I guess for just about any UCLA fan a loss is a step backward.
It was, after all, a game that was winnable for UCLA, since they were the more athletic and probably more talented team. But ultimately the youth, inexperience and the continued use of unproductive players did in the Bruins.
This isn't going to be a long-winded analysis. And it's pretty much going to reiterate issues we've been over before.
Before we get into that, however, Malcolm Lee has to be given a huge amount of credit for having one of his best games as a Bruin, scoring 29 points. We said that perhaps one of the biggest keys to the game was whether Lee played under control and he did for the most part, generally taking good shots, and slashing to the basket with purpose while also making 4 or 6 three-pointers. His break-out offensive performance might be the one reason why this game could be considered a step sideways rather than a step backward. We're calling this one of his best games since he, like the rest of the team, didn't play particularly great defense.
Mike Roll also deserves some praise, having a good offensive game himself in scoring 19 points and looking very comfortable hitting his threes, making 5 of 8.
Reeves Nelson also delivered a typical game for him – 11 points and 8 rebounds. He's becoming very reliable in his production and, for having limited skills, he's definitely getting the most out of them.
After that, there wasn't much else that deserved praise.
Every other Bruin played poorly.
The offense bogged down as soon as Notre Dame's defense settled down and played more man than zone. But UCLA's offense wasn't the primary problem, scoring enough points (73) to win. In year's past, a Howland-coached UCLA team would have won this game 73-60. So, the issue is, truly, Notre Dame scored about 24 more points than they normally should have against a typical UCLA team. What is making this not a typical Howland UCLA team is, fittingly, that it can't do the things that are known to be the tenets of a Howland program – play defense, rebound and play hard. UCLA's defense was pretty poor, with no one able to stop a much slower and fairly unathletic Notre Dame team from finding creases to create. UCLA's double-team of Irish All-American Luke Harangody resulted in Notre Dame coach Mike Brey getting Harangody to catch the ball on the perimeter so he couldn't be doubled in the post, allowing Harangody to take his man one-on-one, which he was able to do pretty easily. UCLA's defense also allowed dribble penetration – by a Notre Dame team that is clearly less quick than the Bruins.
In UCLA's losses against Mississippi State, and even against teams like Long Beach State and Portland, you could easily see that UCLA was at a deficit in terms of athleticism on the court.
But in this game they weren't. But the Bruins' team defense is such a mess in so many ways, in the second half they struggled to get any stops.
UCLA's on-ball defense is poor, as we've seen throughout this season. But that was just a part of it: UCLA's help defense was very bad in this game, slow to react and rotate; the Bruins are seemingly now not pushing through screens but switching more often, and as a result are confused, leaving many guys open because of the confusion; and UCLA's transition defense was slow and lazy, allowing Notre Dame to get too many key transition baskets.
A lot of this, admittedly, is inexperience. But some Bruins just aren't very athletic and not great defenders, while others aren't very athletic, not putting in much effort and also not great defenders.
UCLA is a poor rebounding team, too, getting out-boarded by Notre Dame, 36-27. Whenever Nelson is out of the game, UCLA's rebounding goes down the tubes. Not only does Nelson get rebounds, his toughness inside creates opportunities for his teammates to get rebounds.
While Nikola Dragovic deserves criticism, it's just getting old to get into it again.
The big question of the season, though, is whether Howland sticks with playing Dragovic this much (35 minutes). Howland, undoubtedly, believes that if he sticks with Dragovic he'll eventually pull out of his shooting slump (going 4 for 12 from the field). He's currently shooting 25% from the field for the season and 21% from three. It's going to be interesting, because if Dragovic does pull out of his shooting slump then Howland will be vindicated, at least, from his perspective. If he doesn't, will Howland stick with him until the last game of the season, or when will enough be enough? Again, this has been pointed out numerous times, but it's not as if Dragovic brings so much to the court that the potential of pulling out of his shooting slump is worth playing him.
It, really, has become the most curious element of Howland's coaching career at UCLA – his dogged loyalty to Dragovic, a guy who seemingly doesn't embody the Howland-esque values of defense and playing hard. If he were Alfred Aboya and Alfred was shooting 20% from the field we certainly would all understand Howland sticking with him.
Jerime Anderson didn't have one of the bad types of games he's had at the beginning of the season, but it certainly wasn't a good one either. He struggled to stay in front of his man who had average athleticism, and forced some turnovers early.
For about three minutes in the second half, the UCLA lineup on the floor was Lee at point guard, Roll at the two-guard spot, Tyler Honeycutt at the three, Brendan Lane at the power forward position and Nelson as the five. We relished those three minutes, because, at this point, this seems like the lineup that should be getting the most time on the court together.
Honeycutt is obviously one of the two most talented players on UCLA's roster and, even though he only scored 2 points in 18 minutes it's clear every minute he's on the floor he's having so much more of a positive impact on the team than Dragovic or Anderson. And with every minute he's on the court you can see the confidence growing. Isn't it at least about the same odds that, if you play Honeycutt, it will pay off sometime this season as Dragovic paying off?
It's been discussed and argued ad nauseum about whether Howland should give the younger players more time and play for the future. In watching the program from a pretty close perspective, I don't think that type of thinking is in Howland's universe. He's playing the players he thinks gives him the best chance to win right now, in the most immediate game. And right now that's clear he believes that's Dragovic and Anderson.
Of course, Howland knows quite a bit more about basketball and about the personnel on this team than anyone observing it, but at this point you have to wonder why playing certain guys, like Dragovic, give UCLA more of a chance to win right now, immediately, than, say Honeycutt.
Perhaps there was a little bit of an awakening about Anderson in this game. In the second half, Anderson seemed to get the hook for a while after a pretty poor stretch of play. Ironically, though, between Anderson and Dragovic, Anderson is the guy who has to play because of the lack of depth in the backcourt. With Dragovic, there is a guy sitting on the bench who plays the exact position in Brendan Lane.
His personnel use is, at the very least, heightening interest in the remainder of the season, because there isn't much else holding interest after this loss. Whatever remote chance that UCLA could still have of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament probably is now gone since this was UCLA's last opportunity of getting a strong out-of-conference win. Its record is now 3-7, with two more non-conference games (Colorado State and Delaware State) that are winnable but don't do much for your NCAA Tournament resume. Yes, of course, many fans will say, "C'mon, they weren't going to the dance anyway." That was clearly the most likely, but it just needs to be pointed out that the previously remote chance is now almost non-existent.
To get into the NCAA tournament now, UCLA would almost certainly have to win the Pac-10 conference or win the conference tournament championship. That would dictate a considerable coming-together and development for this team, the hope of which we're not going to abandon just yet.
And that same fan is saying, "C'mon, you know they're not going to win the conference or the conference tournament."
Again, that, too, is probably true.
But this is the nature of being a fan – finding a sliver of hope.
Or you can find something else to hold your interest, which we've more or less been doing since the five-game losing streak – and that's to see if this team will get better.
Now, we've added to the list of season curiosities with: Will Howland's use of personnel change?
Will Dragovic continue to play this much? Will Malcolm Lee take over the majority of the minutes at point guard? Will Honeycutt ever get starter's minutes?
That's about all we're left with after a game that was a step sideways. Howland maybe won't play for the future, and it's understandable because it's not part of the Coach's Handbook. But, as fans, we can certainly hope he does, merely to get us some relief from watching a game like the one against Notre Dame.