Bruins Are Who They Are Against FSU

Shabazz Muhammad

UCLA is very good offensively in beating Fresno State, 91-78, and the three freshmen all score over 20 points. The defense, though, is still a concern...

There were some familiar elements to UCLA's win over Fresno State Saturday, 91-78.

-- The Bulldogs weren't a very formidable opponent (and yes, we're getting very tired of writing this).

-- The Bruins had a major lull for a big portion of the second quarter in which they played with a lack of effort and focus, and allowed FSU to build an 8-point lead.

-- A great deal of that was due to the Bruins playing lackluster defense.

-- Tony Parker, the freshman center, languished on the bench, playing just 8 minutes.

-- Ultimately, UCLA had too much offensive firepower and, as is this team's formula, it out-scored Fresno State.

There is, however, a slight transformation happening with this team, in terms of playing time. Travis Wear and David Wear played 24 and 21 minutes, which was the 5th and 6th most minutes played. Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Larry Drew played 34, 31, and 35 minutes. If you remember, the Wears used to generally get quite a bit more playing time, and were the guys playing 30+ minutes. In Travis Wear's last four games, he's played less than 24 minutes in three of them, averaging 25 minutes. In the first eight games of the season, he averaged 31 minutes. This is a significant shift, especially since UCLA has only 8 scholarship players. It could actually be that the infatuation Ben Howland has with the Wears has worn off a bit.

If there ever was a game to support the assertion that other players on this Bruin team deserve the playing time over the Wears, this was it. And if you're a stat guy, there is no denying what they're telling you: Kyle Anderson had 20 points, 17 rebounds and 7 assists. Shabazz Muhammad: 27 points (in 26 minutes) and 7 rebounds. Jordan Adams: 25 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals. It seems clear now that these three guys need to play as many minutes as they can possible tolerate if this UCLA team is going to make any kind of noise, and the Wears really, finally, aren't the answer. Travis Wear, the starter: 6 points and 3 rebounds. David Wear: 2 points, 1 rebound.

At one point in the second half, Anderson had played 20 minutes and had 13 rebounds. The Wears at the same time, combined, had played 36 minutes and had 2 rebounds between them.

Howland, in determining playing time, is all about who, as of the last moment, is producing the most, and there's no denying your eyes in watching the Bruins against Fresno State. The Wears were used to, more or less, combine to play one starter's role and, on this team, that's about what they should be doing. Even beyond the statistics, in actually watching the game you can see how someone like Anderson, who is no more athletic than the Wears, has superior talent to rebound, score, pass and make all of his teammates better. The Wears can be good, as role players, but are limited in what they can do; offensively they're good as a 4th or 5th option, with their ability to shoot the mid-ranger fairly effectively, even though at times, and in this game, it seems like they looked to shoot from that that range every time they touched the ball. You got a feeling that they were thinking, "Heck, I'd better shoot this mother because, with the guys scoring on this team, this might be my only look."

So, that's a good sign, that Howland seems to be recognizing the guys he'll need to play the bulk of the minutes for this team to win – and that means out-scoring its opponents. Because UCLA, defensively, is just not going to shut down anyone.

Fresno State, a pretty mediocre offensive team that was averaging 58 points per game, put up 78 against the Bruins, which was the most points they've scored in any game except the 84 they scored in a win over San Diego Christian. Yes, San Diego Christian. They were averaging 37% shooting on the season, and shot 47% from the field against UCLA, and 50% in the first half. They hit 10 three-pointers, which was the most in a game for them this season.

UCLA's defense played pretty well for about the first five minutes of this game, not allowing FSU to score on its first 8 possessions, with UCLA forcing four turnovers in that time. But then that Bruin lull happened, and the Bulldogs starting scoring. They ran an offense that is very typical these days – either they drive and kick, or handoff and drive, with limited variations out of that. Fresno obviously felt they could take the slower Bruins off the dribble, and generally had some success with it. Marvelle Harris, a decently athletic 6-4 freshman, scored a team high 19 points, his career high, mostly driving on UCLA's defenders. He scored 2 points in each of his last three games against UC Irvine, Colorado and Washington State. Harris is an average mid-major wing, but he looked like a guy no one on UCLA's team could match up with athletically. Perhaps what jumped out the most in watching the individual match-ups was FSU's Tyler Johnson, a 6-1-ish pretty slight guard, be able to get some space against Muhammad, a guy who has at least 4 inches on him and probably 30 pounds. It looked like a grown man playing against a boy, but the grown man couldn't contain him. Johnson didn't drive on Muhammad, but worked around screens and spotted up to hit four fairly open three pointers on five attempts. While Muhammad's offense is definitely starting to get in rhythm, his defense is pretty poor, looking slow and tired on the defense end. There is a marked difference in intensity and effort in Muhammad when he's going after an offensive rebound compared to playing man defense.

Adams, who isn't greatly athletic and has shown some limits on defense this season, had perhaps his best all-around game, including defensively. This is not to say that Adams played good defense; but all in all, Adams is playing with more energy on defense and using his cleverness to offset his defensive liabilities. Five steals will help to offset it. And his savviness is really serving him well. On one play he stepped around a ball screen and did it with so much anticipation and awareness that the Bulldog who was setting the screen was called for an offensive foul. Offensively, it was easily his best game, and not because he hit 8 three pointers (he actually made two of three), but because of how he truly is such a great scorer who can manufacture points other than three-pointers. He is one of the best and most accurate shooters within 10 feet, with his ability to get up an accurate, soft floater with such quickness in releasing the shot. Even though he has no hops, he's very good at using his thick body to give himself enough room to convert on fairly contested lay-ups. He uses that, and that cleverness, to convert on breaks very well. Plus, he didn't just score in this game, but was pretty unselfish, dropping off to his teammates when they had a better look, getting five assists on the night. He is truly fun to watch offensively, a guy who has overcome the lack of quick feet with some very quick hands, with a cleverness and great offensive instincts.

Muhammad has definitely settled in offensively, scoring his career high of 27. This is about what we expected from Muhammad offensively after having watched him so much in high school and in AAU – showing a good touch from inside and outside, being too big and strong for most defenders to match up with him around the basket, and then having that greedy desire around the basket to score. In this game, it appeared he was challenged and competitive with Adams offensively – that he saw Adams was UCLA's leading scorer for most of the game and he was driven to out-score him. If I had to cite one thing offensively for Muhammad in this game to nitpick, it'd be that he didn't exploit the match-up with the considerably smaller Johnson enough. There were a couple of times Muhammad caught the ball in deep, but he chose to fade away and shoot over Johnson rather than physically overwhelm him.

Anderson's game was a piece of art. The rebounds are uncanny, how he has such a natural knack for anticipating the ball coming off the rim, and the feel and vision he has offensively is exceptional. What was also interesting, too, is that Anderson, who generally will have a bigger body against most of his defenders this season, is starting to now get confidence in taking his man off the dribble, in his clever way. He utilizes his little moves, with step-backs and hesitations, to get enough room to score now and create for others.

Larry Drew had another very Drew-esque game, with 10 assists against 1 turnover. He is what he is – a good facilitator on offense, who is stepping up more to provide another scoring option, while still being so variable in effort and effectiveness on defense.

After UCLA went into its mid-first-half funk, allowing the Bulldogs to go up by eight for a ten-minute stint, it was a matter that UCLA was not going to likely get back into this game with defense, but with some more offense. It's exactly what it did, and Fresno State, strangely, allowed UCLA to score pretty easily in transition a number of times late in the first half to let the Bruins back in the game.

Of course, and I know this gets tiresome, but this all has to be taken in context, the fact that this was against a 5-7 Mountain West team. It will be very interesting to see if the Bruins can match up with an opponent like #12 Missouri, a team that is on a different level in terms of athleticism and talent man for man.

What's really interesting to think about is: What if UCLA actually played some good defense, to go along with this offense? Given its current personnel, there isn't much more you can expect from this team defensively. A zone would probably help but even that wouldn't be a panacea. These guys are probably topped out defensively regardless of the scheme. They aren't good staying in front of their man, but even just as important is a lack of good interior defense, which would be able to clean up some of the defensive lapses on the perimeter. What if, say, Anthony Stover had been developed and nurtured, and helped through some of his issues, and you plugged him into this defense? Even Josh Smith, if he had been better cared for and managed, invested in, the kind of big body and potential defensive presence he could have provided? We're not saying Stover and Smith are absolved from blame for how their careers went at UCLA, but it definitely was a two-way street. Some players need a different approach in their development. If things had been different for just those two, what they could lend this team right now just in terms of being a big body that doesn't allow dribble drivers to finish and could alter shots is really tragic to consider.

Perhaps the guy that might give you the best chance of being that big body in the lane is Parker, but he's not getting better sitting in his warm-ups on the bench. While it's clear Parker isn't any better at interior defense than the Wears at this point, he has so much more upside to be better. What if Howland played him some extensive minutes, and let him play through his mistakes and fouls? Parker would have a chance to, at least, give you more interior D by the end of February. Perhaps he wouldn't. But heck, it probably is this team's only chance at considerably better interior defense. Howland said in pre-game interviews that Parker had had a great week of practice and he was going to get a good amount of playing time against Fresno State. That resulted in 8 minutes. It's another example of Howland being unable to implement what he clearly recognizes and has publicly acknowledged. Howland is almost setting up himself for his own self-criticism. There is something about Howland that, in the moment of the game, makes him incapable of taking the action that demands he look past the most immediate moment and does what could potentially help him down the line.

It's not that Parker is the secret to the rest of the season. But he could be. It's taken Howland two years to realize that the Wears aren't worthy of 65 minutes per game between the two of them. It seems Howland realizes Parker needs more minutes, but we'll see if he's capable of implementing it.

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