It appears this year's UCLA team has hit its ceiling, in terms of its upside and capability, losing to a mediocre USC team, 75-71, in overtime.
It hit the ceiling and bounced back, actually.
This was a loss against your crosstown rivals, an 8-13 team, with an interim coach, on UCLA's home floor.
It doesn't get much worse than that. This rivals the depth after the loss to Cal Poly.
It's a cliché, but it really holds true: All of the issues of this team have come home to roost.
When you're a team that needs to out-score its opponent, what happens when you have a cold shooting night (38% from the field, 2 of 19 from three)?
When you're a team that needs to get points in transition, what happens when you have it taken away from you? What happens when you can't get any transition going because you can't rebound, getting out-rebounded in this game, 44-36?
What happens when your offense is sputtering and you need to rely on your defense, but you're a team of average athletes that struggles to defend? What happens when your personnel is screaming out for a zone, especially now when you have no depth and your players have been worn down, sick and injured, but the coach sticks with the man defense and hasn't developed a zone?
What happens when you have only 8 scholarship players (well, really only 7 that play) and they're worn out and gassed? What happens when you get a couple of injuries or an illness and have almost no bench and didn't develop your depth earlier in the season?
What happens when you have no interior game at all, either on the offensive or defensive end, and you face teams that have decent to good interior players? What happens when a couple of players that might have given you some inside presence left the program?
What happens when you're easily scouted and schemed against, because you're a limited team that needs to score, and score from transition and perimeter shooting, and a smart coach, Arizona State's Herb Sendek, pretty much lays out a blueprint on how to beat you? What happens when the USC interim coach, Bob Cantu, pretty much uses that blueprint the next week?
This is what you think: Thank God we have 7 days off so we can rest up, get healthy and hopefully re-charge the batteries to have enough energy to hold on to the season before it spirals out of control.
This is truly where we are – on the verge of a spiral.
Taking a step back and looking at the Big Picture, this is what it comes down to, Bruin fans, how we are left demoralized after this game, this season, and UCLA's demise over the last 4 ½ seasons: Ben Howland, at one point about five years ago, changed his philosophy and approach to coaching basketball. We've analyzed it, and psycho-analyzed Howland, and regardless of why, the bottom line is that the coach stopped bringing in more athletic players who could play his brand of defense. Howland, too, lowered his standard for defense, allowing players to play with less defensive intensity and focus, without accountability. That fundamental shift begot Wednesday's repugnant performance. It was as if that shift was the First Man, and these games are its descendants.
No matter how good your offense is, it's pretty well-established that, to be successful in any given season in college basketball, you almost certainly have to play good defense. Quite simply, UCLA's basketball program has played pretty crappy defense for five consecutive seasons. It's interesting that UCLA and Howland still have a lingering reputation as a good defensive program and coach since they haven't played good defense for just as long as they actually did. It's not coincidental that in the four seasons previous to this one UCLA had been to the NCAA Tournament just twice, and only advanced to the second round in those two seasons.
It's funny because it's so plainly obvious. But presumably, not to Ben Howland.
The defense on UCLA's Final Four teams had a few elements that made them so good: At least a couple of very good, athletic, perimeter on-ball defenders; at least a couple of athletic interior defenders, and a team-wide buy-in to playing hard on defense, and team defense. This year's team is without all three of those elements.
In the USC game, as it was in the ASU game, element #2 was particularly exposed – that of having no good interior defenders. UCLA had no one who could match up inside against, well, USC's just-okay frontline. Players like Aaron Fuller, Eric Wise, and J.T. Terrell are pretty pedestrian D-1 players, but they're athletic. They might not be as skilled as UCLA's Travis Wear, David Wear or Kyle Anderson, but they are far more athletic. And know that Fuller, Wise and Terrell, again, aren't hyper-athletic D-1 players but, well, decently athletic. Those decently athletic players completely exposed UCLA's poor interior play, particularly defensively. USC established its lead with about 8 minutes left in the first half when it scored on just about every possession over the course of 3 or 4 minutes, mostly by going inside and exploiting UCLA's poor interior defense. Fuller had the game of his career, with 13 points in the first half while playing just 9 minutes. USC went on runs of 10-0 and 17-4 and built a double-digit lead, which they held until the end of regulation.
It's easy to make a run like this when this UCLA team is so easy to scheme and match up against. Basically, there are five distinctive elements that will determine this team's performance: Transition scoring, outside shooting/scoring, inside scoring, defense and rebounding. Any opponent, if they want to, can take away transition scoring, just by releasing defenders back early. Any decent opponent can dedicate itself to taking away outside shooting/scoring by challenging UCLA's shooters and limiting their open looks. Then, because of UCLA's lack of athleticism, it has essentially taken the other three elements – inside scoring, defense and rebounding – off the table itself. Those three elements for this UCLA team, for the most part, are going to be mediocre in almost any given game against a decent opponent. So, opponents merely have to dedicate themselves to taking away transition scoring and outside shooting/scoring and they'll at least be in the game against UCLA.
The one thing, too, on that list of five elements that, if you do it well, almost no one can take away from you is defense. It's why Howland's original approach was such a brilliant one: Get athletic guys who can defend and buy in to defense and almost no team in the country will be able to take it away from you and you'll be competitive in the vast majority of games. What is amazing to think about, too, is that it wasn't just a theory. Howland was such an exceptional defensive coach he had actually pulled it off.
There are other aspects of Howland's program you can point to that contributed to him being in the situation he's in. Things like his general manager skills, inter-personal skills, not demanding accountability, etc. They have definitely piled on to contribute to the cloud over Howland's program. But if Howland had been winning the last 4 ½ years, most of that would have been overlooked. And if he had continued to teach and demand the defense at the standard he emphasized during his first five years at UCLA, and recruited players who could play defense at that level, he would have almost certainly won more. He could have done anything to his offense. Early Offense. Late Offense. Nearly No Offense. UCLA still would have been far more competitive – and far more successful – these past 5 seasons.
It's amazing how simple it is. And how someone who is essentially a very good coach like Howland has failed to recognize this. It's truly inexplicable, and easily the biggest mystery of any development in UCLA sports in recent memory. It's not difficult to explain how Steve Lavin didn't succeed, or Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel. They all were longshots in terms of their capability, philosophy and formula from the beginning of their tenures. None of them had a proven winning approach and were capable of coaching it at such a high level to lead UCLA to be among the best four teams in the nation. It wasn't hard to predict their demise. Howland did have that and threw it out with the bathwater. It would be like, almost, if Oregon's football program, just because it hasn't won a national championship, abandoned its blur offense.
There's no other way to describe it but: inexplicable.
You think it might be lucky for this year's Bruins that the Oregon Ducks laid a huge egg at Stanford last night, and UCLA stayed within 2 games of them for the Pac-12 lead. The problem, though, is that Arizona and Arizona State leapfrogged UCLA in the standings without even playing, both with just 2 losses compared to UCLA's three. UCLA, given its schedule compared to Oregon, was a longshot to overtake the Ducks (barring a complete collapse) anyway, and now UCLA's loss to USC at home has essentially given the Arizona schools a big foot in the door. You can only hope that the Arizonas trip up on their road trip to the state of Washington this weekend, because if not, they'd both take advantage considerably of UCLA's trip-up at home against USC.
It really doesn't necessarily matter that much – what Oregon and the Arizonas do the rest of the way – for this Bruin team. UCLA has to get its house straight or they're not in the conversation. After two losses in a row, both of them upsets, and one of them an extreme upset, and, most importantly, both opponents seeming having UCLA's number, UCLA is up against it. UCLA has 7 days before it plays its next game, next Thursday at Pauley against Washington. The Huskies, too, have a more athletic frontline than the Bruins, and generally are more athletic. Will Washington coach Lorenzo Romar be able to adopt the Sendek Blueprint effectively? Will UCLA get rested and have enough in its gas tank to take it the rest of the way? And most importantly: Can UCLA win enough to be competitive in the conference without playing good defense?
Howland, inexplicably, made his choice five years ago about which direction he was going to take the program, and we're far down the road, unable to turn around, driving on the edge of the cliff.
ANote to UCLA's Athletic Department: Don't unveil alternate uniforms when playing against USC.