UCLA almost got Syarcused when it came close to losing its exhibition to NAIA Concordia, 62-61.
Get ready for a very plain-speaking review of the game, one that doesn't pull any punches.
First, fans shouldn't over-react. Two starters, point guard Jerime Anderson and guard Mike Roll, weren't available to play. Anderson, who is the only true D-1 point guard on the roster, would have obviously made a big difference. Roll, too, is a smart veteran, a good leader and, more importantly, an experienced guard.
It's tough when you take your two starting guards out of the rotation who also happen to be your best passers.
But, make no mistake, the Concordia game gives you a hint as to what this Bruin team will be up against this season. It's a young – albeit talented – team that is going to go through some ugly growing pains this season, and you saw the first day of puberty Wednesday night.
Here are some realities:
UCLA is without a second, D-1 point guard on the team. We really respect Mustafa Abdul-Hamid; he's a nice kid and has dedicated himself to the program over the last four years. But, as we've known for the last four years, he can't play at UCLA. He wouldn't start for Concordia. Yeah, they don't have another true point guard and are talking like they're forced to play Abdul-Hamid, but that's untrue. There are other options. It'd make more sense to play Mike Roll as the third point guard option, or Tyler Honeycutt – or heck, even Nikola Dragovic. Just because Abdul-Hamid plays the position doesn't mean he's better at the position than others. We realize he knows the offense and what Howland wants the point guard to do, but it wouldn't be tough to get Roll up to speed. Abdul-Hamid has almost no quickness laterally. The offense couldn't even get into a set against Concordia because their defenders so smothered Abdul-Hamid. He has very little vision and passing ability. Howland has said in interviews that all he wanted was for Abdul-Hamid to be solid but last night he tried to over-play, throwing errant passes and over-handling the ball. He fundamentally knows how to play Howland's brand of defense but he doesn't have the athletic tools to do it. Greg Hicks posed a question to me during the game last night: If you were starting a pick-up game, and you were picking guys for your team, wouldn't you pick Honeycutt or Mike Moser over Abdul-Hamid, and not worry about who exactly is your point guard? Wouldn't you go for the most talented five guys?
Again, we're sorry to be so blunt about Abdul-Hamid, but he played 36 minutes Wednesday night, over Honeycutt's 21 minutes, and Moser's 8 minutes. Hopefully this game will be a lesson for Abdul-Hamid and hopefully he'll settle down and be able to provide 5-8 solid minutes per game. If he doesn't, hopefully he won't play. It was incredibly ironic, and great for Abdul-Hamid, that he made the game-winning three-pointer.
This leads us to the mis-step UCLA made in recruiting – not taking another guard in the 2009 class. There was a very good chance that Jrue Holiday would consider going pro out of high school and that pro scouts were going to consider him a first-round pick. Somehow UCLA should have had a back-up guard option for 2009. They even had a chance in spring, to recruit a guy like Donte Medder, the point guard from Mesa (Ariz.) High, who had proven he was clearly able to play at this level, but before UCLA could get involved he committed to Tulsa.
Over the years, we have been the first to point out UCLA's recruiting successes, but we also have to be balanced and point out when they flubbed it, and this is a flub.
Malcolm Lee is not a point guard, as Hicks wrote this week on the BRO message board, and he has a long ways to go as a shooting guard. Even if he weren't so raw and weren't so far away in his development, he still doesn't have a point guard feel for the game. It's why Hicks asserted this week that the screwy NBA Draft pundits who project Lee in the first-round and as a point guard are, well, screwy. They simply don't know what they're looking at. It's why we're pretty certain we'll at least be seeing Lee return for his junior year. Against Concordia, Lee exposed just about all of his weaknesses. Talking to the media for the last month, Lee said he needed to learn not to play so fast all the time and get under control, but he reverted to all of his bad habits Wednesday. He made many bad decisions – mostly over-penetrating with nowhere to go, off-balance. In the second half, on a break, two Concordia players set up to take a charge at the top of the key in what seemed like about 10 seconds before Lee was there, but he still barreled through both of them for a charge. It's as if he doesn't know what a jump stop is. Heck, if he does indeed have a year worthy of making him a first-round draft pick we'd be thankful since it would provide some very high-quality play for a team that desperately needs it this season.
Nikola Dragovic was dreadful. Of the 13 shots he took (he made 3), 10 of them were falling off-balance or fading away. The one three-pointer he did make was the one where he caught it and stepped into the shot. He also played with carelessness, like the Dragovic of old where he'd sloppily throw a no-look pass into the hands of a defender, which he did last night. He had five turnovers. He started playing more like the Dragovic of 2008-2009 in the last few minutes of the game, when he put more effort into defense and played with more discipline on offense.
Speaking of undisciplined, if you took this game as any indication, you'd say that Drew Gordon has learned very little after being in Howland's program for a year. He jumped in the air on about a half-dozen pump fakes, from guys who are 5-8. When he caught the ball within ten feet of the basket, he was so wound up he immediately put the ball on the floor, and had it picked. In trying to break Concordia's pressure, Gordon actually tried to bring the ball up himself a couple of times. He threw a horrible half-court lob pass that hit a guy in the stands. The stroke on his jumper has improved, hitting a nice face-up from the top of the key, but everything else has seemingly digressed. He led UCLA with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but given the poor game it's very misleading.
The only guy who looked like he had any kind of clue that he knew what he was doing was James Keefe. Keefe played under control and with confidence. Many times Keefe was executing the offense while the rest of his teammates were running around seemingly hysterical. He set proper picks, he boxed out, he made good shot selections, and he hit two of his three threes, finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds.
The other highlight was the play of Honeycutt. Honeycutt had three assists and no turnovers, and didn't score, but he was easily the most talented guy on the floor (again that doesn't mean he's the most effective, even though in this game he was). It seemed the only two times the offense actually executed one of Howland's plays was when Honeycutt did it with a couple of nice passes. He did make a mistake early on in guarding Concordia's 5-8 Justin Johnson too close, but he learned in the second half, gave the smaller Concordia players some space and kept them in front of him.
J'mison Morgan started both halves, but only played 12 minutes. With how frenetic Gordon was in this game, it made you want to see Morgan on the floor more.
The other freshmen, Mike Moser and Reeves Nelson, played 8 and 7 minutes, and didn't get in the flow offensively or defensively. Even though there was no flow to get into anyway.
What was most disconcerting about the performance against Concordia was that you wouldn't have recognized any tell-tale signs that this was a Howland team. They couldn't even get into an offensive set, much less execute it – against Concordia. So, the offense became this frenetic version of the motion. I counted one jump stop, which is one of Howland's biggest offensive staples, throughout the game. On defense there was a combination of very little focus (until the last five minutes or so), and almost a complete lack of team defense. When a Concordia ball handler would drive around his bigger Bruin defender, he'd get into the lane and no one would step over to cut him off. For the last few years we kept wondering what it would be like without Alfred Aboya, now you know. In fact, there were many times when a post defender had his back to the ball, which is an absolute no-no on a Howland team. Nelson did this a number of times, but he wasn't the only culprit. Dragovic finally took a charge toward the end of the game, and Gordon attempted one, but before those two no one was even close enough to get into position to take a charge. Bruins were jumping like pogo sticks every time a Concordia player pump-faked.
With a Howland team, you'll obvious see defensive improvement throughout the season, and this game provides the team a lot of room to improve.
There are a few things to take away from this game. 1) Be grateful exhibition games aren't televised, 2) Jerime Anderson is going to look very good when he returns for next week's exhibition against Humboldt State only because of how bad the guard play was in this game, 3) If Anderson and/or Roll miss any fairly sizeable portion of the season the ugly, scary, frenetic UCLA team that we saw Wednesday will return…
…and 4) lower your expectations for the season. This isn't going to be like anything you're used to seeing while Howland has been at UCLA. What is reasonable to expect is that this overall young team improves as the season progresses and, by February, you believe it could beat any team in the Pac-10.
Click here for Greg Hicks' Take on the Game