UCLA Fails First High-Major Test

Shabazz Muhammad

Facing Georgetown, which isn't even an elite high-major team, UCLA lost easily, 78-70, unable to match up athletically and having no answer for the Hoyas' zone defense...

No one should be surprised.

In UCLA losing to Georgetown, 78-70, this game went just about the way anyone who had a good grasp of this team would think it would.

Georgetown was UCLA's first high-major opponent, which means high-major players and athleticism. We've been maintaining that UCLA, with its limited athleticism, would struggle against high-major athleticism.

Here's the thing, too: Georgetown isn't even that athletic. Decently athletic for a high-major team.

Without UCLA coming out and doing something drastically different in this game -- like playing a zone or using its personnel differently -- this was completely predictable.

In a nutshell:

First, there was the mis-match in athleticism. Second, the new approach of the program is to out-score you, not shut you down defensively like Ben Howland's Final Four teams. This UCLA teams doesn't play very good man defense, and it was exposed Monday against Georgetown. Then, on offense, UCLA needs to get Early Offense, and it did generate some, but not much. So, it was up to the halfcourt offense to outscore Georgetown, but iGeorgetown's 2-3 zone took away UCLA's halfcourt option for a big portion of the game. if this is a team that is mediocre defensively and is going to win by out-scoring its opponent, you'd think that figuring out a zone would be a top priority.

That's just about it. There isn't much more to say in analyzing the game in terms of why UCLA lost to Georgetown.

If you want to talk about what UCLA can do to improve for the rest of the season, there are definitely a few things -- much of which we've spoken about previously.

You have to come to some stark realizations, though, first.

This team isn't going to go far if it's only going to win by out-scoring its opponent. It will beat its non-conference mid-major opponents that way. But it won't win significant games against high-major opponents, the type of games that get you high seeds in the NCAA tournament. And the type of opponent you'll need to overcome to get to the Sweet 16 or better.

It's going to simply have to get better defensively. Now, Howland's teams have always improved defensively as the season progressed. This was just the team's fourth game, and it has so many new pieces that are still coming together -- many that have never been taught how to really play defense. So, you can factor in that this team, if Howland continues to play man defense, will almost certainly improve defensively.

But there's a limited ceiling for how good this team can be playing man defense, because of its overall limited team athleticism. It just simply lacks good athletes both on the perimeter and in the post. So, it can be better in its man defense, but its potential is limited.

A zone defense is really the team's best hope for getting considerably better defensively. It's funny, because Howland seemingly recruited a team made to play zone, but refuses to do it. This team, with its size and length but lack of lateral quickness, is perfect for a zone. The problem, though, is that the team should have been working on its zone since last summer. If Howland did institute a zone now it would be a rudimentary one. There is also the element here that the star freshmen were sold on coming to UCLA to learn how to play man defense -- which they considered would prepare them for the NBA. Howland probably feels obligated to play man because of it.

Then there is the very familiar questionable use of personnel. The poster boy for this is Kyle Anderson. Anderson is a point guard. UCLA recruited him as one. In fact, UCLA lost its committed point guard, Dominic Artis, because of Anderson's impending commitment. So, you recruit Anderson as a point guard, lose another very promising point guard prospect because of Anderson, but then you don't use Anderson as a point guard. It's, well, bizarre. Anderson, quite simply, as we said before, if he doesn't have the ball in his hand, has been rendered a slow, unathletic, pretty weak 6-8 freshman forward. If you took his point guard feel -- the vision and passing ability -- out of his game, he wouldn't have been ranked the #3 prospect in the nation for 2012. In the Georgetown game, UCLA began generating some offense against the Hoyas' zone when Anderson started touching the ball, mostly at the high post where he could look down and see a baseline cutter or feed the post from there. Give Howland some credit for making that adjustment, even though, with Anderson on your roster, it seemed like a pretty obvious move that UCLA should have gone to on its first possession in a zone offense.

This is not to say we don't like Larry Drew. Drew has definitely shown he has value, making some good passes against Georgetown and showing some ability to penetrate. He also made a couple of outside jumpers. But where Drew struggled in this game was in defending Georgetown's bigger, strong point guard, Markel Starks. Starks, being a well-built 6-2, not only could physically bully his way around Drew because of the size differential, he was probably even quicker. Starks had a career high 23 points. Drew, in the man D, won't be able to match up against decently-sized, decently athletic point guards. He was probably limited by his injured ankle, but he was definitely at a significant mis-match against Starks. A zone, though, would relieve him of having to physically stay in front of athletic point guards. It would also allow UCLA to use other, bigger athletic players -- such as Norman Powell -- more readily, which would also allow Anderson to play more point guard on the offensive side.

We also like David Wear and Travis Wear, and respect them as players and individuals. When we say that they have their limitations it doesn't have to turn into a BRO message board battle, like it seemingly does quite often. The Georgetown game was a perfect illustration of who the Wears are, how they can be the most effective, and how they're limited. They started off hitting some open jumpers, which they definitely can do. But the Hoyas' athleticism overtook them as the game wore on. Georgetown's fairly athletic posts, Greg Whittington and Mikael Hopkins, clearly had the athletic advantage over the Wears, and exploited it. One really revealing illustration was at about the 3:30 mark left in the game, coming out of a timeout, Georgetown immediately fed Hopkins in the post, and he backed down Travis Wear with ease for a routine lay-in. Whittington scored 13 points, inside and out (going three for four from three), and was too much for UCLA's bigs to stay with, having to chase him around on the perimeter and then attempt to re-gain position on him in the paint. Here's the thing: Whittington and Hopkins are sophomores, and just good -- not great -- high-major posts with good -- not great -- athleticism for high-major posts.

Georgetown's Princeton offense utilized many screens, and backdoor cuts, which forced the Wears, and the entire UCLA team, to move their feet, which the Bruins don't do very well. Its offense is predicated on coming off screens, which UCLA has struggled with for years in being able to defend.

If the Wears are gong to be successful, it would greatly help them if they played in a zone, and didn't have to match up one-on-one with fairly athletic, high-major posts. The Wears have tools, and they are going to be a factor in this year's UCLA team if it has any chance of being successful, but they have to be used in a way that maximizes their talent, and doesn't expose their limitations.

Jordan Adams proved that he can get it done offensively against not just low- or mid-major competition, but high-major. He also needs to be on the floor for UCLA's offense to have a chance, because he's easily UCLA's best offensive player, not only because of his outside shooting touch but his ability to manufacture points. He led UCLA's scoring, again, with 22 points against Georgetown. He, though, right now, is a slack defender. He actually at times shows a decent defensive instinct, but he's just so over-matched athletically, and is still learning what type of consistent intensity a good man defender needs to bring to the court. Plus, at times it's clear he's clueless about what he's supposed to be doing defensively. He'll improve his man defense as the season goes on, no doubt. But this is a guy who is also screaming to play in a zone defense. He has good length and pretty good instincts, but lacks lateral quickness.

Again, it seemed like Josh Smith was the only guy with a UCLA uniform on who had a chance to be superior to Georgetown's frontline. He was too big for them to handle defensively. What was curious was that it seemed clear that Smith offered UCLA's only potential offensive option that would present problems for Georgetown, but then Smith sat for a big portion of the second half. Smith is showing signs of improvement, moving quite a bit better than he ever has, actually moving his feet and that big body fairly well defensively. But again, Smith is a guy who you could keep on the floor to give you that advantage offensively if you played a zone. He only played 12 minutes in this game. And that explanation we keep hearing -- from coaches and commentators alike -- that Smith can only play a few minutes at a time, is simply not true. Smith isn't struggling with his stamina. It really is a coaching choice not to play Smith, with Howland deciding that he can't win with him. Given Smith's history at UCLA, you can understand the choice, but here's the thing: He's the only guy, with his unique talent, that gives UCLA a chance to be better than a team like Georgetown in the post.

It was Shabazz Muhammad's first game, and you have to give him a little slack because of that. It's understandable that it's going to take him a while to get acclimated and comfortable. Even looking out-of-sync, he scored 15 points and hit two of four from three. He looked the most behind in his defense, getting beat a few times off the dribble and backed down in the block. Again, Muhammad, who doesn't have great lateral quickness, is a guy who is going to struggle to defend smaller, quicker players but probably be much more effective, with his length, in a zone. Again, he's a guy that, trust me, is going to look freakish when he comes back to Pauley to play Cal Poly, Cal State Morthridge and Prairie View A&M.

Let's establish this so we have a reference point going forward: You can get fooled by all the Bruins when they look dominant against mid- to low-major opponents. It's how you project them to do against the high--major opponents that's the measuring stick for success this season, and in any season.

And know this: Georgetown is a team that is just on the edge of being top 25, with just a few good athletes, and a good deal of youth itself. Ironically, in fact, the most unathletic player on the team was D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, who was a top UCLA target in the 2012 class.

While we're questioning big-picture personnel usage here, within Howland's present rotation there were some playing time issues that could have, seemingly, made UCLA far more effective in this game. Georgetown made a 12-0 run to start the second half, basically riding the stops it was getting with its zone. During that time, the two players that, in the first half, seemed like they had the best chance to score against the zone -- Adams and Smith -- mostly sat on the bench.

UCLA will now undoubtedly see a zone from every opponent. The Bruin offense looked like they had never seen one before, even though they obviously had to be expecting one from the Hoyas. They'll certainly get better at their zone offense, and found some solutions with Anderson flashing to the high post.

It seems pretty clear what to do defensively. But UCLA assistant coach Scott Garson said, in a post-game radio interview, that Howland wants the team to play man-to-man defense, and he's going to stick with it in the hope it will pay off by the end of the season. As I said, Howland's teams have always improved defensively as the season progresses. There is a clear question, though, whether this team will improve enough to be even a good man defensive team, or whether it has more potential as a zone defensive team. It could very well be the decision that determines whether this season is successful or not.

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