UCLA beat USC, 64-54, but it was a very strange game.
There were quite a few head-scratchers – things that you just can't explain.
Of course, the biggest elephant in the room is: With a team that's obviously showing fatigue, Ben Howland played all five starters 33+ minutes, against perhaps the worst team in the Pac-12 and one of the worst teams in Division 1. The Bruins were up by 20 points at times, but Howland stuck with his starters. He only played two other players – Josh Smith and Norman Powell – and they played just 15 and 11 minutes.
In his post-game comments, Howland stressed that he was very worried about losing this game, and that the Trojans kept hanging in, and that led him to playing his starters so extensively. When asked about Anthony Stover not playing at all, if it had to do with his injured ankle, he pretty much avoided the question, saying, "No, you know what, that was just more, uh…you know he came back Monday, and was little off, but he's going to play. I just went with the Wears tonight for the most part. If you see their minutes, they played a lot of minutes, and executed well. But yeah, definitely he'll play. "
On Smith's lack of minutes: "I thought Josh really got caught playing against the smalls a lot. It was tough for him defensively, from the standpoint of ending up guarding #33 (Garrett Jackson) a number of times."
Howland obviously has a very high opinion of the Travis Wear and David Wear, which is his prerogative as the coach. But at this point in the season, when it's fairly clear that the Wears are fatigued and losing their legs, getting ready for a big stretch run and the Pac-12 Tournament, you'd like to get them as much rest as possible. If they're your guys you want them fresh. You'd think he'd want to target a game like this one against USC, where he could try to utilize his bench a little more. That doesn't mean that the Wears should sit for the majority of the game, but wisely using Stover, Smith, Powell and even Brendan Lane throughout the game seems like the obviously prudent thing to do.
Despite Smith's foul trouble, when the Bruins were up by 15-20 points in the second half, he languished on the bench. Wouldn't that be a good time for Smith to get extended minutes, even if he fouls out, just to get him more playing time and experience, particularly against smaller players? Heck, at the least, it would be good conditioning for him.
And then Powell was actually playing well. He hit both of his three-pointers, in good rhythm, was passing the ball well and played strong defense. But he only got 15 minutes. If there ever was a game for Powell to get 25, and use those extra 10 minutes as rest for Lazeric Jones, this would be the game. How about perhaps subbing for Tyler Lamb, who Howland said had an injured hamstring, but he played 34 minutes?
You can only chalk it up to two explanations: 1) some guys, like Stover and Lane, are in the doghouse. And that's not completely unlikely. Or 2) Howland truly just has his head down and has so heavily prioritized every win that he literally does believe he couldn't use the bench more or he'd be seriously risking a loss. Howland treats every game like it's the national championship, which on one hand is good, but on the other hand, isn't. It very much, too, could be a combination of both #1 and #2.
I'll come out and say it: I like Howland, and respect him as a coach. I have been critical of him at times, but I know he's a good coach that is doing what he thinks he needs to do for his team to win, and is trying to do it with integrity. There have been times, however, when he's been baffling, and his substitution pattern Wednesday is definitely one of those instances.
The Wears both had double-doubles, with David getting 16 and 13 and Travis 14 and 11. They are tenacious, playing hard and with energy almost every minute they're on the floor. But putting it in perspective: Against USC they should get double-doubles. The Trojans have one of the worst frontcourts in recent memory in the Pac-12. And there were times when they struggled against Jackson, a 6-7, 225-pound power forward who isn't necessarily greatly athletic.
Lazeric Jones struggled throughout the game. It was more like one of his early-season games, when he tried to force things out of the flow of the offense, driving to nowhere and putting up off-balanced shots. We can only suspect that some of this reversion has to do with fatigue. It's not the type of performance you want your leading scorer, big offensive option and leaders to have going into the home stretch of the season – against a poor team.
Luckily, Jerime Anderson had a very strong game, perhaps one of his best of the season. If there's a player who doesn't look fatigued it's Anderson, scoring 14, with 5 assists, one turnover and 5 rebounds, and playing very good defense. He was the catalyst to the team all night, including some clutch play at the end of the first half, making a big jumper at the buzzer.
But all in all, it wasn't a well-played game for the Bruins, given the context of their opponent. Their offense struggled to execute at times, and the defense went through some letdowns against the Trojans. The defense had some moments, enough to get some stops on one-shot-and-outs for USC, and that led to UCLA stretching it to a comfortable lead. But again, USC is the worst offensive team in the league, so it should be this way. Offensively, UCLA's execution wasn't crisp, especially in the first half, committing 9 first-half turnovers. They were getting easy gimmes around the basket blocked and Jones forced a few drives.
Luckily, again, USC was so bad. UCLA out-rebounded the Trojans 46 to 25, mostly because on every shot there were four Bruins blocking out and not a Trojan seemingly in the paint. Despite playing spottily on offense, that kind of rebounding edge will get you a win 90% of the time.
It's tough to get a bead on the team and its mental state at this point. They haven't by any means completely packed it in for the season, which might have been the case after the deflating loss to Cal last weekend. Maybe it's just me, however, but the team seemed not all checked in either. Of course, playing a team as bad as USC can mask everything, but you could detect a bit of going-through-the-motions from the players Wednesday. That kind of feeling, and a vastly-empty Sports Arena, contributed to the strangeness of the game.