-- The loss sufficiently lowered expectations for the season. If they had blown out the Titans, fans would have been thinking Final Four. Now, if this year's Bruins make the NCAA Tournament it will be considered a remarkable accomplishment.
-- Watching this team play makes you appreciate the 5-5 football team.
-- The game was so late – at midnight on the east coast to begin an ESPN college basketball marathon – that perhaps many fans nationally missed it. Not only was it good that they missed what was happening on the court, but they also missed the sparse turn-out in Pauley Pavilion by UCLA's fans.
Okay, so we got the positives out of the way…
First, let's establish that we shouldn't come to any conclusions after this one game. We've been maintaining that this year's team was going to be a work in progress, and we were definitely right about that (which is just about the only thing we were right about in regards to this team).
So, it all has to be taken with a work-in-progress grain of salt. There is a valid case to be made that this team will be much better by February. Nine of its twelve scholarship players are sophomores or freshmen, and they tend to improve the most dramatically throughout a typical season.
Hopefully this will be a typical season.
Because right now it's not pretty.
That was perhaps the poorest played UCLA game while Ben Howland has been coaching the Bruins.
Right now, if you just take that game singularly, UCLA has one decent player – Mike Roll – and the rest couldn't play anywhere else in the Pac-10. The guys that showed up on Nell and John Wooden Court Monday wearing UCLA on their chests would even struggle to get playing time at Stanford this season.
Now, of course, that's judging everyone on one game, and not what they have potentially as players. But potential ain't winning games right now.
Nikola Dragovic was dreadful. Yes, he got 14 rebounds – 12 in the second-half when he actually started playing hard – but it's little consolation given how poorly he played overall. He shot 1 for 9 from behind the three-point line, and 2 for 14 overall. He had three turnovers against 2 assists. And those stats don't even tell the story, really. Dragovic isn't a good defensive player, as we've known for sometime, so unless he's hitting his shot he's basically a liability on the court. He's a decent passer, but not Monday night. And most of the time he simply doesn't play very hard, which we saw until the second half when he started putting an effort into rebounding. One play that epitomized his game Monday: In the first half, he was lazily protecting the ball and got it tapped away from him and stolen, then on the other end he fouled Gerard Anderson for an and-one.
Dragovic, last season, found a niche when he started shooting the ball well. If you remember, before that, the knock on him was that he was supposed to be a great shooter but he hadn't really delivered on that at UCLA. In UCLA's first nine games last season, he shot 5 for 31 from three, which is 16%. And most, if not all observers, thought Dragovic must be a guy who shoots well in practice but just can't translate it to the games. Howland doggedly stuck with him, and Dragovic then started hitting shots. He then shot 46.5% for the rest of the season, and hit some big shots in big games.
So, what's the aberration? The two and 1/3 seasons where he couldn't shoot (plus the Cal State Fullerton game), or the 2/3s of last season? The only thing we're certain of is that Howland, like he did last season, will put faith in Dragovic that his shooting will come around and keep playing him until it does. Or it doesn't.
At least Dragovic started playing harder in this game, evident by his dramatically increased rebounding production in the second half. He seemed to realize that he couldn't shoot and tried to do something else to compensate. But it begs the question: Why not play this hard from the first jump ball? Will Dragovic only rebound hard when he can't shoot?
James Keefe wasn't abhorrent. He had nine rebounds, but just 2 points, and definitely missed some gimmes around the basket. But he played solid post defense and definitely is a calming force on the court. He's the only post player who knows how to hedge a screen properly.
See, this is the thing with scouting: You have to put so much emphasis on potential. You can't just scout on high school or AAU production; if you did, plenty of 5-10, stocky, high school shooting guards would be getting high-major scholarship offers.
So there is an inherent margin for error because of potential. Now, most of the time, if you just figure in an average amount of development you can project a certain prospect to be a certain level of college player.
Right now, Gordon, Anderson and Lee haven't developed at an average rate, but at a less-than-average rate.
Gordon, while a fairly bouncy athlete in the post, has probably improved in terms of his post game. But only moderately. For every good play he makes in the post, where he shows development, he makes at least one bad one, where he puts the ball on the floor, or takes an off-balanced shot. Defensively, he's still a long ways away, in just about every aspect. Perhaps what limits Gordon the most is his mentalilty; right now he thinks he's better than he is and is a bit of a hot head.
Lee is the same guy we saw in the summer of 2007, the one before his senior year. Even down to the cramping, which put him in the hospital for de-hydration during the July evaluation period of that year. He's a bit bigger physically, but not significantly. He's about the same quality of shooter, and he's still making poor decisions offensively. He's improved as a defender, but he's still very raw and undisciplined on the defensive end. What you can say about Lee is that he does play his butt off when he's on the court. He scored 17 scrappy points and got 7 tough-fought rebounds, but he did it shooting 7 for 23 from the field and 1 for 8 from three. To his credit, he didn't penetrate with nowhere to go, and was more under control with his dribble drives. But, in typical fashion, on one of the critical possessions in overtime against CSUF's zone, he got an offensive rebound and, instead of pulling the ball out and re-setting, he put it back up from about 15 feet with a hurried shot.
With Anderson, you have to concede that he's coming off a long period of not practicing, after a season in which he didn't get much experience. As we've said for a while, Anderson is going to have his ups and downs this season, and this game was a considerable "down." Defensively he struggled to keep Fullerton's moderately quick guards in front of him. Offensively, he was a mess: his shot is a slow, mechanical thing with poor rotation; made a number of poor decisions, with poor passes or ill-conceived drives. He shot 1 for 11 from the field and had three turnovers against three assists.
Now, everyone has bad games and Anderson definitely had one. The bad game needs to be pointed out, as we've done, but it's still far too early to cast off Anderson, given the other contributing factors. As we've said, we're pretty certain you can expect Anderson to have some more bad games this season as he settles into playing the point guard position for UCLA.
But, all in all, this is how scouting/recruiting goes. Sometimes guys you've recruited come into your program and perform way beyond expectation and really develop – like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison, Alfred Aboya, and Russell Westbrook. Sometimes very good prospects don't perform beyond expectation and develop at a nominal rate. Heck, J'mison Morgan, who didn't get off the bench in this game, wasn't some unknown player that Howland took a chance on; Morgan was the #3-ranked center in the country in the 2008 national class, with other elite programs all over him.
Now, if you have a number of guys performing beyond their scouting expectation, you go to Final Fours. If you have a number of guys under-performing below their scouting expectation, you lose to Cal State Fullerton.
That's the nature of the business. Howland got credit for being an evaluating genius when it was discovered Mbah a Moute, Collison and Westbrook were all better than expectations and NBA-potential players. But as a coach you'll also get the blame when your recruits don't live up to reasonable expectation.
As we've said, it's far too early to pass judgment on Gordon, Anderson and Lee. They're also in a different situation than, say, Mbah a Moute, Westbrook or Collison, who had some considerable experienced talent around them and weren't asked to carry the team early on. But it's also fair to say that, right now, their development (along with Morgan) has been below the expectation you reasonably had for them as high school prospects.
That brings us to Mike Roll, who has lived up to expectation. As we've said, in this game, he was the only decent Bruin. He had the only good stat line – 17 points, 5 assists, 0 turnovers, 2 steals, and 3 for 8 from three. And he played 49 minutes.
It's a shame that Roll missed that front end of a one-on-one with 30 seconds left and UCLA up by a point. He said he wasn't fatigued but it was clear, especially in the two overtime periods, that he was. He definitely didn't have his shooting legs. But it's regrettable he missed that potentially game-clinching free-throw since he was really the only guy who played well and kept UCLA in this game.
Howland blamed himself for the players' fatigue, saying he didn't use his subs enough, and that's true. Keefe did play 32 minutes off the bench, but Reeves Nelson got 12 minutes and Mike Moser about 20 seconds. Howland has shown a penchant for not trusting his younger players in close games, and he basically got away with it in other seasons when he had other options. But this season, almost his entire team is young and inexperienced. He's going to have to get over it and live with the mistakes his subs are going to make or he's going to being play Roll and Lee 38 minutes a game and they'll be mere shells of human beings by February. Heck, even if your subs make a lot of mistakes, it's not that much of a step down from the mistakes your starters are making.
Nelson, once he settled down after making a couple of errors, provided pretty strong minutes. He was able to defend Fullerton's big man, Bryce Webster, adequately, and then he's a match-up problem on the offensive end when a 200-pound small forward needs to defend him in the post.
Perhaps the reason guys like Lee and Anderson haven't developed significantly is because Howland was hesitant to use them last year as subs. Moser could very well be in the same situation down the line if he doesn't play this season.
If there was ever a season that you would say is the most expendable – one that you could use to get your younger players some much-needed playing time – this one would be it for Howland.
All in all, UCLA's defense wasn't great, but it was good enough to win. It held Fullerton to 40% from the field. While Bruins struggled to stay in front of their man on the perimeter, the interior defense was decent, collapsing on penetrators and forcing turnovers (Fullerton had 19 for the game). The post double-team also forced its share of turnovers.
With how slow-footed UCLA is defensively, though, and how long it is, the team is crying out for a zone. Howland, as we all know, isn't a zone guy. He might have played it for a few minutes in his first season at UCLA when he lacked good on-ball defenders. Well, de ja vu. It will be interesting to see if Howland sticks to man for the entire season or attempts zone at any time.
UCLA's offense was definitely the problem in this game. The team shot 31% from the field, which has to be one of the worst – if not the worst – field-goal percentages for a Howland-coached UCLA team in a single game. The team went 5 for 29 from three (17.2%). You could even make the case that UCLA lost the game at the free-throw line, going 8 for 17 (47%).
Against Fullerton's man defense, UCLA struggled to execute its sets. It seemed to go to motion quite often, which is curious. Perhaps Howland doesn't feel that this group can consistently execute the sets? It would seem that a team like this, one that tends to make bad decisions and have poor shot selection, should be more under Howland's offensive control and would get better look out of the sets. UCLA made its comeback run going mostly against Fullerton's zone in the second half, due primarily to Roll running the zone attack. The offense then broke down against the zone in the overtime periods because it was clear UCLA was fatigued.
More than anything, this game laid out some challenges for Howland this season. Will he relent and play his subs more? Will he ever break down and attempt a zone? Will he – again – get Dragovic to the point where he's not a liability and shooting the ball well? Will he find the right fit offensively for this team, one that minimizes their deficiencies and takes advantages of their talents? Will he get improvement and development out of Lee, Anderson and Gordon?
No matter how he does it, the biggest challenge is: Will he be able to get this team better by the end of the season?