Wednesday, November 16, 2011

UCLA loses 86-66 to MTSU, falls to 0-2

Well... at least the Sports Arena wasn't quite the dump I thought it would be.  Traffic getting to the old arena, which is practically on the trojan campus, was light and the parking lot was conveniently located directly in front.  I must say, with probably less than 4,000 Bruin fans there, it was a nice, kind of intimate atmosphere for the family.  My boys even had plenty of space in the concourse to run around at halftime without fear of getting run over by a mob.  Another plus, my seats for this game were slightly closer to the court and had a better side view than the behind-the-basket seats at Pauley.  It must be noted that UCLA really did a good job dressing up the old stadium for Bruin fans - championship banners, UCLA seat covers, blue carpeting around the court, etc.  Oh, and can't forget the free UCLA bball poster which my 3 year old couldn't wait to put up in his room.  So, that's about all the positives I could think of for the night.

I knew that Reeves Nelson was an emotional player, but who could have predicted that he would ever contemplate quitting the team?  Clearly unhappy about his offense role in Howland's system, Reeves didn't participate in team huddles late during the LMU loss, was late to the next day's team meeting and was absent from a subsequent practice.  It is hard to understand his rationale, since he was an unquestioned 30+ minute starter as well as the team's leading scorer and rebounder last season.  Howland suspended him indefinitely for his conduct and there's a good chance Nelson may choose to leave UCLA.

This, of course, reminds us of Drew Gordon, whose destructive and cancerous attitude, though he began playing big minutes as a starter, completely sabotaged his career here.  Reeves, just a promising freshman at the time, actually benefited from Gordon's dismissal and has been the starter ever since.  How could he not learn from that incident just two years ago?  How can he believe that playing somewhere else other than UCLA would be a better situation for him?  How can he not understand that these 3 issues - Lee and Honeycutt's early departures, the addition of the Wear twins and the need to establish Joshua Smith - means that it will take some time to establish our offensive flow?  And why is he upset if was actually the top scorer in that first game and took more shots than anyone?

Reeves has had a history of having a very poor attitude and taking it out on teammates, notable even from last year and going back to high school.  Howland of course had to suspend Reeves and the conditions for his return are an improvement in, "coachability, attitude, interacting with his teammates, and representing the university the way we expect it to be represented".  I have a feeling Reeves will decide to leave, but I'm hoping for the best.  We could use his toughness inside.

As for our play on the court, we are the most disappointing team in the entire country.  Ranked in the top 20, we've been dominated by two mid-major teams and our problems are much deeper than anyone could have anticipated.

Primarily, our defense was absolutely atrocious.  Middle Tennessee State shot 71.4% from the field (35-49) and an even better 90.9% from the arc (10-11).  In fact, LMU and MTSU have combined to shoot 20-26 on 3s.  In addition to their hot hands, we never closed any of those shooters down and rotated extremely poorly.  Tyler Lamb was supposed to be our best perimeter defender, but he looked like our worst, getting beat time and time again.  On the interior, MTSU was getting layup and layup.  When we did force them to miss the initial shot in the post, we didn't block out their weakside big man, who repeatedly got putback dunks.

Secondly, our perimeter offense has been horrific.  In the first 2 games, we've shot 6-35 from the arc.  17%.  Since our best players are big men, we can expect to see lots of zone defenses and generally lots of congestion inside.  The counter is to simply make outside shots.  That's what teams will give us all year, guaranteed.  Our guards will have to be able to create and finish shots.  Against LMU, Jones was 1-11 from the field overall.  Against MTSU, Lamb was 1-9 while Jones improved to 2-9.  Not acceptable.

Hopefully Reeves returns so that David Wear can return to the 3.  He, along with Jerime Anderson, will probably be our best 3 point threats.  Zeek looks like he's pressing too hard.  He just needs to make the simple pass and take the open shot.  Offensively, we need a lot more movement off the ball.  There needs to be more options than just passing it around the perimeter.  Practice at passing in the post needs to happen too.

The big picture question is if Howland can ever teach a raw team like this an effective offensive system.  In many ways, its seems that his expertise and focus is always on defense, while his offense is somewhat stagnant and way too micromanaged.  UCLA players under Howland seem to rarely improve their offensive skills during their time here.  In fact, it could be argued that his offense is far too reliant upon players' inherent skills to create when all else breaks down.  I always say that Howland just needs a great offensive coordinator.  Perhaps this is a discussion for another time.   

The good news is that this is early in the season and any Howland team can be expected to improve defensively.  He may even have to resort to zone defense if we don't have the team speed to keep up with opposing athletic guards.  But whether this particular team, sans Reeves Nelson or a consistent jumpshooter, can improve enough to contend for a NCAA tourney berth may now be in serious doubt.

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