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March Madness a Long Way off for UCLA Bruins After Narrow Escape from Texas

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March Madness a Long Way off for UCLA Bruins After Narrow Escape from Texas
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The Bruins' market prospects slipped to bearish today after the team got lucky beating Texas, 65-63. This Bruins team has blue chip pieces but is at the moment a mediocre product, and they are probably going to stay that way because they do not have the frontline players to turn it around. 

I am not a fan of ripping college athletes, because they are not playing the game for a living. But I will say the Wears twins are not enough on the interior by themselves for this team to make a deep tournament run.

They are tall at 6'8'' or so, but not especially long. They have gawky feet in close and not a great touch around the rim. Neither of them are explosive athletes, and they get sort of nerd-bombed in the post when they're trying to rebound. They are soft in the middle defensively and bullied around the rim. 

I was not going to write about Texas at all, because UCLA should have blown them out of Reliant Stadium in Houston today. Texas has turned the ball over 19 times a game this season. The dominant Bruins teams of just a few years ago would have Kodiak mauled and devoured a team like that. It would have been one of those games that went to the half at 45-15 with the opponents shooting 12 percent and 14 turnovers. 

It seemed like I watched so many of those games at school from 2006-08. Those were the fun days.

There was one on Dec. 23, 2007 season against Michigan at Pauley Pavilion. It was Christmas time in the sunny part of the world; all of the Holiday decorations were up around the city and the lights strung up in the bars. 

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Because of the game, I booked a red-eye flight for the night before Christmas Eve back to Minneapolis for the vacation. UCLA was ahead by 40 points in the second half and won 92-55 to run its record to 11-0.  

But forget about that, those days are over and gone. There's a new, bleaker reality to look at this Holiday season. 

That whole presentation in Houston today was pathetic. That giant stadium and about 3,000 people in the seats. The whole arena flat and bored, watching two teams without much going for them. UCLA did manage to win, though, which still matters, running their record to 6-3 on the year. 

The most painful thing, though, is that it isn't getting any better. There are not signs or sequences in games that signal a build up of confidence and momentum that's going to be cut loose and roll on its own for the rest of the season.

The Bruins scrap and grind in ugly fashion, running a barely coherent offense to get their points. On the defensive end they get blown by in the man-to-man, spin cycled in the zone and rebounded-on like some little Balkans country invaded by half of Europe at once. 

It is the defense killing them, which is beat off the dribble and doesn't rotate fast enough to help, gifting opponents easy look after easy look. I've started dropping my head when the ball swings around and an opponent has time to catch, set his feet and move through a rhythm shot like it's practice. I'm developing a sort of bone spur in my neck.  

If it is not an open jump shot, it is a dunk. During the first half, Longhorn Cameron Ridley had three thundering dunks in the middle of the lane. It was the same sequence: A pass to the mid-post, a pass back out high to the wing, a sort of shot fake to draw the zone out, and a pass right back inside. The defense was nowhere near him. That is humiliating and demoralizing for a team.  

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Dickie V actually mocked UCLA's defense in a pre-canned video-only clip during the broadcast. It showed Vitale playing 1-on-1 against a 12-year-old cancer patient on the floor before the game. Vital let the poor, sick little guy shoot without playing any defense, and as he watched it from the broadcast table he spoke over the sequence: "Oh, I played a little UCLA defense there, gave him the shot."

If Texas had been water dropping shots today the game wouldn't have been within reach. Luckily for UCLA, the Longhorns are a poorly coached team and they played badly down the stretch. They also missed three wide-open, fast break lay-ups, which cost them the game. I have never seen Division I players miss three uncontested, fast break lay-ups in a single game. 

I worried when UCLA went to the zone that they wouldn't be able to play it like wild, winged demons. The Bruins do not have the length or size they need to really sit in a zone, so they'd have to scramble like mad dogs to be effective. That hasn't happened. 

I do not know where it's going to go, either. Ben Howland, who is a good pure basketball coach, is in a bad spot. He is not what you would call a psychologically nuanced coach, like a John Calipari. But it is hard to believe a team coached by him is so bad on their defensive execution. Howland has always over controlled the offensive side, but the defenses were suffocating.  

Why did Howland have his return to faith moment after all the kids started transferring, and Reeves Nelson was thrown off the team— talking about recruiting out of his style and getting back to basics—then pull in the No. 1 ranked class of stars in the country?

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When I look at those Final Four teams I see a corps—a backbone—of hard nosed competitive guys who made you feel like you could not break their will. Guys like Lorenzon Mata-Real, Alfred Aboya, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Aaron Afflalo, Daren Collison and Jordan Farmar.  

At that point Kevin Love was the biggest high school prospect Howland had ever brought in, and he was surrounded by a deep roster of hardened champions and a rising superstar in Russell Westbrook. 

I don't know how well it is remembered, but Westbrook was a locally recruited, solid high school player with a promising upside. But he was a guy who seemed to be between positions and needed a lot of work. Westbrook just went berserk in his sophomore season, but he did not come to campus wearing any big laurels. 

Collison was not a national prospect and neither was Josh Shipp. Howland had solid players, high school champions, gamers, who shared a passion to be the best players and team they could be. 

Not everyone can harness a stable of high school gods like Calipari can, bringing in fresh yearlings every season and getting them to peak together. Howland needs another corps of lunch pale workers to keep the mega-stars on the roster humble in practice and tough during games.   

When I look at the cycle of players who left as underclassmen, I do have sympathy for Howland. Just look at the list: Westbrook; sophomore year, Love; freshman year, Jrue Holiday; freshman year. These are NBA all-stars and amazing basketball players. Even Tyler Honeycutt and Malcom Lee going were huge losses on a squad that was beginning to look good again. 

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It is apparent on its face that those NBA harvests, taken earlier than expected, left a lot fallow in Westwood behind them.

But as for this years team, there are interesting things happening. 

Jordan Adams has been the best player in the class to this point, and Adams is a baller. He has a quick, smooth shot, feathery soft and accurate. He sets his feet quickly and can shoot in a flash. He is an absolutely natural scorer; the ball, when he shoots it, has a way of going through the hoop. His angles are right. 

Adams reminds me something of Shipp, though Adams out of Oak Hill Acadamy in VA was much more highly recruited. Adams is a gamer with absolute confidence in what he does, like Shipp was. Shipp was knocked down a little bit in his junior season by Westrbook's athleticism. Westbrook just took what Shipp had built over three years and ate it like an alpha does. Not more than five or seven players on the planet are as athletic and savage as Westbrook, though. 

Shipp may actually be a little more of an athlete than Adams is. It's the weakness I see in Adam's game. He tries to play defense, he gives it a go, and he wants to run out on breaks, but he is not an attack-wing player. Adams would be absolutely lethal if the offense could find some cohesion, begin penetrating and get him open looks. He is a flat-out dead-eye shooter from outside. 

But if it hadn't been for Adams, UCLA would have lost today. Those back-to-back and-one's in the final minutes helped the Bruins overcome an eight-point deficit with four minutes to play. Adams will not be the problem this season.

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Shabazz Muhammad is interesting. He is not nearly the explosive, sky walking athlete I thought he would be as the No. 2 rated high school player in America. I have subsequently discovered that it was his motor, his desire and competitiveness that made him truly great. 

That is wonderful—I love players with heart who take losing like a referendum on everything they've ever done. I like players who cry in rage and pain after a loss. I think Muhammad is that type, but he does not play especially stout defense, and his mid-range game and outside shooting are average. 

Muhammad may not be completely up to speed, though. He missed a lot of time over the summer with NCAA eligibility concerns and a shoulder injury, and it takes time to get back into a smooth, jazz-like rhythm with the rest of the ensemble. Muhammad is going to do everything he can to win games though, and he is going to be effective. 

The point guard, Larry Drew II (Drew Two), makes me nervous. Another North Carolina transfer. There is something hollow or phony feeling about this team, like too many guys aren't real UCLA guys. 

Drew Two has been very good this year at something like 8.5 assists per turnover—phenomenal—but there may be something of the pouter in him, the quitter. I don't trust his mental toughness. Less important than that, he shoots the ball poorly and doesn't score much at all. This team is going to need scoring all over. 

I've spoken about the Wear twins. They are mediocre on both ends of the floor and have a hard time scoring on their own. 

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Kyle Anderson is starting to be impressive. It was sort of scary the first few games because it didn't look like that slow motion style was going to work at this level. It will not work for him as a jump shooter unless he gets wide open looks, but he does not take too many jump shots.

His mental toughness and competitive malice is not under scrutiny. The guy he played for out at St. Anthony's in New Jersey, Bob Hurley Sr., does not keep mentally soft players on his team. Anderson was, I believe, a three-team state champion out there, and his teams undefeated his last two seasons. He rebounds, passes, keeps plays alive and plays like a guy not accustomed to losing. 

The jury has not even been selected for the Tony Parker evaluation. It was good to see him play today coming off a nagging ankle injury. Ankle injuries will nearly cripple a basketball player, especially someone his size.

Parker runs really well for someone 6'8" and 255 pounds. He catches the ball well and was not afraid to attempt moves and take shots in the post. He looks to have some skill.

If Parker is in shape and in rhythm, he could potentially make a gigantic difference for this Bruins team, which is in lost in the desert desperation for an oasis with their inside size and skill. 

There's a lot still to be written this season, but that game today has got me down. 

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