Brock Motum (12), Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Maybe it is rocket science after all? Nah, it’s not. There are certain principles that must be adhered to or acknowledged if a team is to perform consistently. Respect every opponent. Mental intensity is critical. Help principles are the under-pinning of man-to-man defense. High percentage shots set the tone on the road.
The UCLA Bruins laid an egg last night in Pullman. A lot of people will want to lay the blame for it on Coach Howland, which is fair, but not necessarily accurate.
Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and friends still have a lot of growing up to do. They didn’t respect their opponent, and their opponent schooled them. There are not a lot of power conference schools you can spot a 21-point lead and still come back to win. The Bruins spotted Washington State a 25-4 lead to start the game. They did it by not playing smart help defense. They did it by being overconfident and unwise in their shot selection. They did it by believing that just showing up would be enough. WSU flat out showed them otherwise. As disgusting as the game was, it may be one last lesson for these young Bruins and therefore a blessing in disguise. At least one has to hope.
Message to the Bruins: everyone relishes beating you…everyone. You’re going to get everyone’s best shot every game. You mail it in, they’ll hand you your ass. Get a clue.
UCLA’s defensive intensity was almost undetectable. You could tell by how they covered their assigned player and by how they were slow to give good help. Time after time in the first half, the freshmen in particular played their opponent too tight and got back-doored or otherwise fooled. And worse, there was no one there to bail them out. Muhammad was atrocious on defense (and offense, but we’ll get to that). But no one was seriously looking to help. One sensed that each player didn’t think their fellow player was in danger of getting burned, so their help radar was turned off. By the time the team started trying to play seriously, the goal was all but out of sight.
On the road, in strange surroundings, a good offense works inside out. A good offense gets some points under its belt, and then it works to expand the scoring range. At home, where your level of familiarity and comfort is high, confidence in the perimeter game should be higher. On the road, confidence in the perimeter game must be built. UCLA’s first shot against WSU? 2-point jumper. Their second shot? 3-point jumper. Their third shot? 3-point jumper. Their fourth shot? 3-point jumper. In fact, nine out of their first 10 shots were jumpers. They scored two points. Eight of WSU’s first eleven shots were, you guessed it, lay-ups. Result? WSU 17, UCLA 2.
The mental aspect of all this is reflected in the rebounding disparity, the poor shot selection and shooting percentage, the lack of smart on-ball defense and defensive rotation. UCLA wasn’t hustling, helping or crashing the boards. The shot selection was nonchalant. There was no real working the ball to take advantage of a specific weakness of the Cougs. The Bruins didn’t “bring it,” and so they paid for it.
Is that Coach Howland’s fault? As a practical matter, yes, but it’s not clear what else he could have done. It is interesting that on the same night Georgetown lost to Villanova, Miami lost to Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State lost to Iowa State, St. Louis lost to Xavier, and the hottest team in the Pac-12, Cal, lost at home by 13 to Stanford. In any event, if you think Coach Howland didn’t plan strategically for WSU, you’re nuts. If you think he didn’t preach to his players the criticality of taking every opponent seriously, you’re off your rocker. If you think he didn’t try in the game to get the players to wake up, you weren’t paying attention.
No. This one is on the players. More specifically, the nascent leaders—Muhammad, Anderson and Adams. To be more specific, this one is on Muhammad. Shabazz was a dismal 4-for-19 from the field, including 2-for-11 from 3-point land. He was repeatedly burned on defense. He looked about as engaged as an airhead at a Mensa Meeting. Sorry Shabazz, but this one is on you. Like it or not, your attitude sets the tone for everyone else. At least that’s how it looks from here.
One thing is for damn sure—things aren’t going to be any easier at Washington.