MSU: Time to Build for the Future?

UCLA lost in miserable fashion to a good Mississippi State team in the Wooden Classic Saturday, 72-54. The question is: When is it time to give up on some players and the season, and start playing the younger players and build for the future?

UCLA took a step back Saturday in the Wooden Classic, getting routed by a good Mississippi State team, 72-54.

The score isn't indicative of how much MSU actually dominated the Bruins.

It's getting old and tiresome to analyze these games, as you can probably understand. It's not just because UCLA is 2-6, but because every game analysis is basically the same thing.

In this one, there was more of the same thing.

The "old news" that definitely needs to be repeated, though, is the play of Nikola Dragovic. While there has been much criticism of Dragovic's game this season, and even much discussion of whether he should even be playing given the felony charges hanging over his head, Dragovic went out Saturday and had his worst game as a Bruin. He went 0 for 9 from the field, 0 for 5 from three, with no points and 1 rebound in 29 minutes. On top of that, he played very poorly defensively. All not good timing on Dragovic's part. Of course, the reactionary UCLA fans are calling for his head (and they're probably the same guys who will anoint him a star if, in his next game, he goes off for 25 points). If you're looking at this from the more balanced point of view, Dragovic performance against Mississippi State is consistent with how he's performed over his career – just he missed his shots this time. He is now shooting 19% from three for the season. And there's a very good case to be made that Dragovic, really, isn't a great shooter. Last year, he started off in the non-conference schedule shooting 25% from three, but then saved it in the Pac-10 schedule by shooting 46%, which ultimately brought his season average to 38%. But, as a sophomore and a freshman, he shot 25% from three. So, except for the Pac-10 conference schedule of the 2008-2009 season, Dragovic hasn't proven he can shoot consistently. We know he must shoot well in practice, since Ben Howland is playing him a good deal of minutes hoping he can re-produce the practice shooting performance, and his conference shooting performance from a year ago. But it is certainly going to be interesting to see how long a leash Dragovic has.

And we're focusing on Dragovic's shooting since, as it's well documented, there isn't too much else to rationalize Dragovic being on the court. He's definitely a defensive liability.

We're by no means advocating that James Keefe has earned more playing time, but it's curious to note that Keefe, over his career, is a better three-point shooter than Dragovic – at least in games, and not in practice (where most of the games are decided). And Keefe has gotten the quicker hook this year, only playing 5 minutes against MSU, in fact. Keefe, also, is a better defender. So, in comparing the two, you could easily wonder why Dragovic has such a long leash and Keefe has such a short one.

Mike Roll is the only veteran on the team that actually deserves playing time. That's something – that there's only one guy among the seniors and juniors at UCLA who is worth putting on the court. Roll led UCLA with 17 points, shooting 3 for 6 from three. His curl on the flair screen at the elbow was about the only set play that worked in this game.

It also needs to be said that, even with all the mistakes he makes, Malcolm Lee is a warrior who also is still managing to get a lot done. He finished with 16 points mostly by trying to manufacture points, driving to the lane, getting fouled, and getting putbacks (three offensive rebounds, most on the team).

Perhaps the only new twist tactically in this game was a noticeable shift in UCLA's defensive approach. Having been burned so much by dribble penetration this season and still not using a zone, UCLA's man defense used some zone principles in this one, which failed miserably. Many of UCLA's perimeter defenders sagged off their players to stuff the lane and prevent that dribble penetration, but that proved to be a desperate move against a MSU team that is in love with the three-pointer. For MSU's Ravern Johnson, it must have felt like a shooting drill, getting so many open looks with plenty of time to get off his shot. He shot 5 for 8 from three, and finished with a career high 29 points.

Perhaps the man-with-zone-principles will work against future opponents who over-emphasize dribble penetration and don't shoot the three very well.

The primary issue with UCLA in this game, however, wasn't defense. I mean, the defense was pretty horrid, allowing MSU to shoot 47% from the field, but, among many things, the two problems that really stood out were 1) UCLA's incredibly poor shooting and then 2) UCLA's lack of heart or energy.

UCLA fell behind Mississippi State early in this one mostly because it couldn't hit its shots. It actually executed its sets, and also got open looks from its motion offense, but UCLA can't shoot. In the first 10 minutes, UCLA shot 27% from the field. It actually didn't get much better for the rest of the game, ending up shooting 35% for the game. Even though Howland has said this should be a good-shooting team, after 8 games we can possibly conclude it isn't. After Roll, who can really shoot? We've already discussed Dragovic's shooting, and Lee is shooting 38% from the field and 24% from three. And those are the best shooters on the team. No one else on the team can shoot, which makes for an overall poor shooting team. This game might have featured the most air balls by a UCLA team that I can ever remember.

Then, in this game, once MSU started pulling away about halfway through the first half, it was clear UCLA lost any energy it started the game with, and pretty much packed it in.

It's one of the biggest discussions among UCLA fans – how a Howland-coached team could exhibit such little heart and hustle. It, perhaps, is the biggest issue of the season. Is it a matter that Howland has lost the hearts and minds of the players? Are they not buying in? Is it Howland's fault, or does he have a team full of guys who suffer from front-runner mentality? (That is, players who will only play hard when they're winning.) Or is that ultimately his fault for recruiting them? Or is it his fault for not sending a message in terms of playing time – like benching Dragovic, not for his poor shooting, but for his lack of effort defensively?

Dragovic, in fact, did get pulled a couple of times in this game, but it looked like it was more of a reaction over his poor shot selection than his effort on defense.

Again, this all contributes to the big question about Howland: Can he sustain success at a program? He's shown that he can conduct miraculous turnarounds when he takes over a program, but in 15 years of being a head coach he's never had to sustain success at a program, having left Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh once he established the turnaround of those programs. Howland, after three Final Fours, will certainly be given the time at UCLA to prove that he can, but it will be interesting to see if he can. Getting players to buy in and play hard when they're 2-6 is a big element of it.

While this might be reactionary on my part, and there will be fans who will criticize me for second-guessing Howland, it seems like it's time to abandon hope that UCLA can pull out this season and start to use it as a building block for the future. Play Brendan Lane, the future of your power forward spot, over Dragovic. Tolerate all the mistakes Lane is going to make but take satisfaction that every mistake he makes is giving him the invaluable experience of playing time, which will pay off next season and the season after. Give Tyler Honeycutt, perhaps the most talented player on the team, starter's minutes.

And you could easily make a case that Lane might be better than Dragovic right now, or at least not any worse.

There aren't too many coaches in the country who have enough job security that they could, essentially, not put an emphasis on winning right now but play for the future. Howland does have that level of job security, and, if he did do it, you'd at least in March be able to think that UCLA got something out of this season.

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