UCLA dropped a key non-conference game against Michigan Saturday, 81-76, at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins are backing themselves further and further against the wall. Here are some questions answered about the season...
It's getting difficult to come up with a new slant on these game analyses. Pretty much it's the same report, just a different day.
There are a few questions that many, though, keep asking, and we thought we'd try to provide answers.
1) Shouldn't Steve Lavin just settle on a set rotation of maybe seven players and try to get those seven to work cohesively together on both sides of the court – if this team has any chance to succeed? Well, we speculated as much in a recent game review. CBS analyst Billy Packer, in just his limited exposure to the team that he's had, thought so himself. And UCLA assistant coach Jim Saia hinted at it in a post-game radio interview.
Maybe there are other factors at work here, but it doesn't seem too difficult to realize that the team can't get into any kind of rhythm or familiarity on the floor since there seemingly is such a random substitution pattern being used. Plus, on offense, there are times when the team is running its motion offense with the intention of getting certain players within the offense shots – but then you realize that the players in the game at the time aren't the players you want shooting the ball.
2) Isn't it fairly obvious who the players should be in the rotation? The best player on the team is Dijon Thompson, and he's not starting. Your best player should be on the court at the beginning of the game, to give him the opportunity to spark the team from the outset, like he did in the Duke game when he went off for 12 quick points in the first few minutes. Then, UCLA is continually getting worked defensively inside, and your only hope of any player providing fairly good post defense would be Michael Fey. If he played more minutes, of course, you'd be risking foul trouble and some defensive breakdowns, but he has the only body on the team who can defense an opposing true low-post player. His size also fills the paint well, and brings it a rebounding presence. He's raw, yes, but heck, the team is 2-5 at this point anyway, and it's worth maybe Fey making some mistakes at this point to get the payoff by the end of the season that you'd get from him learning by experience. The next most important player to have on the court at this point is Andre Patterson. Besides Thompson, he easily provides the most productivity of anyone on the team, and he does it from the post position, which is what UCLA sorely lacks. Patterson played 23 minutes against Michigan, had 8 points 5 rebounds and 4 blocked shots, and he provides the energy boost to the team we expected he would. It would just seem smart to have that energy boost and productivity in the game more than 23 minutes. Jason Kapono, while he's going through a cold shooting streak, is still your go-to guy. Even though he's not shooting well from the outside because opposing team's are shadowing him wherever he goes on the court, he's still getting some points off of garbage around the basket. If Thompson and Patterson, two legitimate scoring threats from outside and inside, were in the game for 30-ish minutes a game and forced opposing teams to guard both another go-to player on the perimeter like Thompson and the only legit inside scoring threat on the team in Patterson, looks might start opening up for Kapono. And despite the criticism he gets, Cedric Bozeman is easily the best guard on the team. While he might not appear to be the traditional point guard, he does have great point guard instincts. It just seems, at this point, that Bozeman is confused, beaten down and lacks the confidence due to the state of the team and the program. But with the personnel on this team, any personnel answer definitely includes Bozeman. UCLA fans have yet to see truly how effective Bozeman can be, and he's shown flashes of it, but hasn't completely unleashed it. He can be a dominating force on the offensive side of the court, and is much of the time unable to be guarded by smaller opposing guards. He had a solid game against Michigan, getting 11 points and five assists, but he still has yet to really be aggressive in the half-court offense, particularly in utilizing his size to take defenders off the dribble.
Those five – Thompson, Fey, Patterson, Kapono and Bozeman – provide UCLA its best chance to win.
Coming off the bench you want the best shooters you can get – to always make opposing teams have to guard someone on the perimeter besides Kapono. Ray Young has shown that he's definitely an outside shooting threat this season. He needs to be reigned in when it comes to going one-on-one and over-penetrating, like he did excessively in the Michigan game. Jon Crispin is obviously another player that would need to be guarded on the perimeter, able to hit a jumper out to 25 feet anywhere on the court. These two, along with Thompson, are good enough outside shooters to draw defenses away from Kapono on the perimeter. Either that, or defenses will continue to blanket Kapono and Thompson, Young and Crispin will then beat you.
Ryan Walcott should be given just enough minutes to give Bozeman a breather, not the 25-30 he's been getting lately. T. J. Cummings should also be given back-up minutes, and to provide a nice spot-up shooting spark off the bench. Keeping him in the game any longer than backup minutes hurts the team defensively and gets it out of a flow on offense. If you think that for every extra minute Cummings is on the floor that means that Andre Patterson is off of it, it's really a no-brainer.
So, not only should the rotation be severely cut, but the combination of players on the court has been as equally as damaging. When you play Young and Cummings too much together, they are offensive chemistry killers, and the offense tends to lapse into more one-one-one or quick shots. When you play Bozeman and Walcott in the backcourt together there isn't a reliable shooting guard to kick out to – so the team is running its motion penetration and then kicking the ball out to non-shooters. Walcott should sub in for Bozeman, so, when he's on the court there's always another backcourt shooter also in the game in Thompson, Young or Crispin. When Cummings comes in, you have to play to his strengths, which are catch-and-shoot opportunities from 18 and in. Those looks are best produced for Cummings when another post player is on the floor, so the ball goes down low and then kicks out to Cummings for a spot-up look. So, it's important that Cummings is in the game when either Patterson or Fey are also in. It also doesn't make T.J. have to do too much close to the basket, like rebound.
Of course, we are coaching geniuses here, aren't we? If it were just this easy, I'm sure the team wouldn't be struggling as it is.
3) Why does this team have a lack of intensity?
It stems primarily from an overall bad situation in the program, with the players lacking confidence in the coaching staff. Players buying into the program and believing in the coaching staff goes a long way toward success. The players right now, are trying to keep their spirits up, play hard and keep up their energy, but it's difficult, given the program's situation. It effects every aspect of the team's play, and especially on defense, where there is such a lack of effort and even recognition of the opposing team's offensive weapons. UCLA's players right now are trying to do it on their own and it's proving just how important it is for a program to have a coach it respects and will listen to.
4) What chances does this team have to make the tournament?
As we've said, UCLA has to get to 15 regular season wins to even have a chance at an NCAA tournament berth. That would mean this team would have to go 13-7 from here on out to achieve that regular season record. While given the team's recent efforts and performances, a 13-7 record might appear unachievable. But with the talent that's on this team, and how you could see some of its parts working together, it's not inconceivable. It would have to accomplish this with a combination of two factors: First, beginning Pac-10 play this week, this team will not be able to afford any losses against the weaker teams in the Pac-10 in the next couple of weeks. Games this week at Washington and Washington State are must wins. Then, the next week after that when it faces USC at home. Between those three, and a non-conference game at home against St. John's, UCLA needs to get three wins out of those four games. If not, the Bruins then head into the killer portion of its schedule, where it could very well not be favored to win in at least 10 of its next 14 games. Unless UCLA has a successful run on its road trip to the Washington schools next weekend and the following weekend at home against USC and St. John's, its back will be so far up against the wall it might not be able to even have a chance to salvage the season. Secondly, it will have to make a better than expected run in those next 14 games. Let's say UCLA goes 3-1 in its next four games, and then ends the regular season with a home sweep of the Washington schools, that would make them only 7-6. to get to those 15 regular season wins, it would still have to go 8-6 during that 14-game stretch. And if that means it wins the 4 games it would clearly be favored to win, it would then have to win four games in which it would more than likely be favored to lose. Winning games that this team is favored to lose, right now, doesn't seem like much of a distinct possibility. But it would have to do this if there is even a slight hope that the team makes the NCAA tournament.
5) What's potentially the worst outcome of this season?
While it's only just a record, the possibility that UCLA could end its NCAA record streak of 54 consecutive winning seasons is particularly depressing. UCLA hasn't had a losing season since the 1947-1948 season – not since Harry Truman was president of the United States. While Steve Lavin's tenure at UCLA has wreaked havoc with UCLA's record books, demolishing some proud, long-standing records and setting other dubious ones, this is the Grandaddy of them all. It's truly UCLA's one remaining vestige to its rich basketball history that is still active and alive.