rebounder. He had four rebounds in 11 minutes, as opposed to the 4 rebounds Aboya had in 24 minutes. In the last four games, Gordon has gotten 12 rebounds in a combined 37 minutes. Aboya has 13 rebounds in 117 minutes. Gordon is a shot-blocking threat, and plays above the rim, getting easy baskets on putbacks. He certainly isn't a great post defender at this point in his development, and he is a considerable drop off from Aboya. But UCLA's post double-team is something that could keep Gordon on the court more.
Could it perhaps boost UCLA's defense and rebounding if Keefe and Gordon received a little more playing time? Against Washington it might have. Aboya wasn't greatly effective against Brockman anyway, but Gordon certainly made a difference on the boards when he was in.
It's too bad that college basketball can't have some throw-away, experimental games that don't count against your record. If UCLA could do that, it'd be interesting to play Gordon and Keefe together for some extended minutes.
Oh, yeah, maybe that's what those non-conference cupcakes games were for.
With Aboya in foul trouble, J'mison Morgan saw the light of day, getting five minutes, and scoring two baskets. Morgan clearly has the potential to offer UCLA what it just doesn't have, a big body in the post that can score. It very likely won't happen this season, but it'd be a shame if Morgan didn't put in the work and come back next season in shape, because he is potentially the answer to UCLA's inside scoring problem.
Josh Shipp continues to shoot the ball better, hitting 6 of 9 three pointers in this one, and basically keeping the Bruins close by himself. He finished with 25 points and, admittedly, tried to force some shots down the line. But heck, no one else was willing to try to penetrate, someone had to do it. Shipp's defense, too, has continued to improve; he doesn't have a great natural defensive ability, but he's getting smarter in defending each individual he goes up against. He sagged off Quincy Pondexter, who is quicker than he, in this one, taking away his penetration and challenging him to shoot from the outside.
The team, again, fell apart in crunch time. It's probably a result of Collison, the go-to guy and leader, overwhelmed with too much responsibility. Collison has, throughout his career, been a very good clutch guy, but he now looks gassed in crunch time.
Very early on this season, Greg Hicks made the point that the freshmen are the key to the season. The veterans are known quantities; their ceilings are very apparent. But the freshmen have an enormous amount of potential – which very well might not be realized this season. Or it might. There was an argument on the message board about whether Holiday had been "unleashed" or not. Having watched him for a number of years in high school and AAU ball, he clearly is playing tentatively. His talent is being kept bottled a bit, and whether that's because of Howland's structure offensively or whether Holiday is in some type of mental funk is uncertain. But in terms of Holiday and the rest of the freshmen, UCLA might take a page from the Washington game plan – that is, tolerate all of the potential mistakes of a guard like Isaiah Thomas, but also benefit from his talents.
Because if you stay the current course, UCLA, more than likely is a Sweet 16 team, at best. So, really, you're not risking an obvious Final Four potential by not giving the freshmen more time. But who knows what the ceiling could be if the freshmen got more time and more comfortable?
It seems, as this point, there needs to be some profound risk/reward analysis on the season.
After the ASU loss, Howland said he'd play his bench more. We were told before the weekend that Howland's intention was to increase Malcolm Lee's playing time, but Lee got three minutes over the weekend. It seems that Howland is struggling a bit with taking the risk of doing what he seems to recognize – what we all seem to recognize: that the clear strength of this team is its depth, and its potential is probably completely dependent on the improvement of the freshmen.