UCLA Basketball: 5 Biggest Questions Bruins Face in Pac-12 Stretch Run
UCLA is coming onto the home stretch peeling off their goggles for mud and searching in the quiet between strides for openings in the field to break through and sprint towards the finish line.
Now, approaching the three-quarters pole, the Bruins have put themselves into the thick of the race, at full speed in a three way nose-to-nose battle for the lead with Oregon and Arizona.
These are the five questions the team must answer if they are going to run the good, complete race and finish wearing the garlands in the winners circle with the cameras flashing in front of them.
Can They Improve Their Rebounding Percentages and Dominate Possession?
Ben Howland's good teams, going back to his years in Pittsburgh and probably beyond them, have always been burly, physical rebounding teams. This year's squad has not consistently matched that profile, and has allowed teams they'd controlled back into games by giving them multiple extra opportunities to score.
UCLA is last place in the conference, allowing 37.7 rebounds a game and allowing their opponents to to take back 30.9 percent of their missed a shots every night.
"If there was a negative to look at, which is what usually gets pulled out, it would be obviously our rebound margin," said Coach Howland at the Tuesday post-practice press conference inside Pauley Pavilion.
"If we're gonna have a chance to win this conference, we're not going to win it continuing on the path we're on from a rebounding perspective; we're dead last in that area.
"What's alarming, and what's been alarming for us for a while, is we have to somehow figure out, is our rebound margin"
The Bruins' need more from their guards, specifically Larry Drew II, Jordan Adams, Norman Powell and Shabazz Muhammad at the defensive end. Rebounding there needs to be emphasized, underlined and conditioned to an almost Pavlovian extreme so that when the ball goes up, the lads reflexively drool in their eagerness to hunt it down.
Coach Howland made an anecdotal, statistical point near the end of the conference using Final Four teams over the last ten years—three of which were his—having intimidating rebounding numbers.
"Almost without exception every one of those teams rebound margin is close to double digits," said the coach. "So it directly correlates to winning; dominating the glass. We've made up for it by taking great care of the basketball and being efficient offensively, for the most part during the year."
Can They Push the Pace on Offense?
Stalwart defensive rebounding sparks immediate transition offense. Part of what has broken down this year—when things have broken down—is that offensive-minded wings like Muhammad, Adams and Powell, along with the point guard Drew II, have leaked out beyond the three point line in an almost hoof stamping anxiousness to run the floor.
But that leaves behind Travis Wear and Kyle Anderson to put in most of the work under the glass, and they have been pretty good, but not good enough or strong enough on their own to carry everyone else's water. The team's third leading rebounder is Muhammad at less than five. Adams averages fewer than four and Drew II and Powell are under three.
The 2008 team, to use an example everyone remembers, had Kevin Love pulling in rebounds like a human gravity field, and snapping the ball off on outlet to Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook or Josh Shipp to push it up the floor.
The coach is aware of this like a farmer is aware of the rain on his fields in a dry season, and made an excellent point on the subject. Again, it comes from the Tuesday presser.
"You can't push it unless you get the stops, ideally," said Howland. "We've had more baskets in transition on made baskets this year than we've ever had in my tenure; but if you're taking the ball out of the net it is so much easier to defend than if you're taking it off the glass."
This team can put on the blitz in transition off made baskets. Imagine if they started running out of their opponents misses.
Can They Get Dirty and Grind This Thing Out?
Unless the pace of this race changes, the conference regular season championship is going to be decided on the final weekend, from March 6-9, just three short weeks away.
This is like a submission match in mixed martial arts, ugly and bloody with a tap out coming. It takes a grinder to hold on for round after round of ground and pound, scrapping in the filth, and rise the winner.
Does this team have that mentality? The rebounding numbers—which reflect a willingness to battle in in the clinches—are not promising.
But there is pride on the team, with transfer players trying to prove themselves, and a heralded freshman class with a reputation to defend and honor to fight for.
Will Larry Drew II step up and knock down big shots when the team has to have them? Will Shabazz Muhammad stay in tight on the defensive glass and use that big body on an overpowered defender to grab crucial rebounds? Will Jordan Adams grind defensively and burn up his body trying to save possessions that might mean the game?
That intangible thing—the heart of a team—will have to be on display if the Bruins are going to walk out of this cage match with the crown.
Will They Continue to Share the Ball?
UCLA assisted on 22 shots in their 76-62 victory last time out over Washington State.
With an attack wing like Shabazz Muhammad, a rifleman like Jordan Adams and a really fluid scorer like Travis Wear on the floor, how could facilitators like Larry Drew II and Kyle Anderson not ladle good sauce for the lads to send home?
The team leads the Pac-12 in assists at 17.2 per game. They have the highest field goal percentage in the conference at 46.4. The Bruins are the best scoring team in the league at 76 points per game.
When this team makes good passes, makes extra passes and launches the best available shot when it comes, they become a fast running bear for the wolves to try and chase down.
Can They Get an Unexpected Juice from the Bench?
With that short, seven-man rotation Coach Howland uses, and the starters all playing more than 29 minutes, there are about 22 minutes a piece left for David Wear and Norman Powell to come in and ignite the team.
There will be a game in both the conference and NCAA tournaments when the scoring has stagnated and the team needs something incendiary tossed into the mixture.
Powell is an explosive athlete and a player who can set the team off almost like a firework in the sky when he comes in and starts covering the floor.
Powell can lock down an oppositions best athlete; he can block a shot, make a steal, assist on a basket, bury a big three or send in a monstrous slam, like the one from earlier this season against the Ducks.
Powell has the kind of energy that can transfuse itself into a team. He has apparently accepted the role and likes playing it, which as an attitude statement says a lot about his character as a team basketball player.
"Defense got me on the court," Powell told Chris Foster for a recent Los Angeles Times piece. "I take pride in it."
During the Tuesday press conference Coach Howland said Powell had been best player on the floor in practice that day.
David Wear is the other big bench figure. Wear can score when his shot is going and averages about seven points a game. Coach Howland said he shot the ball well in the last full practice before the Cal game this Thursday.
The team really needs Wear to be tough, to come in and use all the muscle his 6'10'' frame has to push around an opposing front court and grab defensive rebounds. He did this once this year against Arizona in Tucson. Travis left with a concussion and David gave the team 31 minutes, scored 15 points and had eight big rebounds.
Those are the standards the bench must aspire to if this Bruins team is going to make a postseason charge.