UCLA Lives and Dies By Dragovic

As Nikola Dragovic went, so went UCLA's offense in losing to Oregon in overtime Thursday, 71-66. He was cold, got hot, went cold, and UCLA followed suite. It is, though, fun to watch UCLA's freshman continue to develop...

UCLA did its part to retain Ernie Kent as Oregon's coach, losing to the Ducks Thursday, 71-66, in overtime.

UCLA couldn't even beat a team wearing pink uniforms and pink shoes.

The Bruins were looking to keep their good vibes going after beating Washington and Washngton State at home last week but, as we expected, things got a bit difficult in trying to do that in Oregon's Mac Court.

It was a game of streaks and inconsistency. UCLA started off slowly, then got in an offensive groove to take a double-digit lead. As Nikola Dragovic went, essentially, so went UCLA's offense. He started off cold, and UCLA found itself trailing. He then hit three three-pointers in a row, and UCLA built around that to produce that double-digit lead. Then Dragovic, and his senior counterpart, Mike Roll, went cold in the last 5 minutes of the first half, and Oregon climbed back in.

It's generally a reflection of the season; If the team's effectiveness is going to hinge on the profound ups and downs of Dragovic's game, you're ultimately not going to be very successful.

UCLA had beaten the two Washington schools basically because of three factors – an improving zone defense, generally playing harder, and developing more offensive scoring power to get less reliant on Dragovic. Reeves Nelson had emerged as an inside scorer, averaging 17.5 points per game against the Washington schools. Tyler Honeycutt averaged 9 points, when he had been averaging 2.6 in Pac-10 play up to that point. Mustafa Abdul-Hamid had 13 points total in those two games, which is more points than he scored in the 13 games prior to that. It was a very sound theory – get some scoring from other places than Dragovic, so when he does go on his hot streaks it will be just icing on the cake, as it was against Washington State. Heck, if Ben Howland wasn't going to bench Dragovic this season, at least there was clearly an effort to develop other scoring options.

But it's difficult to get away from it entirely. Because, if Dragovic is still playing 44 minutes, as he did in this game, there's no avoiding he's going to touch the ball a great deal, and miss a good deal of shots. Most UCLA fans are so conditioned by watching Dragovic play, they'd say, coming away from that game, it was one of his better ones – but he shot 7 for 17 from the field (41%), and 5 for 13 from three (38%). Realistically, it was one of his better games, since he is shooting 38% from the field and 32% from three for the season, and he scored 19 points and got 10 rebounds.

But let's even say that Dragovic does play relatively well, like you could say he did in this game, it's a losing battle to hinge your fate on him. His inconsistency on offense will ultimately prove to do you in, and his lackluster defense will most of the time create as many offensive opportunities for the opposing team as he does himself offensively.

It's a negative-sum game. After watching the Oregon game, and watching Nelson (11 and 7) and Honeycutt (13 and 10) continue to blossom, it leads you to wonder what Brendan Lane would be like right now if Howland had let him play through his freshman mistakes early in the season, as he did with Nelson and Honeycutt. It's impossible to say, and we're not even asserting that Lane would be ultimately more of a positive-sum game than Dragovic. But watching Nelson and Honeycutt definitely begs the question.

UCLA's zone defense is interesting. Its objective is to pack in the middle, not allow penetration or easy baskets, and make the opposing team beat you from the outside. It wasn't, really, particularly effective, with Oregon consistently moving the ball well to get inside looks. But how UCLA's zone defense kept the score down in this one was by first, limiting any transition scoring, and then making Oregon's offense go so deep into its possession clock that it eats up time and limits the total amount of Oregon possessions.

Hey, the overall objective of a defense is to keep an opposing team from scoring, and, ultimately, it doesn't really matter how it accomplishes it. In other words, overall, UCLA's zone was acceptable.

So, in this topsy turvy season, the issues for this UCLA team have flip-flopped. We said through the first half of the season it was going to be about defense, rebounding and playing hard, while the offense was generally doing its part. Now, with the zone defense (which UCLA ran exclusively in this one) getting the job done, and UCLA's rebounding having improved with Honeycutt getting so many minutes, it now looks like whether UCLA makes a late-season run will depend on its offense.

It's fairly clear that, if UCLA wants to be successful the rest of the way, either one of two things is going to have to happen. Dragovic will have to go on a very hot streak offensively, and/or UCLA continues to develop more offensive fire power from other sources.

This leads us to the issue of Malcolm Lee and whether he should be playing point guard. Yes, UCLA has done better with him playing the point, but UCLA's improvement coincided with its increased use of the zone and not necessarily Lee's move to point guard. Lee scored 2 points Thursday night, and his scoring has fallen off substantially since he's taken over the point guard duties. It's clear that Lee is now looking to create for others, which is his role as the point, but someone who has the offensive firepower to score 29 points (as he did against Notre Dame. Remember that?) should be a scorer not the playmaker. Lee had a couple of nice passes in this game, but his true offensive talent – scoring the ball – is being squandered as a point guard. In his current role in Howland's offense, it's difficult to fulfill both tasks. Perhaps, with such good passers on the team like Roll and Honeycutt, Lee's role should be more of a Darren-Collison-like one in Collison's senior season – where the point guard looks to score first. It might just be that it's too overwhelming of a responsibility for Lee to play the point and look to score, and that's understandable.

In other words, there might not be any avoiding the fact that this could be Dragovic's team.

Even so, it's fun to watch Nelson and Honeycutt, at the very least. Nelson took another charge in this game and, even without a true post-up game, he's managed to create an inside scoring threat for UCLA, mainly by muscling up the ball with his left hand. If he gets to the point where he's shooting 70% from the free-throw line he'll warrant touching the ball in the paint even more. Honeycutt is clearly the most talented player on the team, and in this game really took another step in his development. UCLA used him for a new wrinkle in its zone, using him to trap the opposing post player (you knew Howland couldn't go too long without instituting a double-team into the zone), and he was very effective doing it, creating two turnovers out of it. His offense is coming along, with a nice move from the short corner against Oregon's zone into the paint to score on a jump hook. And his passing and rebounding are truly the one really elite aspect of this Bruin team right now.

Mustafa Abdul-Hamid is also making a clear case to continue to get playing time after Jerime Anderson returns from injury. With UCLA playing a zone, he's not near as much a defensive liability, and he definitely brings another three-point shooter to the court.

Roll had a game with some considerable highs and lows, making the three-pointer to send the game into overtime, while also missing some open looks and committing key turnovers.

For the rest of the season, it appears that UCLA is too invested in Dragovic for these other new options to really take over the offense. Pretty much, Howland sat down at the Dragovic poker table and is "all in." So, while you're going to get him shooting you into a game, like he did in this one, you're also going to get him shooting you out of it. Or he's going to make a critical basket, and then commit a careless, badly-timed foul, or miss a big front-end of a one-and-one like he did with 10 seconds left Thursday night.

It's the Season of the Dragovic.

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