UCLA Basketball: 10 Reasons Bruins Can Still Make Tournament Despite Poor Start
With three consecutive wins under their belt, the UCLA Bruins are riding high as their abysmal 2-5 start slowly fades into uncertain memory.
Instead of contemplating the sobering truth that the UCLA’s recent opponents have been D-1 squads in name only, what better way to lift spirits in Bruin Nation than a bout of irrational optimism?
Cupcake opposition? Who cares? The Bruins are finally playing like the Pac-12 title contenders we all secretly knew they were. Ben Howland is a genius, Lazeric Jones is NBA material and Joshua Smith is finally playing like a 6’10’’, 300-pound center.
Could things get any better in Westwood?
Now that they’re back at .500, even the sky cannot limit UCLA’s chances at making the Big Dance. Entertain these 10 reasons as proof positive that the Bruins are back in tournament contention, even if they only exist in my shameless, desperate mind.
The Non-Conference Start Wasn’t as Bad as Fans Think
While five losses in seven games to start the season certainly sullies UCLA’s tournament resume, it doesn’t automatically end their tournament hopes.
If you look at whom the Bruins have lost to so far, only Loyola Marymount sticks out as a truly bad loss, and it was the season opener. The Lions beat UCLA 69-58 on a night they shot the ball particularly well at a site 10 miles away from their campus.
Since then, LMU has gone 5-5. The four other teams that beat UCLA in 2011—Middle Tennessee State, Kansas, Michigan and Texas—are a combined 37-8, with no team posting more than two losses. Michigan and Kansas are top-25 teams that should make the tournament, Texas is a young team with tournament potential and Middle Tennessee State is the class of the Sun Belt, who no one will want to play come tourney time.
Looking just at UCLA, it’s hard to imagine a team that loses its serious points production, veteran leadership and unquestionably its best defender to the draft somehow immediately gets better. A premature preseason ranking and prediction to win the Pac-12 put the weight of expectation on a team that wasn’t ready for it.
When they lost against teams they should have lost to, it was overreacted to rather than taken with a grain of salt.
Could UCLA have started better? Sure, they could have beaten LMU and closed out Texas. Other than that, better teams beat the Bruins.
Do four losses against tournament teams early in the season disqualify UCLA from the Big Dance? No.
Reeves Nelson’s Dismissal Is a Positive Going Forward
I’ve already given my views on this subject, but it should be said again—briefly—that Reeves Nelson’s dismissal will turn out to help, rather than hinder, UCLA’s chances at the NCAAs.
If Nelson had played and acted at all this year like the player he had been in the past, his departure would have been a negative. However, UCLA didn’t lose their leading returning scorer, they lost dead weight.
For whatever reason, be it issues with Ben Howland or his own personal demons, the competitive fire that once fueled Nelson’s greatness went out. He played like a shadow of his former self, not committing to defense and underperforming on offense.
Nelson’s veteran status actually worked against the Bruins, setting a poor example for the team’s mentality. His apathy both in practice and during games undermined Howland’s message of constant concerted effort, leading UCLA to losses in which they played with low energy and uncharacteristic defensive sloppiness.
While its wrong to say that Nelson’s negativity single-handedly cost the Bruins games, it would not be far from the truth. Instead of bonding as the season wore on, UCLA began to fray as Nelson’s situation divided coaches and players alike. With his removal, UCLA can focus on the games themselves rather than what occurs outside of it.
Frankly, the numbers speak for themselves. UCLA is on a three-game winning streak since Nelson left, during which they’ve played their best basketball of 2011.
Yes, they did come against lousy teams, so the jury is still out until conference play, but the initial indications are positive.
The Bruins Are Slowly Coming Together
Partly due to Nelson’s dismissal, the Bruins are now coming together as a team, a must if they intend to make a serious NCAA bid.
While we again must preface this section with the fact that their recent winning streak has come against lousy teams, it’s hard to deny the sense of chemistry growing between the players. Guys are starting to find their roles on the team, and just watching the games you can see a renewed sense of dedication.
The effort that was lacking during UCLA’s crummy start is now slowly re-entering their game, mostly in the little things.
For example, take Tyler Lamb. His rebounding against Penn was terrible, with unsure hands and mistimed jumps giving the Quakers multiple second-chance possessions. Two games later against UC Davis, Lamb’s rebounding dramatically improved, speaking to the time and effort he put into practice working on it.
Even against bad teams, improvements in the little things like boxing out, making the extra pass and taking care of the ball stand out. The Bruins are starting to play team basketball with an energized mentality, a crucial component to any tournament run.
Playing Both Zone and Man Defense Helps
Though Ben Howland hates delineating from his preferred man defense, the introduction of the zone has strengthened UCLA’s ability to deal with different types of teams—something that will help come tournament time.
It’s clear that this year’s iteration of UCLA basketball lacks the physical stamina to run Howland’s suffocating man for 40 minutes, so the zone will help against teams that favor penetration off the dribble drive.
Considering the Bruins will rely on the Wear Twins during their run at the NCAAs, a zone better utilizes their size and quickness. We might see the 2-3 zone become UCLA’s default defensive formation against better teams in the future.
The Bruins haven’t needed to play the zone card during a stretch of mediocre opposition, but they eventually will, making the present a prime time to practice it.
Playing both zone and man adds versatility to the UCLA defense, and is probably the best option until the team becomes fit enough to stay in man. Going forward, going zone certainly won’t hurt anything but Howland’s pride.
Josh Smith Is Getting Better and Better
If UCLA’s premier big man can continue to improve every game while slowly playing himself into shape, the Bruins could be on their way to an NCAA tournament bid.
In his best performance of the season, Joshua Smith recorded his first double-double against an out-manned UC Davis, posting 18 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and three assists. While it’s true that Davis had absolutely no one who could guard him, Smith showed assertiveness, soft hands and better rebounding on the defensive end.
Best of all, Smith stayed out of foul trouble, picking up just two fouls for only the second game this year. His lack of fouls speaks to improved conditioning and positioning, items that have troubled Smith in the recent past.
Smith is still not where he was weight-wise at the end of last season, but every game he plays adds to his fitness. If he can lay off large portions of holiday sweets, Smith should be vastly improved from where he was at the start of the season come conference play.
If Smith continues to get better, UCLA has a chance at the Big Dance.
Lazeric Jones Has Found His Shot
After a horrendous start to the campaign, Lazeric Jones has finally seen the payoff of all his summer work, becoming the Bruins’ leading scorer with 13.2 points per game.
Jones simply did not have the shooting touch earlier this year, but has since posted double figures in five consecutive games, scoring 19 or more against Texas, Penn and Eastern Washington. With Joshua Smith doing so well down low, Jones didn’t need to turn in a high-scoring performance against Davis, finishing with only 12 points.
A large part in Jones recent success has been the rediscovery of his outside shot. Despite missing all three of his treys against the Aggies, Jones entered that contest shooting 11-of-16 from downtown in his last four starts. His mid-range game has also taken strides as well as his decision-making in the lane.
UCLA has needed a consistent scoring threat, and Jones has provided that lift.
The Wear Twins Influence Games (When Healthy)
The 6’10’’ Wear brothers started their UCLA careers slowly, but have since revealed a passion and verve that was decidedly missing among Bruin big men.
Both David and Travis have missed games due to injury, but when they can stay healthy, UCLA’s chances at a tournament invite skyrocket.
The Wears have the versatility to play as high as the 3, but exhibit their best basketball around the cup. Their finishing up close is unequaled at UCLA, and defending taller players prevents the Wears from being beaten too frequently off the dribble.
At times this season, the Wear brothers have shown range not seen from Bruin bigs since Kevin Love. David in particular has shown confidence from afar, nailing two of his three treys over the last two games.
If they could rebound with more efficiency, the Wears would be a force to be reckoned with in conference play. If they can stay healthy, teams might end up facing the dominant UCLA front court that was hyped during the preseason.
Norman Powell Continues to Impress
Possessing perhaps the greatest athleticism and sheer talent among all UCLA players, Norman Powell has continued to impress off the bench. His continued stellar play will add much-needed depth to a thin UCLA bench, a must if the Bruins are to earn a tournament bid.
In 16.3 minutes per game, Powell’s numbers—five points, 2.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists—don’t jump out at you, it’s what he does with them that has wowed Bruin fans after only 10 appearances. Powell already has some highlight dunks under his belt, and has shown flashes of Darren Collison’s speed and Russell Westbrook’s assertiveness.
Already proclaiming a wish to be a defensive stopper in the mold of Arron Afflalo, Malcolm Lee and Westbrook, Powell has yet to develop into that type of player, but he certainly has the gift. He can seemingly do whatever Ben Howland asks of him, snagging 10 rebounds against Davis in a game Howland no doubt emphasized winning the battle of the boards.
Powell brings a bit of everything to the table, and that kind of confident utility player is something UCLA needs as they make their tournament run.
A Growing Road Mentality
UCLA will play essentially every game of the 2011-12 season the road due to Pauley Pavilion's renovation, so it’s no surprise that the team will develop a strong road mentality.
Hostile Pac-12 environments or the neutral-site feel of the NCAA tournament should not intimidate the nomadic Bruins this year. Few, if any, other teams in the nation have that kind of mental advantage.
A strong road mentality helps UCLA gel as a team, with the players learning to communicate and execute while constantly under pressure. The changing environments will have a lesser influence on the Bruins confidence, decreasing the chances that they’ll come out flat in true road games.
Road wins are always at a premium in conference play, but UCLA is poised to secure a healthy amount this year. If they can hold serve at home and surprise teams away, they should be able to earn a high seed in the Pac-12 tournament.
With an NCAA at-large big all but out of reach, the Bruins will need to win that tournament if they intend to qualify for the Big Dance.
It’s a Down Year for the Pac-12
UCLA’s shot at a conference tournament title and an invitation to the NCAA tournament is greater this year due to a lackluster Pac-12.
Eight of the conference’s 12 teams already have four or more losses. Stanford, which currently tops the Pac-12 at 9-1, has only one quality win over NC State, though they were competitive against Syracuse. It’s difficult to deduce how good Cal and the Oregon schools actually are, with easy wins or bad teams and losses against good teams filling up their non-conference schedules.
UCLA is certainly not at the head of this pack, far from it actually. The Bruins currently own the Pac-12’s eighth best record and have played like it, but their non-conference schedule is among the toughest in the conference.
With no real front runner, why can’t the Bruins compete for a conference title? While it would only meet preseason expectations, UCLA has the pieces of a contender. They’ll have their first big test when conference play begins against the Cardinal in Palo Alto.
We’ll know more about UCLA’s tournament chances after their opening Northern California road swing. Until then, enjoy the cupcakes Bruin fans.