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January 2, 2011

Thoughts on UCLA hoops

As you recover from spending the your easy chairs, no doubt all a-twitter with excitement after watching the likes of Texas Chicken University, which is fleeing the Mountain West Conference for its natural geographic home in the "Big" East where it can play Cincinnati and UConn and such while avoiding having to play Boise State every year, representing the Pacific Coast/West in the Rose Bowl, some thoughts instead on the state of Ucla's men's basketball team.

On the New Year's Eve afternoon game against Washington, simply, the better team won. Let's get that game out of the way first:

UW is favored to win the Pac-10 this year precisely because of its backcourt - it has experience, toughness, and real serious speed back there that nobody can match. That's also one of Ucla's challenges this season - quickness on the perimeter. What's more, in this game, the injury to Lazeric Jones late in the first half - they said dislocated finger on the telecast - took out Ucla's starting point guard leaving them just one point guard, the back-up Jerime Anderson, while they were up against the best and quickest backcourt in the conference.

There are those fans who always seem to need someone to blame for every set back.But laying this one on Anderson isn't fair, nor is it accurate. He's the team's back-up at PG. He's not as quick as is UW's Isaiah Thomas, but then, who is? He certainly didn't fall apart, recorded 3 assists to just 1 turnover playing 22 minutes (Jones also had 3 assists to 1 TO but was able to play only 16 minutes), Anderson played about as well as you might have expected. Certainly a lot better than he played last year.

No, he didn't make his shots - only took two but did go 6-6 from the FT line (the rest of the team hit just 19-30) but he doesn't take that many anyway. Point is, the Bruins figured to be overmatched in the back-court going into the game - Ben Howland was thinking of playing Anderson and Jones together for some of the time in an effort to better match-up to the Huskies - but once Ucla lost Jones, that was a significant blow to their chances of pulling the upset.

Nevertheless, the young Bruins fought back in that game - seemed to do it by ratcheting the margin down - one or two points at a time - got it to under 10, and then to within 4 a couple times. Each time they did, Washington would suck it up and have a good possession and Ucla would miss on one.

The one that stands out is when Reeves Nelson missed a difficult shot underneath but Tyler Honeycutt got the rebound. You'd have thought he would take it back inside where UDub was in serious foul trouble - and, at 6-foot-8, he has the size and a quickness advantage.

That didn't happen (Honeycutt finished with just 2 rebounds for the entire game, perhaps the most telling statistic of all for the Bruins). The Bruins whiffed on two possessions that might have closed it to 2 and really set the crowd on fire. Washington is a very good, experienced team, especially as led by Thomas and Venoy Overton in the backcourt and Matthew Bryan-Amaning up front, and they got it done when the game was truly on the line. Props to the Dawgs.

Bruins should be disappointed but not too upset by the loss.The key for Ucla is to get Jones back healthy quickly - they will need him to win against the other four members of the big five in the Pac 10 this year - UW, WSU, SC (up next), and Arizona. And for Coach Howland to keep schooling the guys to play hard on defense and also smarter. They have to start recognizing better on defense and learn to play some help D - it's just not there most of the time yet and that's a learning thing, not some huge character flaw as so many like to try to make it.

As to SC, the challenge there - assuming Jones is okay to play - will be up front. Bruin fans and the (Ucla alumni) TV Commentators and all are in love with the Bruins' front line, declaring it superior to any in the conference, but SC has two really big guys up front who are a lot more experienced than are the Bruins.

So many seem to ignore the experience factor in their rush to declare Ucla's front line superior - based mostly on potential it seems - based on achievements that still, as with most very young players and teams, seem to appear one game and disappear the next, be missing one half and then show up another.

This team has two freshman centers, one of whom has yet to learn how to play defense without fouling out in 14 minutes, the other being a project who is just starting to learn to play, especially on offense.

They have two sophomore power forwards, one of whom is playing that position for the first time and is just learning to play defense (going to a zone may have saved a few games last year but did so at the cost of a year's development of these youngsters in terms of learning to play defense), and the other is a pretty solid young backup but just that at this point.

Then there is the team's only SF, a sophomore who is just learning how to keep his talent under control - to make those passes for assists without also making the ones that go for turnovers, as well as how to fully take advantage of his athletic talents.

That is not a dominant front line, not yet. It's a front line with lots of talent and potential that could - potentially - be very good by the end of this year.

SC at home is going to be a heck of a challenge for this team. Coach Howland does have more than a week to plan for that game, however, which gives the Bruins a huge boost in their chances based on his record - he's lost, if I recall correctly, just three games when they are the first in a two game set - in other words, when he has time to prepare for that game. It's just the way Howland works.

Coach Wooden prepared his team to be as good as it could be playing its own game. He did very little if any scouting of opponents and rarely changed his game plan to take on an opponent (yes, the rematch with Houston in the Final Four that year was an exception).

Coach Howland scouts everything he can about every opponent - different approach - and when he has time to fully prepare his team, he usually winds up doing very well.

That factor is the one that should give Bruins some confidence heading into this one, a game the outcome of which just might be decided by which front line does best job of staying out of foul trouble. In that regard, it would be really, really nice to see Joshua Smith stop picking up fouls 30 feet from the basket.

This next game, with SC enjoying the home court, could go a long way toward determining how the two finish in the final regular season conference standings.


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