In basketball, like life, you get to a certain point and your habits have hardened into reliable traits—for good or ill.
There are a few starters on this UCLA team who have reached a stage where the hope for fundamental change has probably passed. For them, their most pressing concerns from a team standpoint are unlikely to lead to much of a difference—though, for the fan, they say that hope dies last.
For several others, their most pressing concerns are within their abilities to control, and I would be surprised if they did not either maintain their pace or get back to what they do best.
For all five UCLA starters, these are their most pressing concerns as the Pac-12 season races past the quarter pole.
Norman Powell is the team's cliched X-factor.
Despite being a starter, he retains the role of special operator, a highly trained agent for spectacular hits against the enemy as opportunities present themselves.
Powell is playing about one minute more per game this year than last—23 versus a little more than 22—but because his role and its importance are so much better defined, his production is up significantly across the board.
It is not just the 11 points, three rebounds, two assists or the steal per game Powell comes up with. It is the tough defense, pitch-altering dunks and jump-shot daggers that make him an elite specialized weapon.
If Powell can keep his focus on what this team needs him to do, making whirlwind impressions again and again during his time on the floor, then he will remain the best special operator this team can insert into a game.
Everyone knows who Jordan Adams is: a flat-out baller and one of the best all-floors wing players in college basketball.
But slumps happen to the best players, and over UCLA's last four games, Adams has hit a dead spot. It is most unusual to watch him on the floor and be able to see, clearly, that he is moving out of rhythm with the game.
His footwork has been strange and awkward. He has gotten out of control in the open floor—committing far more fouls than he does normally—and misfiring again and again with the jump shot.
It started against Arizona when he shot 4-of-15 from the floor and 1-of-6 from deep and went 3-of-6 at the free-throw line—where he normally shoots far better than 80 percent. Adams fouled out of that game, having scored 12 points, more than six below his season average.
Over the next three, he shot 12-of-36 from the floor and 3-of-12 from deep, netting 15, 14 and 11 points. His free-throw shooting improved to 13-of-15, but in the loss to Utah he did not get to the line a single time, only the second time this season that has happened.
A slumping player should find a way to get to the line more, not less, but it gets back to Adams being out of rhythm. In those three games he committed four fouls twice—he averages two fouls per game for the season.
Adams is in a slump, and his only concern right now is to break out of it. How does he do that? By getting back to being Jordan Adams: stealing the ball, driving the ball, shooting the ball, passing the ball and running around with the unalloyed joy of the basketball freak playing the game he loves.
Will everyone running with Kyle Anderson rise to his level of competitive excellence?
Anderson is an intense competitor who on game day transforms, almost like a comic book hero, from a well-mannered, all-American kid into a snarling wolf stalking the game trails for meat. It is a good thing for UCLA that he does.
He leads the team in minutes per game at 32, rebounds at nearly nine, assists at 6.5 and blocks at about one per game. He is the clear-cut leader on the floor, jumping from the starting blocks to trigger the fast break and conducting the offensive sets inside the half court.
Even more important than what Anderson can do—a statistical production level that most others cannot match—is what he was born with: an insatiable appetite for winning. Generally a person either has this in them or they don't. It is the part of competition that cannot be taught.
It is an easy-to-spot trait. These are the people who look physically sick when they have lost and who have the appearance of an inner happiness no one can touch when they have won.
Winning redeems them to themselves and justifies their existence, no matter how it happened. They battle with everything they have—exhausting themselves in the effort—right up until the bitter, bitter end.
You must have at least one player like this to get into the serious part of the season with a chance to advance. Can Anderson bring the rest of the team—a talented roster of players—to his level and keep them there? Everything else with Anderson takes care of itself.
It is good to see the Wears' minutes down to around 22 per game. If this team had any other options to fill out the front court, the Wears would be seldom-used bench players.
The main problem is that their player types—finesse big men who like to take their game to the perimeter—do not fit on a team with a borderline-elite backcourt. UCLA needs big bodies—the Wears are 6'10''—willing to mash and crush and battle under the rim. The Wears are not.
To make themselves useful, the twins must lift their heels from the three-point line and migrate in non-twinkle-toe fashion down to the rough-and-tumble blocks.
The Bruins, in addition to being the 157th worst defensive team in terms of opponent's effective field-goal percentage, allow 8.6 offensive rebounds per game (100th worst), while grabbing only 9.2 of their own (187th worst).
It seems impossible that a team with two 6'10'' post players and a third man, Tony Parker, at 6'9'' and 245 pounds, could be pummeled regularly on the glass. But this UCLA team—when it is not allowing opponents to shoot 49.2 percent from two- and three-point range—is consistently dominated on the interior.
If the Wears some night have a nightmare about an ugly end to their senior season and experience a Joycean epiphany about what people their size are supposed to do on a basketball floor, then this year's squad stands a chance in winning a few important games.