LOS ANGELES — In beating Cal State Northridge 82-56, UCLA finally played the way it was supposed to against the Big West. The Bruins still had sloppy moments on both ends of the court, but after recent debacles against Cal Poly and UC Irvine, the Wednesday night victory appeared to be a long stride forward.
But the news everyone wanted to discuss was the departure of Josh Smith, the second player to leave the program in four days. (Tyler Lamb announced his intent to transfer on Sunday.) Ironically, Smith was plastered all over the cover of the game program.
UCLA now has just eight scholarship players on its roster. And with Tony Parker’s sprained ankle, they may even have just seven available against San Diego State on Saturday.
Program gone wrong? Quote of the night, courtesy of Shabazz Muhammad: “I think Ben is the perfect guy for us.”
The players, predictably enough, tried to dismiss any talk of bad locker room chemistry. Travis Wear said that the guys all like each other and hang out together. Norman Powell said that UCLA will continue to be a top destination for recruits.
But it’s hard to argue against the recent exodus, all since 2008: Chace Stanback (UNLV), Drew Gordon (New Mexico), Mike Moser (UNLV), Matt Carlino (BYU), J’Mison Morgan (Baylor), Brendan Lane (Pepperdine), De’End Parker (USF), Anthony Stover, Reeves Nelson. Some were dismissals, but the sheer number is still stunning.
At this point, the Bruins have effectively cleared the roster of anyone involved with the program during the time documented by Sports Illustrated. The main holdover? Ben Howland.
Shed weight: It’s easy to make jokes about how much thinner the Bruins are in the frontcourt without Josh Smith. Travis Wear even made a few puns in the postgame press conference, although those could have very well been unintentional.
Smith hasn’t contributed much on the court, his numbers declining each year since his All-Pac-10 Freshman introduction that ended with a third-round NCAA loss to Florida. His 5.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game are hardly irreplaceable. (His career, both the good and the bad, are summed up well in this airballed layup. Skilled enough to take the ball upcourt, too heavy to finish.)
But just who exactly will replace them? The obvious candidate is Tony Parker, but he was bothered by back spasms last week and sprained his ankle during Wednesday’s warm-ups. He ended the game with a boot on his left foot, playing just one minute. Howland said the trainer didn’t believe the injury to be serious.
With no true big men available, UCLA was able to run a relatively effective up-tempo offense for the first time this season. Playing CSUN helped, of course, but there still were moments like Muhammad shaking a defender to go up for a dunk. Or a wild sequence that saw Norman Powell tipping the ball away at halfcourt, Jordan Adams diving to the ground to grab it before flipping it to Larry Drew, and Drew then swinging an alley-oop pass up to Powell.
Zone defense: Howland confirmed that the team will indeed play more zone defense, although it will not completely abandon man-to-man. Nearly every player looked more capable in the zone, but Kyle Anderson stood out in particular. His utilized his length well and didn’t have to fight through screens. The result was three steals and two blocks — all in the first half.
The caveat is that Cal State Northridge was having an absolutely atrocious shooting night. The Matadors front-rimmed shots from all over the court, from uncontested 3-pointers to running floaters. Few teams will be so kind as to convert just 32.9 percent of their shots.
Starting lineup: Ben Howland said he put both Kyle Anderson and Larry Drew in the starting lineup because he expected more pressure and wanted both his ballhandlers on the court. He then continued to emphasize that the starting five doesn’t matter that much because everyone will get minutes. (This is especially true now that Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb are both gone.) Jordan Adams also started for the first time, but didn’t see an uptick in looks: 8 points on 3/5 shooting.