For a team that will have essentially played on the road for the entire 2011-12 season, you would expect UCLA to perform much better away from "home."
You could phrase the year-long renovation of Pauley Pavilion as a mixed blessing, depriving the Bruins of a true home court but enabling them to better contend with unfamiliar environments.
You’d be wrong.
In six true conference road games, the Bruins are 1-5, their first win coming against a Washington State team they haven’t lost to in Pullman since 1993.
Notice I didn’t count their win at USC a road game, because if playing at the Galen Center is considered "on the road," so are games at the Sports Arena or Honda Center.
So why can’t the Bruins win on the road?
Is it the hostile environments?
Actually, it’s none of the above.
To explain why the Bruins struggle on the road is to point out that for the most part, they actually don’t.
Of their five conference road losses, three have been by three points or less. In the other two at California and Oregon, UCLA played solid first halves, trailing Cal by one at the half while leading the Ducks by 13.
In all five contests, UCLA showed for long stretches that it was not only capable of winning, but also were arguably the better team. Unfortunately, the results never went the Bruins' way.
Compiled averages from UCLA’s five road losses to its four home wins tell an interesting story:
On the one hand, it seems clear that UCLA shoots better at home than away, and holds opponents to a lower percentage from the floor. Yet the points the Bruins average aren’t that different, and they actually shoot better from three-point range on the road. Their rebounding differences are negligible, but their assists-per-game are markedly better at home.
There are two conclusions we can draw from this limited data:
1) Based on road opponent’s field-goal percentage alone, there seems to be a significant drop-off in UCLA’s defense on the road.
2) Offensively, UCLA operates much more efficiently at home based on field-goal percentage and assists per game.
Let’s tackle the first conclusion first.
It is evident to everyone who has watched UCLA play on the road this year that its defense isn’t the same on the road. For one reason or another, the Bruins cannot lock teams down like they have done in the past. It’s not that the defense has been entirely poor, but all it takes is one stretch of lapses that allows, say, an Oregon State team to take a lead it won’t relinquish.
UCLA simply plays with more defensive energy at home. Double-teams are more effective, switches are quicker and most shots are contested.
It’s a different story away from home, with shooters flying with confidence all over the court. As you can see from the graph above, UCLA’s opponents are making almost 50 percent of their shots from the floor, well above the under-40 percent Howland demands of his defense.
The reason UCLA’s road defense has been poor when compared to its performances at home has to do with one word: leadership. To many, this sounds like finger-pointing at Howland, and while it’s true that he does bear some responsibility for his team's struggles, the vast majority of it lies with his players.
The lack of on-court leadership UCLA has displayed on the road has been astounding. This is a team led by two senior guards, one which (Jerime Anderson) has played in Howland’s system for four years as a point guard.
Both Anderson and Lazeric Jones have not been able to effectively lead this team of mostly underclassmen on the road. It falls on them to calm the guys down, to get the defensive sets right and to make sure the offense executes in crunch time.
Speaking of the offense, it’s leadership problems that again have caused the Bruins' attack to sputter on the road. Looking at the second conclusion I drew above from the data, UCLA seemingly cannot execute offensively on the road as it does at home.
Both their assists and field-goal percentages go down away from home, and again, that falls on the two senior guards whose responsibility is to steady the offensive ship.
UCLA cannot win on the road because it lacks the closer’s mentality to do so.
Of their nine-player rotation, only two are upperclassmen. The team looks to Jones and Anderson to lead them when things get tough on the road, and so far the two senior guards have not delivered. There simply isn’t enough experience on this team to win close Pac-12 games in hostile road environments, even when the Bruins outplay their opponents for much of the game.
To win on the road, both their defense and offense must be more efficient. That responsibility resides in the team's leadership, and if Jones and Anderson continue to be absent, UCLA won’t win many games away from home.
Fortunately, the Bruins won’t have to play away from Los Angeles for much of the remainder of the season. Of their next seven conference games, they leave Southern California for only two of them (at Arizona and Arizona State).
They’ll even have the advantage staying local in the annual Pac-12 tournament, held at the Staples Center.
Luckily for Howland, the road question is almost moot, but going forward to seasons beyond this one, it will be valuable to understand why his team struggles away from home.
Bruins fans are getting restless.