Off to an inauspicious 0-2 start in conference play for the first time since the late Walt Hazard paced the sidelines, UCLA will need to make noticeable changes to its approach if it intends to compete in the Pac-12 this year.
While there’s no shame in suffering defeats against two of the conference’s premier sides on the road—one of which was decided by a single point—the manner in which the Bruins conceded those games should be constructively criticized.
UCLA simply could not buy defensive stops in either game’s second halves and relied too much on a single player to do most of the heavy offensive lifting. Be it zone or man, the Bruin defense is still a sluggish work in progress, and with few cupcakes left on the schedule, it will be tested every week.
To lay all the problems UCLA faces at the feet of Ben Howland is a surprising overreaction Bruin fans are now forced to make in lieu of an easy, obvious villain.
While it’s true that this is Howland’s team with Howland’s handpicked players, there are too many factors contributing to the Bruins' struggles for the remedy to be his removal. Any talk of a replacement for Howland is premature, especially with his team slowly turning the corner.
To read too much into losses at Stanford and Cal would be a mistake, but to ignore the lessons they taught would be a far greater one. To that end, here are a handful of suggestions for UCLA if it wants to entertain a winning Pac-12 season.
Few Pac-12 teams boast the kind of size UCLA does down low, so it must be a top priority for the Bruins to try the post every time down the floor.
This kind of thinking might strike Bruin Nation as a bit straightforward, but there has not been a game this season in which UCLA has actively followed that strategy. Every possession should feature a toss to the 4 or 5 down low, and if it’s not there—or a double-team predictably comes— the ball should be swung outside or in the lane for a less-contested shot.
UCLA should be working on entry passes every practice, and the Bruin bigs should work on catching them. Joshua Smith once had great hands, so hopefully he’ll display them again on a more consistent basis than we’ve seen thus far.
It’s true that Anthony Stover’s presence limits the kind of offense they can run inside, but honestly, the kid plays for UCLA. If he is entirely devoid of scoring talent two feet away from the cup, why is he wearing that uniform? The Bruins should still run the offense through their big men, even when Stover is on the floor.
Covering for Stover will be the Wear twins, two 6’10’’ brothers who have yet to play up to their height. UCLA could do much worse than asking them to create on the block, with Travis showcasing a more polished post game.
UCLA has to play to its strengths in Pac-12 games that will almost uniformly be close affairs. When the Bruins need a basket, they have to be confident enough in their frontcourt to get one every time.
Along those same lines, the Bruins need to also…
With a physically overpowering center in Joshua Smith and two incredibly versatile brothers in David and Travis Wear, UCLA should look to exploit its matchup advantages at every possible moment.
Virtually no Pac-12 player can single-cover Smith, especially when he gets set on the block. An immovable object by basketball standards, Smith’s considerable girth needs to be toned down for fitness considerations, but until that time, UCLA should make full use of his imposing stature.
Smith will almost certainly get doubled, leaving a shooter or opposite forward open. If Smith can learn to recognize the double quicker, UCLA could develop a potent inside-outside attack.
While we’re on the subject of Smith, the bizarre slapstick comedy that often occurs when he tries to score has to end. Time after time, when Smith begins his move after securing the ball, he either struggles to shake a man notably smaller than himself, or when he does, settles for a difficult reverse lay up.
Sometimes he'll even fall to the floor afterward.
Why Smith feels the need to use the basket as a block-shield is beyond me, as there is very little chance that his shot will ever be rejected. Why he doesn’t go up strong for a moderately challenging dunk every time a team doesn’t double him is also unfathomable.
Perhaps UCLA’s best matchups, game after Pac-12 game, will be wherever the Wears are playing. Able to contribute from the 3, 4 or 5, the 6’10’’ twins can give opposing coaches headaches. They’ll almost always have a few inches on whoever guards them at the 3 and have uncommon quickness for a 4 or 5.
Problem is, Travis cannot seem to stay out of foul trouble, and David hasn’t shown his quality consistently. If the twins can be better utilized, UCLA should be able to win some games in the Pac-12 simply based on the mismatches they create.
Conspicuously mediocre in both games against Cal and Stanford, Jerime Anderson will need to do better for UCLA to compete in the Pac-12. It was shocking to see him fold when his team needed him the most: on the road in need of veteran leadership.
The senior guard ended his trip by the Bay with just five points in 60 minutes on the floor. He missed all three of his shots against the Bears, and both of his threes against Stanford, including one that would have won it.
Anderson needs to get involved offensively to help balance the scoring load. Lazeric Jones and Tyler Lamb both scored 26 against Stanford and Cal respectively, in large part because Anderson provided little assistance. Now almost purely a shooting guard in Ben Howland’s three-guard starting lineup, Anderson has yet to display the scoring chops required to be effective at the 2.
With opposing defenses eager to cool a hot hand, UCLA cannot get away with having just one player do the scoring damage. Anderson is exactly who the Bruins need to keep the defense guessing; a viable scoring option from anywhere on the court.
A hot Anderson who contributes at both ends of the court is exactly the solution UCLA should employ against two complex Arizona schools in the coming games. Conference success depends on it.
With UCLA displaying such ineptness playing solid man defense against good teams, Ben Howland has had to swallow his pride and play zone. By design, this leaves far too many open shooters from range.
With the Pac-12 chock full of talented three-point specialists, UCLA will need to close down the perimeter moving forward in conference play.
Agreed, the long-distance shot wasn’t the main tool used by Stanford and California to break the Bruins, but it surely was effective when used at critical junctures. Both Bay Area clubs turned close, competitive games into wins with stretches of remarkable marksmanship from downtown. At neither time could the Bruins stop the bleeding nor fully recover.
While the home atmosphere probably played a role, Stanford and Cal shot with a confidence that UCLA squads of years past have not allowed them to have. The responsibility to close down shooters, even in a 2-3 zone, lies with the guards.
Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell showed flashes of Howland’s trademark physicality, but the moments when they faltered proved to be the difference. It’s a lot to ask, but it’s absolutely necessary for success in the Pac-12.
It should go without saying, but if UCLA is going to establish or protect leads in the Pac-12, it's going to have to hit open threes. The opportunities will be there with teams playing zone and doubling the post; all the Bruins need to do is take advantage.
Along with locking down the perimeter defensively, UCLA’s guards will be the primary outlets for downtown prolificacy. All four have been threats at times from beyond the arc, with Lazeric Jones and Tyler Lamb putting on fantastic performances recently. Jones went 4-of-6 against Stanford, and Lamb sank 5-of-7 from deep.
UCLA is shooting about 36 percent from three, which isn’t that bad, but when you consider its opponents are shooting almost 40 percent, that number needs to change.
Again, signs point to Jerime Anderson to step up in that area.
Especially at the start of the season, UCLA couldn’t buy a basket from deep, clanging a boatload of balls off every part of the rim. Now their touch has settled, but it still hasn’t proven to be enough.
With the bulk of Pac-12 play still ahead, there’s plenty of time to improve, but the clock is ticking.