UCLA Basketball: 10 Things You Need to Know About Ben Howland's Bruins in 2011
This is a piece for the uninitiated, for those ignorant of the frustrating, taunting and false-hope implying institution that is UCLA basketball.
Travel with me, you untainted few, to Westwood, a small area of Los Angeles where inspiring college basketball has yet to surface in 2011-12. Instead of the championship caliber team most Bruin fans expect on a yearly basis, we are left with a band of misfits and junior college transfers that loses to the likes of Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State.
Ever since the Kevin Love-led Bruins were eliminated from the Final Four for the third straight year in 2008, UCLA has yet to sniff the upper echelons of college basketball’s marquee tournament. Top recruits have either under-preformed or left the school entirely, leaving Ben Howland’s Bruins with serious talent issues year after year.
2011-12 doesn’t seem so far like the year Howland envisioned his Bruins having after a valiant exit for the tournament in a second-round loss to Florida (again). UCLA is off to its worst start in decades, and with commitment issues compounding their lack of skill at almost every position, the Bruins don't seem in line for a dramatic change.
When I finally emerged from the despair-induced fetal position UCLA left me in after their stunning 69-59 collapse against Texas, I decided to take to the Internet in search of innocent college basketball fans who I could corrupt with the shocking ugliness of UCLA basketball.
Don’t forget your galoshes and industrial-strength steel wool; none of us will emerge from this explanation clean.
Defense Is The Top Priority
To start, let’s get one thing straight: If you don’t play defense for a Ben Howland team, you don’t play. Period.
UCLA’s head coach is a nationally recognized defensive specialist, taking the Bruins to a national championship in 2006 simply because they could defend anyone (except Florida). Howland demands flawless, physical man defense from his players, and if they don’t give it to him, they sit.
In his early years in Westwood, this rule has been ironclad; in recent history, not so much. The 2011-12 edition of Bruin basketball simply does not have the depth for Howland to be so strict about it.
For whatever reason, his teams have not been able to play his preferred man defense as of late, allowing far too many successful drives and open jump shots. Instead of sitting players for constantly letting their man beat them, Howland has had to grit his teeth and teach through it. He’ll resort to zone when he has to, but always as a last resort.
To understand UCLA basketball, you first must understand Howland’s obsessive commitment to strong defense. He drills it more than anything else in practice, often sacrificing offensive development in lieu of defensive skills. Along with a stern demeanor, his defense-first approach has cost him, but more on that later.
The Bruins Lost Key Pieces to NBA Draft
UCLA has struggled out of the gate in 2011-12, and a lot of it has to do with chemistry issues stemming from the loss of their two best players from a year ago.
Even with the NBA lockout looming, guards Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt still left for the draft after last season’s loss to Florida in the tournament. With their departure, UCLA lost both its best defender and most consistent offensive threat.
In terms of his defense, Lee was the spiritual successor to Arron Afflalo and Russell Westbrook. He was always called upon by Howland to defend the other team’s best player, and did so well. Honeycutt could nail jumpers from anywhere, create his own shot and was an offensive force when he got his three-ball going.
Losing Lee and Honeycutt cost the Bruins dearly on both sides of the floor. Without Lee, Howland has no one to rely on for defensive stops or set an example for the younger players about how proper defense should be played. Without Honeycutt, UCLA lacks the ability to stay with high-scoring teams when its defense fails.
If Lee and Honeycutt had stayed, this year’s Bruin side would have been a Final Four quality team. Now, it’ll be lucky to make the NCAAs at all.
It’s the UCLA Road Show!
With its home floor at Pauley Pavilion undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation this year, UCLA will essentially play every game of the 2011-12 on the road.
Technically, the Bruins will be considered the home team for their games at the L.A. Sports Arena, Honda Center and Citizen’s Business Bank Arena, but only in name. Pauley had the history, the atmosphere and the familiarity to give UCLA a real home court advantage, and without it, they lack the sheer intimidation factor that would lead teams to under-perform.
Schools like Loyola Marymount, another Los Angeles-based school, have come into the Sports Arena without fear, executing at a level they might not have under Pauley’s bright lights. The Lions beat UCLA in their season opener and weren’t the last mid-major to humble the Bruins at “home.”
The lack of a home court on or even near campus affects player’s preparation, and might be responsible for a lot of the slow starts we’ve seen so far.
While it will serve them well heading into tough Pac-12 environments, UCLA has and will drop games at “home” to teams it should wipe the floor with. Luckily, it will only be this year, as Pauley will reopen on time for the 2012-13 campaign.
UCLA Will Struggle for a NCAA Tournament Bid
Currently 2-5, UCLA needs to show marked improvement if it intends to make the NCAA tournament this year.
With their two wins coming over D-II Chaminade and a gassed Pepperdine squad, the Bruins have yet to beat anyone of note in 2011-12. Kansas and Michigan showed UCLA how far away they are from competing with the nation’s top teams, and a young Texas squad dismantled them after absorbing a hot Bruin first half.
Ben Howland himself has admitted that outside winning the Pac-12 tournament, UCLA has a slim shot at making the NCAAs if it continues to play poorly. The conference this year is on the upswing, with California, Washington, Arizona, Oregon and even Stanford all in the mix for a regular season title. With that kind of competition, UCLA will be hard-pressed to win a lot of conference games in 2011-12.
Still, their immediate schedule positions them nicely to be above .500 before Pac-12 play begins against the Cardinal on Dec. 29. In consecutive games, UCLA will play Penn, Eastern Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine and Richmond. Those are five winnable games, all coming at “home”, which would put the Bruins at 7-5 before visiting the Northern California teams.
Then again, they’ve lost to worse opposition already this year, but there were positives to take from the Texas loss. If the Bruins can build on certain things, particularly team defense and outside shooting, they will be on solid footing come conference play.
If UCLA can hold serve at “home” and steal a few conference games on the road, it should get a high Pac-12 tournament seed with a chance at the NCAAs. Otherwise, it looks like the near future for UCLA might be spelled N-I-T.
But for all the general statements about how the Bruins have struggled as a team in 2011-12, we’ve yet to discuss exactly why they seem to be struggling. Let’s take a look at some specific issues, many of which involve certain players, including one who’s been in the national news a lot lately…
The Foibles of Reeves Nelson
I could spend an entire article detailing the multiple ways Reeves Nelson has hurt UCLA (and himself) this year, so I’ll try to shorten it here.
Coming out of high school in Modesto, California, Nelson wasn’t that highly a recruited prospect. He eventually committed to UCLA because Ben Howland needed an athletic, passionate post player who could rebound and score, much like Alfred Aboya or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
As a post partner to Drew Gordon, Nelson exceeded everyone’s expectations, averaging 11.1 points and 5.7 rebounds as a true freshman. When Gordon eventually transferred due to issues with Howland, Nelson became UCLA’s most potent threat down low.
He was always undersized at 6’8’’, but Nelson played with the heart and attitude of a seven footer. He fought hard for rebound and points, and was a leader in the locker room. Nelson’s role in the team only increased during his sophomore year, when he averaged 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds.
But during his outstanding second year, players and coaches began to see the flip side of his aggressive personality. When things weren’t going well, either for the team or him personally, Nelson would behave erratically on and off the court. He would visibly shut down on the court when he struggled to score, and was vocally critical to a fault.
Little changed physically for Nelson, but his negative mentality prevented him from being as good as he could have been every game.
Still, UCLA was able to ride Nelson’s good spells to an NCAA tournament berth and a big win over Michigan State in the first round. Despite their loss to Florida, things were looking UCLA and Nelson going into 2011-12.
The Foibles of Reeves Nelson, Cont.
Somewhere between the end of last season and the beginning of this one, Reeves Nelson lost whatever positive mentality he had, and has gotten himself suspended indefinitely from the team not once, but twice over a seven-game span.
It started in this year’s season opener against LMU. Nelson didn’t have a particularly bad game, yet he avoided the team huddles, argued with coaches and generally looked upset. Reports later revealed that after the game, Nelson had a verbal alteration with Ben Howland, and didn’t show up to practice one day. Among other things, this led Howland to suspend him for the first time.
After UCLA lost big to Middle Tennessee State, a contrite Nelson was reinstated to the team, where he practiced well but missed the team plane to Maui. He eventually got there, sat out the first half against Chaminade, but made little to no impression in any of the games from there on out.
Once UCLA got home, Nelson played few minutes against Pepperdine and didn’t see any action in the second half against Texas. He reportedly had a slew of bad practices, and was seen laughing and pointing to fans in the crowd as the Longhorns slowly outdid UCLA. Afterword, Howland suspended him again, presumably for longer than one game.
If his play this year is any indication, Nelson has lost the competitive fire that made him great. He hasn’t regressed physically, just mentally. When Nelson has played this season, he’s been lackadaisical defensively and nonexistent offensively. Inexplicably, the passion to play is gone from a guy who once defined his success by it.
Without knowing exactly why Nelson has shut down, we can only speculate to the reasons. Maybe he’s had enough of Howland’s stern teaching. Maybe he wants more freedom offensively. Maybe he’s offended that the Wear twins have taken a significant amount of his minutes despite their lack of experience. We don’t know.
What we do know is that Nelson has only hurt UCLA when he’s been on the floor in 2011-12. He doesn’t hustle on defense, no longer looks to score and doesn’t play with any pride in the shirt.
The Bruins need the old Nelson, the guy who put up double-doubles and fought with heart every second of the game. This new version just doesn’t care. Don’t expect him to return anytime soon, and the Bruins are better for it.
Joshua Smith Is UCLA’s Big Lump in the Paint
Right behind Reeves Nelson in UCLA’s major disappointments of the 2011-12 season has been the uninspired play of Joshua Smith.
Smith has clearly regressed physically from the force he was down low last season, with a lack of conditioning the primary culprit. How or why Smith allowed himself to balloon back to well over 300 pounds from the 290 he managed to slim down to last year is absolutely mystifying, and it’s cost UCLA this year.
Big Josh Smith cannot run the floor for more than five-minute stretches, with Ben Howland frequently burning timeouts just to get him off the floor for a rest. Smith’s once vaunted hands have committed 14 turnovers already, a fourth of what he posted last season in a seventh of the total minutes. He doesn’t move under the basket on offense, and doesn’t cut off the lane on high ball screens defensively.
Smith and Nelson should have formed the nucleus of perhaps college basketball’s best frontcourt, but both have bizarrely failed to live up to expectations. If UCLA is to have any shot at competing in the Pac-12, Smith needs to get his conditioning in gear. Getting more mobile will solve most of his problems, but so far he’s seemingly lacked the desire to do so.
Much like Nelson, the passion is missing from Smith’s game. Howland has to hope his center finds it soon.
The Starting Guards Are Underperforming
The trio of Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb has had its moments offensively, but defensively they’ve struggled, hurting UCLA’s ability to contain the outside shot
With UCLA’s (presumed) effectiveness down low, teams were always going to double and deny the post. To combat this, the guards needed to offer an offensive threat from range, and in some games they’ve done so. Lamb and Anderson both put up big numbers from deep against Kansas, but they couldn’t quite complete the comeback. Jones caught fire from range against Texas, scoring a team-high 21 points, yet UCLA still lost.
Game to game, the offensive consistency is there yet, but that doesn’t concern Ben Howland nearly as much as their defensive troubles. UCLA is allowing opponents to shoot 49 percent from the floor, including 47 percent from downtown. Compare that with only shooting 31 percent from three themselves and you’ve got a recipe for a losing season.
The responsibility to stop long-range shots falls to the guards, and so far they haven’t succeeded. The three guards will continue to get better defensively under Howland’s tutelage, but their offensive improvement lies solely with them. A consistent threat from beyond the arc from Lamb and Anderson would do wonders for the Bruins, and would allow Jones to focus more on distribution than single-handedly carrying the team.
UCLA will need better guard play if it aims to win going forward.
David and Travis Wear Are the Present
While Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith have been passionless in 2011-12, David and Travis Wear have been the exact opposite.
The twins transferred from North Carolina in an effort to play closer to their hometown of Huntington Beach, and have seemingly bought into Ben Howland’s defense-first mentality. David and Travis run the floor well, hedge sharply and have played with a defensive intensity against Pepperdine and Texas that the rest of the team has yet to match.
At 6’10’’, the brothers can play the 3, 4 or 5, and present a tough matchup wherever they set up. Travis looks more natural in the low post, but both are decent mid-range shooters and are beginning to improve their rebounding. If the guards could get the ball inside with greater efficiency, the Wears could be unstoppable.
Despite their size, the Wears have yet to play as big as they are, often getting out-muscled for boards and inside position. Experience and more time in the weight room will solve that problem, as well as a continued dedication to defense.
Like it or not, the Wear brothers are the present for UCLA. They represent the best low post presence the squad has, and play with an effort Nelson once gave. The Bruins will live and die this year with their ability to win battles down low.
Norman Powell Is (Part Of) the Future
A true freshman guard with tremendous upside, Norman Powell has shown flashes that he is indeed the future at guard for UCLA.
Powell has displayed an athleticism and dedication to defense that the Bruins will need going forward. The young guard has shown a shooter’s touch from outside, quick hands and fearlessness in the lane. Powell still suffers from freshman mistakes, but he has the potential to be very good.
Right now, Powell isn’t being asked to do much besides fill in the rotation of guards when needed. Howland is currently starting Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb, leaving few options besides Powell to spell them off the bench. The injury to swingman De’End Parker has only increased Powell’s minutes, and Powell has responded, scoring 10 against Pepperdine.
Every minute that Powell logs strengthens UCLA’s foundation for the future. Speaking of the future…
A Focus on Next Year
As is now the common adage in Westwood, “Just wait, we’ll be really good next year…” But maybe, after the 2011-12 season, this will actually be true.
The final thing you, the new Bruin follower need to know about UCLA this season is that for the most part, their fans are already focusing on next season. And we’ve only played seven games. That’s how bad things are.
In what seems to be another rebuilding year, the best UCLA can hope for is a tournament appearance, with whatever kind of advancement they earn in said tournament merely a bonus.
Instead, there should be a concerted effort to get the young players a lot of playing time. The Wear twins are only sophomores, and Norman Powell is true freshman. Joshua Smith, poor as he has been this year, is still a sophomore, and will be given minutes to improve as he works on conditioning. Tyler Lamb will only get better as a starter in every game he’s healthy for.
To replace the backcourt he’ll lose when seniors Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson graduate, Ben Howland is bringing in some serious talent in Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams. Both listed as small forwards, Anderson in particular can play all three perimeter positions and could develop into a potent 2-guard.
UCLA is also still in the running for the nation’s top high school prospect Shabazz Muhammad, whose friendship with Anderson could steer him the Bruins’ way.
As bad as things look for UCLA in 2011-12, the future could not be brighter. But that glorious tomorrow is a year away, and we still have the slow-motion disaster of the season to sort out.
UCLA could still turn it around, but if you’ve stayed with me this long, you’ll know that a reversal of fortune might be too much to hope for. Now back to the fetal position.