* A lot of people said that the UCLA v. Washington game on Dec. 31 was a revealing game, but the real revelation was in the Bruins’ loss to USC on Sunday night. And the revelation is a scary one for UCLA fans: This team is just nowhere near mature enough to consistently play at a high level.
I’m talking mature in both emotions and physical ability, because the Bruins lacked both on Sunday.
In the second half when UCLA faced any adversity from USC, it caved. Simply caved. Blame the coaches, blame the players, blame whoever. There’s enough to go around. Ultimately, it lies with Ben Howland as the architect of the program, but he’s not on the court. He can’t will Tyler Honeycutt to box out Alex Stephenson on an absolutely crucial offensive rebound and put-back. He can’t jump inside Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee and get them to penetrate to the basket. He can’t defend for Joshua Smith, who doesn’t seem able to defend for himself at times.
* Back to maturity, and we’ll start with emotional maturity.
UCLA beat writers have written ad nauseum about the team lacking a senior, much less a senior leader, but the point is still valid. This team has no one, not a single player, who commands the huddle, who rises above and wills the team to follow him.
I thought Tyler Honeycutt could become that even as a sophomore, but he has not shown that instinct yet. Malcolm Lee doesn’t appear to be the vocal type. Reeves Nelson’s issues have been well-documented, but I also think they’ve been blown out of proportion, and he gets too much blame for his “attitude.” Zeke Jones is still fighting the uphill battle of being a relatively lightly heralded junior college transfer, and his backup, Jerime Anderson, still can’t get over the hump.
With a coach like Ben Howland, there needs to be at least one or two guys – and in the past, there were a lot more than one or two – who can get in a huddle and take control. Howland is a demanding coach to play for, but a coach can only say or do so much; he needs a player who commands as much respect as he does, and he does not have that now.
* And on to physical maturity, which is becoming evident.
As I wrote about the UCLA football team this year so often, this basketball team lacks savvy. Basketball so often is a game of nuance, particularly when two teams are matched up well in terms of talent.
I can’t count how many times the Bruins were out of position for rebounds, terribly behind on defensive rotations and a step slow on offense.
Smith may get called for some ludicrous fouls, but he also picks up one or two per game that are just baffling. Brendan Lane may some day learn how to seal off a defender or get open, but he just doesn’t now. Even guys like Honeycutt and Nelson, who are perhaps the two craftiest players on the team, don’t have the know-how of a Vucevic or an Alex Stephenson.
Then there’s Malcolm Lee, who has regressed tremendously this season. I think Lee is expending much too much energy on defense, but with so many defensive issues on the team, he sort of has to. Problem is, his offensive skill set has taken a step back, it seems. He scored just five point against the Trojans, and in UCLA’s five biggest games this season – against Villanova, Kansas, BYU, Washington and USC – Lee has scored 43 points, or about 8.5 per game. In the Bruins’ other nine games, he’s averaging 14.2 ppg.
He just could not drive to the basket against the Trojans, who were saddled with backcourt foul trouble that went unpunished. I remember him driving right into the defense last season, with courage, albeit sometimes reckless abandon. None on Sunday.
* Howland had curious rotation patterns during the game, and at one point, the Bruins had a lineup out there that was about as threatening as bunnies on morphine. In the second half, with UCLA only down 36-34, Howland fielded a lineup of Jerime Anderson, Malcolm Lee, Tyler Honeycutt, Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover. So you have the most passive point guard on the team, paired with perhaps the most offensively passive power forward in college basketball, paired with perhaps the most offensively passive center in college basketball. And, on a night when Honeycutt had no touch and Lee couldn’t get to the basket.
Shortly after, UCLA was down 45-37 and would get no closer than four points the rest of the way.
I understand that a combination of foul trouble, Jones’ finger injury and Nelson’s rest put that group on the court, but that just can’t happen. Pull Nelson and Smith, fine, but then you have to have Jones in, who’s often looking to score. Pull Jones and Smith, but leave Nelson in there to demand the ball and take it to the hoop.
Just don’t leave 40 percent offense on the floor when USC is pulling away.
* UCLA is 23-24 in its last one-and-a-half seasons, after a 123-26 record over the previous four. There is obviously time to right the ship, it’s only three games into the conference season, after all, but this is a perilous time for the Bruins. Sunday’s loss was the fourth straight for UCLA against USC, and that’s with the Trojans undergoing some turmoil of their own the last couple of years.
There is no easy fix to what plagues the Bruins, but something needs to change.