Small Signs of Hope

Shabazz Muhammad

UCLA struggled to edge out a mediocre Georgia team, 60-56, but it showed signs of promise -- mostly a zone...

UCLA eked out a win over Georgia in the third-place game of the Legends Classic Wednesday, 60-56.

While the game wasn't pretty, and on the boring side, give the team credit for getting a win and being 4-1 on the season. This team has manufactured a couple of victories, and very well could be 2-2.

There was also a major shift in the philosophy and approach of UCLA Coach Ben Howland in this game.

Hallelujah, there was a zone.

At the very least you could make the case that the zone was instrumental in the win. It wouldn't even be a stretch to assert that the zone won the game for the Bruins.

In a young season in which the first four games didn't give Bruin fans much to cheer about, this is something. Cheer the zone.

The zone made its first appearance at about 7:00 left in the first half, with UCLA down 22-14 to the Bulldogs. Up until that point, UCLA's man defense looked lackluster and slow, and unable to stay up with Georgia's decent athletes. It simply couldn't get enough stops. The zone gets installed and UCLA subsequently, between that point in the game and the 18:20 mark of the second half, chipped its way back to a 30-30 tie. During that time, Howland used mostly zone, but sprinkled in some man possessions, and it probably got more defensive stops in that 8 and 1/2 minutes than it had so far in the entire season.

Let's be realistic here: The 2-3 zone UCLA used wasn't very good. It was rudimentary and filled with holes. The Bruins looked like they were just starting to take it for a test drive. But the zone worked -- getting Georgia to miss some shots (albeit it some wide-open outside jumpers), and then getting enough bodies around the basket to ensure a defensive rebound most of the time. And it also worked because Howland started switching from zone to man, and that tended to disorient Georgia. There were times Georgia actually was running its zone offense when UCLA was in a man.

UCLA won this game because of the zone.

If you're a knowledgeable UCLA fan, too, you were probably watching this game and wondering how long Howland was going to use the zone before he switched back permanently to man. Would he use it as just a stop gap? Because you know Howland is on the sideline in excruciating pain utilizing a zone. But, to his credit, he used it for the remainder of the game, switching back and forth in his defenses.

If you're an optimistic UCLA fan, you're now hoping that UCLA can put in some major practice time in improving the zone, building on the basics we saw Wednesday, perhaps putting in some traps, etc.

We understand why playing man defense, and playing it well, is the optimum defense to utilize in college basketball. If you have the athletes and knowledgeable players that get after it on defense, it will be the dominating force in a game, and for a team, and program. Witness the three Final Fours. It's not a stretch to say that Howland's excellent man defense got UCLA to those three Final Fours.

But this UCLA team doesn't have the athletes or that type of collective defensive mindset. Howland has recruited a team of big, long, average athletes, which screams for a zone.

If, though, you don't have the type of team where you can play an optimum-level of zone, in college basketball easily the next best thing is to play both, and switch throughout a game. In doing this, most opposing college teams, at the very least, struggle transitioning from their zone to man offense, like Georgia did. Don't forget, these are college-age kids, not pros; They have so much going on in their head that they've been learning, and to have to switch from a zone offense to a man offense, and back again, is one more thing -- a big thing -- for them to be able to do.

It's a defensive resource that should always be an option for a college team.

What was interesting, too, is that the zone UCLA used Wednesday turned a few players into decent defenders. Norman Powell, who might be UCLA's best athlete in terms of lateral quickness, looked far more comfortable in a zone. While he might have the most potential to be a good man defender, he's just not yet. He clearly has so much going on in his head when playing man he looks like his brain is hurting. In the zone against Georgia he looked more instinctual and quicker. Josh Smith was, actually, UCLA's best post defender against Georgia, and in large part due to the zone. When Smith only has a small space he has to cover, rather than moving out 23 feet from the basket to hedge a screen and having to recover, he looked remarkably agile, and far more rested. Kyle Anderson, even though he got beat on a couple of baseline dribble drives, looks far more comfortable, and quicker defensively in a zone. It's ideal for the Wears; Travis Wear, in this game, didn't have to move his feet nearly as much as he would in a man, and it kept him balanced and more capable of supplying help defense and blocking out for the rebound.

While the game was a fairly boring one, it did provide some excitement for Bruin fans: You should be moderately excited about how this zone defense could improve, and how it could help UCLA's defense actually be decent. It could be, in fact, the key to UCLA having a successful season.

Hope again that this wasn't just a stop gap. Howland has used a zone very sparingly in the past four years, and has attributed it to when he was down personnel. Hopefully this isn't just a reaction to being down David Wear in this game, and it's something that is permanently utilized. This team, again, is made for a zone, and it is at least moderately exciting to think about how good they could become as a defensive team in it.

UCLA is definitely going to need some defense, since its offense is, well, kind of a mess. Even with getting some defensive rebounds, UCLA could not generate a break, or even a decent amount of Early Offense. It was restricted by Georgia to mostly a halfcourt offense, one that looks like it's still trying to sort out its pieces. Really simply, since we're establishing things UCLA is going to have to do to be successful this season, the Bruins are going to have to find its halfcourt offense. The Early Offense is just simply not consistently productive enough. UCLA has played 5 games so far and it has yet to really generate a break. It has gotten some points out of open looks early in the shot clock, before it gets into its halfcourt set, but that was taken a way a great deal by both Georgetown and Georgia -- two high-major teams. While the Pac-12, to be candid, might not even have five teams that are of high-major quality, and UCLA would probably be able to get Early Offense scoring opportunities against them, it's going to get shut down and rejected by just about any team it projects to face in the NCAA Tournament.

The Early Offense is a good thing if you can get it, but UCLA's offense is only going as far as its halfcourt offense takes it.

Again, there is hope. If there's one thing over the last four mediocre years of UCLA basketball that was probably pretty good it was Howland's halfcourt offense. While many people, including recruits, don't tend to care for the structured sets he runs, you can't argue with its success. So if Howland can possibly get some additional points from Early Offense, but then develop his halfcourt offense this season like he has in almost every other season he's been at UCLA, the Bruins have a chance.

They do have some offensive tools. Shabazz Muhammad scored 21 points in this game, and it's a testament to the kind of scoring he can do since he did that pretty quietly, without one transition dunk. Imagine if Muhammad can actually do what he does best, too, and that's finish on the break? Howland tried to exploit Muhammad's offensive strength a number of times in this game, having him post up the smaller, weaker wing. Just like we said he'd be, Muhammad is most effective around the basket, not only in posting up, but in getting putbacks and such. It's only Muhammad's second game, and we expect him to get more and more comfortable in Howland's halfcourt sets and get more and more open looks.

Jordan Adams has been UCLA's offense for four games, but in this game he showed what can happen to him on occasion. His shooting touch was off, going 0 for 4 from three, and actually not scoring until about 3:40 left in the game. Some of that was due to him just having an off night, but also some of it happened because Georgia actually kept a defender shadowing him to take away his scoring opportunities. Adams will at times struggle this season offensively when opposing teams match up good defensive athletes on him. He, though, is crafty enough to still manufacture some points most of the time.

Travis Wear was productive offensively, finishing with 10 points and 8 rebounds. While many fans bemoan the Wears' not passing the ball much, it's not what they do particularly well. What they do do well is shoot the ball, when they're facing the basket -- just catching and shooting or a simple turnaround without ever putting the ball on the floor. If they do that they are both very effective offensive halfcourt options.

Smith looked good -- on both sides of the court -- in the first half, but then when he entered the game in the second half, regressed a bit, looking more like the bad Smith of old. Fans again, over-react, calling for Smith to be pulled and not used ever again. As we've said in the past, it's not about one performance, just like it's not about looking better against mid-majors compared to high-majors. It's about the players that give UCLA the most potential for being superior to high-major competition. While Smith didn't have a good second half, he still gives UCLA its best chance at an advantage in the post. When he doesn't play well in one game, by all means, he probably needs to get back to the bench. But you can't abandon him. Like we've said, he very well might not ultimately be able to pull this off -- and consistently play well. But he does give UCLA its best chance. It might very well, too, be attributed to just simply not getting enough playing time in this game. He didn't enter the game in the second half until about 12:30 left.

Anderson showed a few more signs of life against Georgia. In AAU ball, he created a great deal of offense with the ball in his hand, and not just by passing. He has the ability to create off the dribble from around 13-17 feet, utilizing an array of moves like crossovers, hesitations and step-backs to give him just enough space, with his height, to get a good look. He's also very good at, then, passing out of this. He did that a little in this game, looking like he's feeling more comfortable improvising. It will be interesting to see if he'll be given some leeway in Howland's structured offense to do this. He's also a better shooter than he's shown, and needs to keep shooting to find his comfort level. One pass, though, has to be mentioned -- when Anderson threw a 30-foot skip pass through the teeth of the defense to find Muhammad under the basket.

You have to put this all in perspective. Georgia isn't very good (and please don't cite that they played #1 Indiana tough, because Indiana, at this point, isn't very good either). The Bulldogs aren't horrible, but they're probably about the level of talent that UCLA is going to see from most of the Pac-12. So, on one hand, it bodes well, that if UCLA continues to improve it should have a chance to match up well against most of the Pac-12. On the other hand, beating this level of team in your conference isn't going to get you a very high RPI for the tournament, or prepare you for good (not even great) tournament teams -- like, say, Georgetown.

The game, though, with the advent of the zone mostly, does give the Bruins a ray of hope.

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