UCLA Needs Some Luck

Jordan Adams

The Bruins needed some luck to beat UC Irvine, in overtime, 80-79, and look like they'll need quite a bit more of it to keep winning...

UCLA edged UC Irvine in overtime, 80-79.

Just writing that there's something wrong.

Only the truest blue of Blues, the extreme positive spinners, could come away from that game without concern.

The Bruins played a mid-major team, and looked every bit like one themselves, in almost every facet of the game.

There are, of course, some aspects of this team that could develop and grow. There is potential for it to improve and become a top-25-ranked team. It's mostly named Shabazz Muhammad, actually. But even without Muhammad, there is a chance for the players that took the court Tuesday to be quite a bit better than they showed.

But man, there's a long ways to go.

You have to come to some stark conclusions, though, first, and analyze this team with those in mind.

First, defense.

This year's UCLA team doesn't play much of it. It's so far away from any defense that Ben Howland's teams have played at UCLA it's disorienting. It's difficult to analyze because you actually can't tell in watching the game if what they're doing is intentional or just that they're astonishingly bad at it. UCLA is playing a man defense, but they tend to leave their man free, just randomly or sometimes to switch or sag into the paint. On switches, sometimes, they literally don't switch at all. They do these things without, seemingly, any worry or reaction, projecting an attitude that this is what they're supposed to be doing. It's the darndest thing. UCLA's bigs, at least when David Wear, Travis Wear and Kyle Anderson are in the game, are switching, but they're doing it very poorly. Overall, too, there isn't a good man defender in the bunch. Norman Powell comes the closest because of his lateral quickness, but he's light years away from being called a good on-ball defender. It's not as if Irvine -- or Indiana State -- did anything dramatically different than other teams against UCLA, just spreading the floor, making UCLA guard you man-to-man while utilizing screens extensively. Pretty much the blueprint that all opposing teams have when playing UCLA.

There was a slight, slight glimmer of hope on defense in this game. Go to about the 6:30 mark of the second half, with UCLA up 59-57. In that defensive possession, UCLA played pretty good man defense, showing energy and focus, with very good on-ball defense, a sharpness in defending screens without switching, with its perimeter defenders trying to deny passing lanes, and it didn't allow Irvine even a decent look for the entire shot clock. It actually resembled the type of man defense that Howland has utilized at UCLA. So, there was actually a sign that this UCLA team can do it. Against Irvine, at least.

But most of the other defensive possessions were near bizarre. It comes down to this: If Howland is attempting to use some zone concepts in his man defense, and having his bigs switch, the Bruins are leaving too many men free in doing so -- on the interior and the perimeter. It's not like it's a case, too, where there is some sense that if they keep doing it and working on it there is hope for it to improve to a point that it can be effective. If, on the other hand, it legitimately is a matter of UCLA just playing horrendous man defense for a vast majority of this game, and that one possession in the second half is any kind of indication of how they can play, then the slack, unaggressive, no-effort man defense this team is playing is absolutely stunning.

We have said before that this team wasn't going to be a good man defensive team and would have to out-score its opponent, but we didn't think the defense could be this bad that it didn't even resemble a UCLA defense. We thought at least it'd be about as good as last year's defense.

And about that out-scoring thing...

It almost didn't in this game. It almost didn't out-score UC Irvine. UCLA's offense, at least the one it showed on Tuesday, isn't going to be able to out-score many teams this season. There is one consistently good offensive player on this team and that's Jordan Adams. David Wear and Travis Wear, offensively, were the tale of two sets of twins. They started this game on fire, scoring 12 of UCLA's first 17 points (manly because Adams didn't play in the first several minutes). The Wears then went the next 25 minutes, from the 13:50 mark of the first half to the 9:02 mark in the second half, without scoring. The scoring load had to be carried some by Larry Drew, believe it or not. Without anyone else able to put the ball in the basket besides Adams, and Irvine leaving Drew wide open because they didn't consider him a scoring threat, to his credit Drew knocked down a couple of very big three-pointers, and had perhaps the most important drive for a finish in the game, the one that put up UCLA by two when it was down by a point with 17 seconds left in overtime.

So much of this game, truly, developed the way it did because of the Wears' disappearance. It was, well, bizarre, and almost inexplicable. The Wears did look a bit gassed, and it appeared that Howland was trying to manage their playing time to give them breathers. It's almost as if they expended all of their energy in that first five minutes. Travis Wear scored eight points in the first five minutes, and then four the remaining 35 minutes of the game. Howland said that his players were tired because Tyler Lamb wasn't available. But we cant' see how not having Lamb affected the minutes of the Wears that much.

Offensively, thank the Bruin gods for Adams. It's clear the kid can manufacture points, scoring 26 points without making a three-pointer. He went an amazing 16-for-16 from the free-throw line. This is a guy who you want to draw fouls because he's going to turn them into points at the line. He can definitely fill it up, but in the two games so far this season Adams has been the most slack defender to ever play under Howland. If UCLA is going to be a team that needs to out-score its opponents and not play much defense Adams is the new Bruin poster boy. He's not very laterally quick, so it's admittedly tough for him to stay with his man. But there are possessions where he clearly just allows his man to go free, inexplicably. He's going to have to really score quite a bit to balance his sheet -- meaning score more on the offensive end than he allows on the defensive end. But if there's someone who might be able to do it, it could be Adams, averaging 24 points in this first two college games. The worry is that opposing teams will now recognize that Adams is UCLA's primary scorer, and put their most athletic defender on him to shut him down. If that happens, where will UCLA consistently get any offense?

In this game, after the first five minutes, that would be nowhere. Powell looked like he regressed to 2011-2012 Powell. He literally never looked to score on offense. He did, for the most part, play good defense on Irvine's leading scorer, Daman Starring, forcing him to go 4 for 14 from the field and 1 for 5 from three. Perhaps putting that much energy into defense took him out of his offensive game.

Howland was right about Lamb; UCLA did miss him. He is still a better perimeter defender than Powell at this point. That's enough right there.

The rebounding numbers were stunning, too. Irvine out-rebounded UCLA 55-44. Difficult to be early-offense type of team if you're getting dominated on the boards by an average mid-major.

We won't get into it too deeply, but we still think the best-case scenario is, on defense, to go to a zone, and on offense to put the ball in the hands of Kyle Anderson and get Josh Smith more minutes. Anderson has been hyped -- and rightfully so -- as a very talented 6-8 point guard and, in this game, the ball was mostly taken out of his hands. If you don't allow Anderson to do what he does best, which is use his vision and passing ability to create for others, then you're essentially reducing him to a slow, weak, 6-8 freshman without a true position who is going to struggle to guard college threes and fours and not have enough pure scoring ability to have a big enough impact on offense. While many fans were wearing "Free Shabazz" t-shirts, how about "Free Kyle" shirts, too? Smith, with all of his issues, is still the only guy on the court who gives UCLA a clear advantage over the opponent. He's unguardable. And he actually played better man defense in this game. While it might be a long shot, Smith offers UCLA it's only chance of being superior from a personnel standpoint than a team like Irvine. The only way to get him to realize the potential, and get him to improve and reach the ceiling to the point he's far more consistent offensively, is to play him more, not less (14 minutes in this game). Here's the stark reality: Without Shabazz, UCLA is going to go only as far as Smith, with all of his issues, is going to take them. It's disappointing that this is where the program is at this point. It's even probably a longshot that, if you played Smith 28 minutes a game, he'd get comfortable enough to be as good as he could be. But it could be UCLA's only chance this season.

Until Shabazz is eligible.

Until then, Bruin fans, UCLA is about as good as the mid-major teams it's facing in its non-conference schedule. So you can only hope that this team gets incrementally better at the defense Howland is attempting to run, and the Wears can play consistently on offense. You'll also have to hope for some luck, like with Irvine's Will Davis clunking his two free throws to win the game for the Anteaters at the end of regulation. Right now, without Shabazz, to get through its non-conference schedule unscathed, UCLA is going to need more of that.

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