Bruins in Transition Phase

With UCLA losing to #1 Kansas, 73-61, Sunday, it's clear the team is in a bit of a transition, with some young players getting comfortable, some earning more time, and some others losing it...

Moral victories are controversial these days in Bruinland.

Some fans put stock in them, other hard-liners insist that nothing is a victory unless you win the game.

But UCLA has had so many of them this season (in fotball and basketball), it's getting old. And there's been so much made between the two factions over the issue, that the term "moral victory" now has negative connotations.

So, let's not call UCLA's loss to #1 Kansas, 73-61, a moral victory.

If we were, you'd have to credit UCLA for hanging in with the #1 team in the country, not getting blown out, and playing hard throughout the game.

But actually, we could probably make a case why the loss wasn't a true moral victory.

KU, for one thing, didn't look like they were too passionate about the game. They played uninspired and flat.

Secondly, and even though it's a bit tough to judge because they weren't seemingly playing really hard, Kansas just plainly isn't that good. UCLA actually matched up fairly well against them – and much better than against Long Beach State or Portland.

That's not saying that Long Beach State or Portland are better than Kansas, but on the day that UCLA played each of them they were.

Kansas doesn't have great quickness, either on the perimeter or in the paint. Sherron Collins, unless he was taking pity on UCLA's guards, struggled to penetrate – against a UCLA perimeter defense that looked like matadors against Portland and Long Beach State. Portland's T.J. Campbell and Long Beach State's Casper Ware are lightning fast compared to Collins. Collins was so much easier to guard Ben Howland allowed Mike Roll to guard him in the second half. Nothing against Roll, but he wouldn't be the guy to put on the opponent's big penetration threat.

KU showed so little capability of dribble penetration that Howland never had to go to the zone that he threatened to play all week.

And in the paint, center Cole Aldridge moved with the nimbleness of a cruise ship.

KU could definitely shoot. And they have a good bench, even though Bill Self didn't utilize it as much as he has so far this season.

But if that's the #1 team in the country, then the country is in trouble. At the very least, let's say that this year's Final Four is wide open.

But getting back to the Bruins...

UCLA definitely played harder in this game and didn't throw in the towel like it did against other opponents, so that's good.

But UCLA is in a strange, transitional phase of its program, just not this season but within the season.

Even Howland said in his post-game interview that the starting lineup is probably going to be a fluid thing for a while.

Some players are looking like they deserve to be on the court more, and some are looking like they deserve it less.

Reeves Nelson, all prize-fighting eye and all, had a good game up until the point he was poked in the eye. With his 9 points and 9 rebounds, really the most impressive aspect of his game was his offensive rebounding, pulling down 6 offensive rebounds to keep a possession alive. That's something that UCLA hasn't done well at all this season; it's mostly been one shot and out for the Bruins. It's a tribute not only to his ability to rebound but his desire to rebound. He went up against Aldridge, a guy who is perhaps 4 to 5 inches taller, and defended him well, holding him to 1 of 6 from the floor. It helped Nelson significantly in guarding Aldridge that the KU center isn't very quick. When Nelson goes up against smaller, quicker centers (like the Long Beach State post players) he'll be more likely to struggle. So, even though you'd think Aldridge wouldn't be a good match-up for Nelson, he actually was. Nelson, on the offensive end, isn't exactly lightning, but he looked quick going around Aldridge.

We also like the goggles, which had to be Alfred Aboya left overs.

Tyler Honeycutt got in his first game of the year, against the #1 team in the country, so it wasn't exactly easing his way in. He clearly made some mistakes, which are excusable, but it's also clear that Honeycutt has some tremendous upside. His court awareness is obvious, and very impressive were his 6 rebounds. You could also see an offensive mindset to him, which will emerge more as he gets comfortable.

We have to put Brendan Lane in the category of guys who need to get more minutes, since he did only get 3 minutes in this game and wasn't really a factor.

Mike Roll had a solid game, finishing as UCLA's high scorer with 16 points. It's regrettable that he can't hit the open look early in the game. Right now he's shooting just 38% from three, when last year he shot 52%. He has, though, found some clever ways to make up for his lack of athleticism in finishing at the basket, with hesitation moves and deception. He's money in his mid-range, and it seems UCLA isn't getting him enough mid-range touches in the paint.

UCLA's offense was a bit different in this game, with a bit more freedom given to its players to create. Malcolm Lee, who struggled in the first half with no points and no rebounds, finished with 12 points, most of it coming off dribble penetration. He and Jerime Anderson seemed like they were far more free to drive, with UCLA running more motion in this one.

Anderson has an uncanny block on making easy lay-ups. And he's still not confident in his shot. But this was an improvement for him, being able to stay in front of KU's drivers better and finding his teammates for baskets, finishing with 5 assists against 2 turnovers.

James Keefe looks like he might be one of the players who will be getting less time, playing just 10 minutes and finishing with just 1 rebound and no points.

Which leads us to Nikola Dragovic. If you look just at his stat sheet you'd say he probably had a decent game, finishing with 14 points and 7 rebounds. But if you actually watched him play in this game, you could see that for every positive play there was at least one negative. Dragovic will work hard for a rebound when the ball is falling to him, but he fails to block out consistently, and it allowed KU to get some pretty critical rebounds in this game. He also has many breakdowns defensively, where he allows his man to go around him with seemingly little effort, or fails to rotate and help, allowing for an easy basket.

Fans bring up the enigma of Dragovic playing at UCLA. I'm not advocating either way, but just bringing up the curiosity of Dragovic actually playing 30+ minutes at UCLA for Howland, a coach who emphasizes defense, hustle and attention to detail. Howland has indicated many times in the past that the way you get playing time on his team is to play defense and play hard, so it's strange that Dragovic, who doesn't seem to do that much, gets so much playing time. To give Dragovic some credit, in the second half of last season he played with far more hustle and had reduced his liabilities; Perhaps Howland is hoping that in continuing to give him so many minutes that version of Dragovic will emerge. Perhaps Howland, at this point, feels that the offense Dragovic brings to the court is worth the liabilities.

Dragovic playing so much, and with seemingly a very long leash, definitely is one of the enigmas of Howland's tenure at UCLA.

J'mison Morgan playered 15 minutes, which is the most he's ever played in a game at UCLA. Howland was able to play him because Morgan could match up with the slower Aldridge. Bobo clearly struggled at times, being out of sync offensively (trying to turn on a double-team, throwing up hurried shots, etc.). It's clear that you probably wouldn't want Bobo to get many minutes against quicker centers, but without Drew Gordon Bobo is clearly going to play regardless, so it's key to the season that he continue to develop and get comfortable.

The match-up against Kansas gave UCLA another type of match-up to worry about, one that they haven't seen that much of yet this season. KU, with its big guys in the paint, definitely is an inside-outside attack; they make consistent attempts to get their bigs touches and then look to pass out of it and rotate the ball to find the open shooter. Against effective bigs, UCLA will have to double the post, especially with a freshman center, Nelson, which it did in this game. But as KU passed out of the post and rotated the ball to find the shooter, UCLA's defensive rotation in closing out on those shooters was pretty poor. KU had about as wide open of looks as you could imagine.

The poor rotation isn't just one guy, but truly team-wide.

Offensively, UCLA actually did some good things. As I said above, they got into the paint more. They also found a few backdoor opportunities. They executed some of their sets fairly well (the high-post drop down pass to a sealing post man almost always seems to work, especially with Honeycutt making the pass).

What really limited UCLA offensively was the 11 turnovers in the first half, and the abysmal 57% free-throw shooting for the game. So many first-half possessions were taken away because of the turnovers, which came on just plain sloppy or lazy passes. The free-throw shooting was a major factor why UCLA couldn't stay with KU in the second half. Kansas got into second-half foul trouble quickly, putting UCLA into the bonus with about 12 minutes remaining. Now, any decent free-throw shooting team would have exploited that, trying to drive and draw fouls and get some easy points at the line. But UCLA shot poorly at the line, and missed a few critical front-ends. By the first 13 minutes of the second quarter, UCLA had shot 6 of 13 from the line and left even more points at the line since a few of those were front-ends.

UCLA's shooting, also, was poor, going 36% from the field and 35% from three. And it wasn't as if KU was swarming defensively and not allowing good looks. UCLA got plenty but just couldn't knock them down. None of UCLA's designated shooters, Dragovic, Roll or Lee, shot 50% for the game.

It will be interesting to see what the next step in UCLA's transition will be Saturday when it takes on Mississippi State in the Wooden Classic. Will Dragovic continue to get 30+ minutes while Lane gets 3? Will Honeycutt take another step in getting comfortable and get more than the 19 minutes he played against KU? Will there, overall, be another step toward a youth movement?

Even though he's talked about it, will Howland actually play a zone?

At 2-5 on the season, we have to find all the little things that garner interest in the team at this point.

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